I’m finding life hard today. I have already taken the hurdles of driving to work, the inevitable small talk with colleagues and the wrestling with uncooperative computer systems. But there are things looming in the background, which are weighing me down today. Tasks I have to in the next few days, involving a visit to the bank and at least one phone call, travel to meetings which are still a number of days off, but already contribute to an elevated level of anxiety. And, to cap it all, I’m going to meet up with a friend tomorrow.
“Meeting up with a friend” – shouldn’t that be a nice, enjoyable thing, a break from the stresses of work, something to look forward to? How can you say that meeting a friend is causing you anxiety? Don’t you like your friend?
Of course I like my friend. This particular person and I have been friends for a long time. We now live in different countries, and I don’t see her very often. As it happens, she is on holiday in the country where I live, so we’re taking the opportunity to meet up. And yes, I am looking forward to the meeting, and I know that when it happens I will enjoy it.
But at the same time, I can’t deny the stress it’s putting me under. First of all, it’s a disruption of my daily routine. Not a major one, and fortunately not a surprising one, but it does add a small element of unpredictability to the day. Nothing I can’t cope with, but then most anxiety I experience every day is something I can cope with. Doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Secondly, there is a bigger, underlying issue coming to the forefront. This is difficult to say, and it might make me sound like a bad person, but here it is:
Friendships are hard work.
It’s not just the effort involved in staying in touch, or the duties of being there for your friends, or just negotiating the intricacies of human interaction. I realised a long time ago that as soon as you enter into a friendship, you are no longer completely free. People talk of networks of friends, but if you picture that as an actual net, with you and your friends being the knots, you can see that you can no longer move independently because you are connected to all the other knots around you. Friendship imposes certain duties on you. Friends expect you to stay in touch with them, to meet with them, to go out with them, and they might be offended if you say “no thanks” to those things.
When I was at school, we read a story in English class on which I had a different take to everybody else. I can’t remember the title, or the author, or even the plot, but it was about a person who was completely isolated from human contact. There simply were no other people around. They lived in a deserted landscape. I don’t think they were lacking in food and drink, and I don’t think their life was endangered in any way, it was just that there were no other humans around anywhere.
When we discussed this story, I remember saying that in some ways I found this situation desirable. I couldn’t really articulate why I found this attractive. Even then I realised that I must not say that having friends comes with duties you might not like and restrictions to your freedom. Friends can expect you to interact even if you don’t want it. There are things you can’t say to them. In many ways, you can’t be completely honest, or they probably wouldn’t be your friends for long. I was conscious that I was sitting right beside my best friend, so how could I say that I regarded friendship as some kind of chore? The others didn’t believe me anyway when I hinted at the positive sides of isolation. “You don’t mean that!” they chorused, and I, slightly dishonestly, agreed that I probably didn’t.
But I did. The thing is, even with very good friends, you can never be completely yourself. There are always aspects of you that you have to hide, always some kind of front to put up. I don’t think this is because I never had the right kind of friends. I believe that that kind of friend does not exist. With good friends, of course you can be mostly yourself, but in my view never 100%.
I find it a bit hard to confess these views because they do make me sound like a people-hater. A sociopath, incapable of true friendship. A misanthrope, who hates humanity in general and would rather be a hermit. It is all the harder to confess because our society values connectedness, sociability and companionship so much. Studies show that social isolation is bad for your health, and that old people live longer when they are connected to others. Articles appear every day, decrying the growing problem of loneliness. The dichotomy is clear: being part of a social group = good. Being alone = bad. And wanting to be alone – well, there have to be all kinds of things wrong with you.
Last year I was at a conference. Being part of the organising team, this was understandably a stressful experience for me, and it showed. I coped partly by opting out of the socialising in the evening and staying in my room with a book. But then I was told by my fellow team member that I was only making things worse. By isolating myself, I was contributing to my stress, and socialising with others would relieve it, he said. Isolation is not healthy, I was told. And I was thinking, maybe he’s right. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong and socialising would actually be good for me. Maybe others know my own mind better than I do. Yes, I really started to doubt that I knew best what was good for me.
What comes out of the writing of many autistic people, though, is a consistent picture of a deep need to be alone, for longer periods of time than other people. And socialising only serves to increase stress and anxiety levels, not relieve them. The same is true for introverts, whose energy is depleted by socialising and who need to replenish their reserves with some quality alone time. I don’t know if there is a qualitative difference between the autistic and the introvert desire to be alone. Maybe I’m just an introvert, and not autistic at all.
Am I a sociopath, though? No, because I don’t see other people as pawns to be manipulated to my own ends. Am I a misanthrope? No, I don’t hate people. It’s not that I don’t want anything to do with people. I have friends, and I am happy to have them. But I have to acknowledge that with having friends and keeping friends, there is a cost involved, and you have to weigh up if a particular activity, or even a particular friendship, is worth that cost to you. Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so. (There is a post on the same theme on The Silent Wave here – I recommend it!)
So, will I meet up with my friend tomorrow? Yes of course. Will I be happy to see her? Definitely. The good feeling that will come out of seeing her is worth the expenditure of energy required to make it happen.
But sometimes, I can’t help agreeing with the wise words of Dilbert:
“People who don’t need people are the happiest people.”