An interesting thing about autistics, is that many of us are very acutely aware of the difference between being lonely and alone. It is of course possible to be both, but on the whole being alone doesn’t bother me, besides which I am not alone, I have Chico. As many other autistics and other animal lovers will attest, pets, in my case a dog, truly do provide a lot of company.
I remember before I met Jane, one one of my predominant emotions when at a social event was loneliness, and being lonely in a room full of people is a difficult emotional place to be. You can see other people connecting and seeming to enjoy their interactions. In contrast, I would find a quiet space to sit or stand, often nursing an almost empty glass, realizing too late that there wasn’t anything to drink that wasn’t alcoholic. Once I met Jane, that changed, she would remind me to take juice if that was what I wanted to drink. She would tell me that we could leave as soon as I wanted to, and if I wanted to stay home instead, I could.
Why would someone who felt uncomfortable in social situations, put themselves in those situations? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I did it because I didn’t know that I didn’t have to. Interestingly, I have never felt uncomfortable teaching in a room full of students, whether they were adult or child students. A staff room is a very different thing, though over the years there have been a few that offered genuine acceptance and warmth to everyone, myself included.
As Jane’s love of people, watching people, talking with people, seeking to understand people, became part of the fabric of my life, I started to realise, that I was just me, and me is ok just as I am. I was less lonely in a room full of people, and never lonely when I was with Jane. But that legacy of loneliness and disconnect, lingers in my comfort in a room without other people. Don’t get me wrong, I love being with my friends and whanau, when I can be completely me, with no strange looks if I tic or stutter, things that happen when I am tired or anxious.
Perhaps after I got my autism diagnosis, I understood my discomfort and accepted my disconnect with people I don’t know well as just as it is, and not an indictment on some unknown personality flaw. This acceptance led to a greater willingness to say no to events I didn’t want to attend and a greater capacity to attend ones that Jane really wanted. Many of which comprised either med students, junior doctors and/or psychiatric nurses depending on which stage of her med training she was in. All of whom were lovely, my favourite being the pysch nurses, who would wash up and clean and tidy before leaving. Even the ones who launched me in a kayak into the river after the tide had gone out, were so warm and inclusive.
I think what I learnt from this is that I am probably not the only person who can and does feel lonely around other people, and that how I act can be the difference for someone else that Jane and the pysch nurses were for me. This means that when I interact with someone, I try to set them at ease, I try to genuinely see them, be welcoming to them in voice and heart. I do not need everyone to like me, but I do not want to contribute to anyone else’s discomfort or anxiety. I think Jane was so warm to people for many of the same reasons, wanting to set people at ease in ways that were not afforded to her when she was younger.
I do not understand unkindness between or towards individuals. The world is hard enough as it is, why contribute negativity? I love that I was able to bring Jane some joy, when she said she wanted to locum in the outback or remote Islands, I always said go for it, when she wanted to set up a new way of being a GP, I said go for it. This support of her dreams made her very happy, because she rarely put herself first. I am much less outgoing but more more adventurous, risk averse in areas Jane was not (money) and not in areas that she was (writing, cooking). Over the years we evened those areas out a bit and her outback experiences brought her a lot of joy and connection.
These were jobs were she spent the evening and night alone, as I rarely traveled with her when she was on a locum. She should have been lonely, and she did indeed miss me terribly when she was away, but she always connected with the community. Jane was an incredibly gifted GP, who wanted to share her gift with people who may not always get access to medical practitioners who genuinely care, who truly saw them and valued them.
When we genuinely see people, and hold them in our hearts and voices with care and kindness, we can disagree with grace, or agree with joy. As you interact with others this week, try to truly see them, their journey to this moment in time, their pain and sorrow, their joy and happiness. You may feel pleased to be around them, you may not, but in turn, they may or may not be pleased to be themselves. In times that I have not been comfortable in myself, I have not been as kind to others as I should. Jane helped me to be a better me, and this is a great legacy to leave, even if it is just one person, but for her it was nearly everyone she met. I may not be that gracious, but I can try and so can you.