I am what is often referred to as an empath. I can feel people’s emotional state before I see them or talk to them. It is an excellent quality in my life as an Autism advocate but at times it can be very challenging, such as if I am in the psychiatric hospital, where I pick up on all the misery, confusion and anger of others nearby.
This afternoon I was coming home from work on the bus. It was an extremely rainy day and everyone was damp, soggy and irritated. I was irritable too and silently cursed people knocking against with wet umbrellas and shopping bags, I noticed the woman opposite me. She was definitely irritated but also very sad. I saw her as quite defeated and vulnerable. I didn’t know what to do as it is usually frowned upon to raise issues of a strangers’s mental state in a crowded bus – mostly be the person whose mental state one is concerned for. I battled for a while – do I say something or not? In the end I opted not to say anything and simply hoped she was OK. I felt a bit cowardly. I hoped she had someone to look out for her and support her through a difficult time. But I was unable to connect with her as a stranger on public transport because I was concerned about the conventions around such things. She was not afire or family member so I ‘couldn’t’ help.
This raises an issue which I think about a lot – that of social connectedness. In Australia and other western sorts of countries we tend to be insular. We usually care most about our immediate family, friends and pets, then work colleagues and people we now through our interests and activities. Acquaintances and then strangers are usually beyond our level of connectedness. We might not want bad things to happen to them but it has little impact on us if they do. As I did with the sad woman on the bus, we avoid tends to contact with strangers regardless of how sad they may seem. It is ‘none of our business’.
Last week I had to visit a medical specialist. I am always a little anxious meeting new doctors given some of the invalidation and abuse I have received from medical professionals in the past. I worry that when they see my brain related diagnoses (Autism and schizophrenia) they will pigeon hole me if I’m lucky and discriminate against me if I’m not. The specialist last week was pleasant and respectful but he clearly had no idea how to ‘take’ me – my manner, my apparent quirks and probably what he probably saw as an incongruous mix of attributes (schizophrenia, a public service job and private health insurance). He asked me three times whether I lived with or near family. I love my family but if we lived together there would be a lot of annoyance and shouting and other unpleasant things. We are close but also very different and I find my relationship with family is best conducted via email or telephone with two states separating us. What I think the doctor meant was whether I had support and social connection. I do have a lot of support these days form people who I am not related to but who care for me in a similar way to what family is expected to do. (Of course lots of families are not supportive and are in fact abusive and toxic but our social views tend to see the family as a safe place).
My social connectedness now is amazing. Sadly for others in the world – including many people with similar diagnostic labels to me – social connectedness is a real struggle. Social connectedness ensures we have someone to turn to when things are difficult. If we have to move out of our home, friends and family may assist with sharing their home with us or putting us on to someone who has a vacant room in a share house. Friends or family care for kids if we can’t get a baby sitter so we can do things to improve our lot – like going to a job interview. Social connectedness means when we are desperate and depressed, or doing battle with inner demons, that we have someone to talk to other than a stranger on the end of the phone at the mental health crisis team, a Lifeline counsellor or police officer.
Social connectedness is essential to mental health and wellbeing, our sense of belonging and our self-worth. It is a hard thing to manufacture. After I was released from prison in 2000 I decided to lose all my friends as they were criminals and drug addicts and I thought it would be hard to make a new life for myself while spending time with people who didn’t share my hopeful aspirations. This was a positive move but meant that I spent over a year with only my parents and my brother’s phone numbers in my address book. They got a lot of calls. Looking back, if I hadn’t hard those three people in the world to talk to I probably would have gone straight back to jail. I knew women in prison who were in exactly that situation. Their life is awful but it was almost impossible to make change and build positive social connections. I think the older one gets the harder it can be.
There are ways of building our social connectedness and it can be a bit of a ‘snowball’ effect with one connection leading to others. I have met a lot of friends through the autism community, mostly online. Interests can be a good place to find friends. Pets can be great friends and much less complicated and confusing than some humans. I think one problem we have is that focus on the family as being a haven and safe place. If it is that is great but some many people have issues with their family – divisions between members, prejudice, jealousy, abuse and violence all occur within families and sadly they occur way too often. Sometimes your family will not be part of your social connection and that is actually OK. Grieve as you need to for the loss of the ideal of family and then seek out connections outside your family. It means that you are taking charge of your connections.
Social connections are particularly hard for those of us on the Autism spectrum but it is possible to build them. Even if you are at a point where social connections and few and far between, things change over time. It is also important to understand that it is not failing if you have few social connections – it is simply what it is. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you. A number of factors often influence your social connections.