It was a cold winter that year. I remember playing under our ugly yellow-brown Formica kitchen table. My great-grandmother, whom I called Nanny, was drinking instant black coffee at seven in the evening with her friend, Miss Ethel. Miss Ethel was grieving; her husband had died that summer. A heart attack, I think; I was too young to remember such things accurately. But these women spent that winter drinking coffee, dying Miss Ethel’s greying hair a fashionable platinum blond, and reminiscing about their married lives, especially the Great Depression. Those nights and the memories those women shared made a lasting impression on me, especially in terms of what it means to be a friend.
Growing up in a ‘mill village’ with an aging population, I had no other children to play with. Only one family near us had their son and his two daughters living with them. But they were snobbish. Instead, all my friends were fifty, sixty, seventy, and even one eighty-year-old woman. I learned to crochet from Mama Tattley. I picked crap apples with Miss McCall, who told me stories of how her son was killed by a firecracker. Those things still scare me. And I watched the Watergate trials with Aunt Mildred, who complained that they pre-empted her soap operas. It was a happy childhood. I felt safe, secure, and loved. I was listened to and respected.
Then they sent me to school. I was the poor kid with hand-me-down clothes, a bowl hair cut that Nanny did herself, and dyslexia. I was bullied. I never had more than two friends. Other outcasts like me. I remember the trauma when my friend, Angela, moved away. My other friend Renee and I were never as close. Junior High was a complete nightmare. I don’t think I had a single friend. High School was a tiny bit better. At least, I had half-a-dozen acquaintances that I hung out with before school and at lunch.
What was hardest for me, and still is, that the ‘rules’ only seem to apply to the popular people. If you aren’t popular, then no matter how polite or if you wear the ‘right’ clothes or even achieve things, it does not matter. That won’t change things. There is simply no way that you can make people like you or earn their friendship.
Things got even better once I left school. Though I have drifted and moved often since graduating high school, I have generally had one good friend. On occasion, my brash honesty can even attract a ‘following’ of sorts. But never for long, the truth wears thin for most people.
But since moving to the UK over a decade ago, making what I consider ‘real’ friends has been even more difficult. Perhaps it is a culture thing. Or maybe a class one. Or perhaps it is merely that in the age of five thousand Facebook ‘friends’, the nature of the beast is changing. Or even that as my ‘normal’ mask cracked, broke, and fell away; it is more challenging for the autistic me to make and keep friends.
It is certainly something that I have been giving a great deal of thought lately. What is a friend? Really?
a person you know well and like a lot, but who is usually not a member of your family (Cambridge Dictionary)
a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations. (Google)
But it was the Urban Dictionary that had the most to say and was most illuminating:
A friend is someone you love and who loves you, someone you respect and who respects you, someone whom you trust and who trusts you. A friend is honest and makes you want to be honest, too. A friend is loyal.
A friend is someone who is happy to spend time with you doing absolutely nothing at all; someone who doesn’t mind driving you on stupid errands, who will get up at midnight just because you want to go on an adventure, and who doesn’t have to talk to communicate with you.
A friend is someone who not only doesn’t care if you’re ugly or boring, but doesn’t even think about it; someone who forgives you no matter what you do, and someone who tries to help you even when they don’t know how. A friend is someone who tells you if you’re being stupid, but who doesn’t make you feel stupid.
A friend is someone who would sacrifice their life and happiness for you. A friend is someone who will come with you when you have to do boring things like watch bad recitals, go to stuffy parties, or wait in boring lobbies. You don’t even think about who’s talking or who’s listening in a conversation with a friend.
A friend is someone for whom you’re willing to change your opinions. A friend is someone you look forward to seeing and who looks forward to seeing you: someone you like so much, it doesn’t matter if you share interests or traits. A friend is someone you like so much, you start to like the things they like.
A friend is a partner, not a leader or a follower.
Some of those things resonate strongly with me. Things like: trust, stupid errands, doesn’t care if you’re ugly, tells you if you’re being stupid, and a partner.
But other things about those definitions, I strongly disagree with:
‘Typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations’ – Who says? My best friends have always been my family and partners. Even after over thirty years, I still remember fondly the long talks that I once shared with my first husband, the preacher. The teen years and adulthood are my favorites, not as a parent so much, but a friend and mentor to my offspring. I can remember long conversations and debates with all of them. And for me, at least, it works the other way as well. I am demisexual, especially when it comes to same-sex relationships. Whether it is full expressed or not, I am always strongly sexually attracted to my female friends.
But perhaps the ones that trouble me the most are: ‘someone who would sacrifice their life and happiness for you’ and ‘someone for whom you’re willing to change your opinions.’ I don’t think that you should ever sacrifice your own happiness for anyone, not even a soul mate. That is not a healthy relationship, and certainly not that ‘partnership’ that was mentioned as well.
As for changing your opinion, you should always, always be open to that, to admitting you might be wrong, even with your enemies. But the idea that you would change your opinion for another person, even that soul mate is a huge red flag for me.
We have been talking a lot lately about friendship in our HomeCrazzyHome. The three of us are rather diverse in that way.
PanKwake is an extroverted autistic. While she struggles with sensory overload and communication issues, she needs a great deal of people time. Being home educated, this has always presented a challenge. In some ways, it would be easier if she could manage school. But then I remember my own challenges with bullying, those of my adult special needs son, and even her one year in school, and I know it is not a safe or healthy place to meet her social needs. We work exceedingly hard, though, to fulfill those social needs safely and healthily. She has home educated and schooler friends. And as a back-up, we have hired two companions, young women, who come into our HomeCrazzyHome, where she feels safe and interacts with her.
Alan is primarily self-contained, but occasionally enjoys the intellectual stimulation of other people. But he tires of it quickly and needs prodigious amounts of recovery time alone.
And me? I could probably be that little old ‘witch’ lady that lives in the woods grows her food, has stacks of books all over the place and comes into town only rarely. Hmm, yeah, if not for how much I love these two, I could happily do that.
Since I abandoned FaceBook at the beginning of this year, we have opened our home every Sunday afternoon to what I named F4: Friends, Food, Fun & Filosophy. I had hoped that it would be something like the Transcendental Club that met in the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson during the 1830s and 1840s. Among its members were the likes of Henry David Thoreau and early feminist Margaret Fuller. They engaged in heated but respectful debates that helped them to grow as writers and human beings. It has not turned out that way.
PanKwake looks forward to it. Though she struggles when more than one friend comes, it is helping her to develop valuable social skills in terms of balancing the challenges of differing ages, abilities, and interests. She does not always succeed, but she does better than many adults with dealing with her shit.
Alan flits in and out based upon his tolerance. He usually escapes for portions of it, either to the basement to work on orders for his model train business or upstairs to his office and the computers. One friend commented the other day that she knew it was time to go when Alan went into the music room and began to play the guitar, one of his self-soothing techniques. I had picked up on this early in our relationship but was surprised that others had.
And for me? F4 is a chore. And anything but what I wanted it to be. I spend the whole morning straightening the house and cooking. I never know if one person or ten or none will show up. And that filosophy, that intellectual stimulation I crave, has degenerated into discussing fashion, something I detest.
On the up-side, it has, I think, been considerable support for our transgender friend as she transitions. The kids seem to enjoy it too.
But I cannot keep this up. In the new year, I think that we will go from weekly to once a month, and instead invite our ‘friends’ over one-on-one on the other weeks.
I put that word, ‘friend,’ in quotes for the simple reason that I still am not sure what it means to me. If I took those definitions literally, I do not think I have ever had one. Certainly not someone for whom I am willing to change my beliefs. And rarely one with whom I do not share an intense sexual connection. Nor one for whom I will sacrifice my happiness. As I write those things, a single word comes to my mind: integrity.
As PanKwake and I discussed this issue yesterday with one of her companions, she was commenting on how she will ‘tone herself down’ with certain people. I was vehemently opposed to such a concept. Her comment illustrates why she is counted among my two closes friends. “Because I am an extrovert and need people, I think I value friendship more. I don’t mind toning me down. I am still me, just toned down.”
While I can see what she is getting at, I feel strongly that if I have to ‘tone’ anything down, including my potty-mouth (the exception being old people, kids, and formal shit), then you aren’t really my friend. You’re an acquaintance, something I value very little. As I explained to her, though, it was not always like this. Until my ‘normal’ mask shattered, I tried very hard to make and keep friends. Now, I really couldn’t give a f%ck.
There is no one, not even him, for whom I would compromise my integrity, my values.
And that is one that did not even make those definitions.
Someone who understands and respects your values and boundaries and whom you respect theirs. Someone with whom you can agree to disagree and remain close.
Aside from Alan and PanKwake, only one other friend stands out…in my whole life. We were starkly different. She was Christian and active in her church. She never cussed. And yet, we could talk, debate anything even her religion, and remain close. We could agree to disagree.
There was one time that would have destroyed a relationship for many people, and did with other of my ‘friends.’ We were involved in a situation that, in hindsight, made me very uncomfortable. I was not proud of how I acted, and I became a whistleblower. I still have not recovered from that experience, and unfortunately, it cost PanKwake friends too.
But not her. She understood. Even though my actions affected her reputation, she got it. She saw my side of things, even if she did not agree. I apologized. Not for doing what I did, but for not waiting to discuss it with her first, something I did regret. Things were tense for a bit. But we made it. Then her family moved, and I lost the most genuine friend I had other than Alan.
The flip side of that coin, of course, is…
A friend would never ask you to compromise your integrity.
And that is what makes Alan both my partner and best friend. We don’t always agree. I know that sometimes I disappoint him. But he never makes me feel less than or asks me to do or be anything that I am not. And he stimulates my mind, provides that counterbalance, challenges my beliefs and opinions, allows me to do the same for him, and at the end of the day or the conversation, we can walk away knowing that we agree to disagree and are stronger for having done so.
Do I still crave other friends? Different opinions and ideas? More intellectual stimulation? Sometimes. But for me, the introverted and autistic person I am, it is a balance. I want very much to be around anything or anyone that will help me grow as a human being. But the question becomes: at what price? For my mental and emotional health, it is something that I must weigh very carefully.
None of this is to say that I don’t have ‘friends.’ I have a handful of people that share similar interests and with whom I spend time, including that F4. I have another home ed mother with whom I discuss politics, children, and creativity. I have my quilting buddy. And our transgender friend.
I am not saying the fault lies within any of these people. As PanKwake pointed out, it is me. Me, for whom people can never take precedence over my values. Is that because I am autistic? Because I am older? Because of my specific set of life experiences? Some intellectual or moral snobbery even? Or simply something uniquely Tara? I’m not sure. It simply is.
As I learned from my school years, you can’t fake it. No matter how hard you try. I gave up trying a long time ago. I even have a saying,
If you don’t like it, there’s the door. Don’t let the knob hit you where the good goddess split you.
Yes, that might be a lonely place, except for Alan and the hundreds of people who live in my warped mind, begging for their stories to be told, and the intellectual stimulation that I can find within the pages of a book or on the screen of my Kindle. Yeah, except for him and PanKwake, I really could happily be that wise old woman in the woods.