Now no one's knocked upon my door
For a thousand years or more
For a thousand years or more
- The Police, So Lonely, 1978
When I think back on my experience of growing up autistic (and unaware of it), the time period that stands out most starkly is my late teens to my late 20s (the late 1970s to the late 1980s), dominated as it was by a bleak, pervasive, and often overwhelming sense of loneliness.
In his 1955 book, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan describes loneliness as "...an experience which has been so terrible that it practically baffles clear recall..."
And even now I'm finding my own years of intense loneliness painfully difficult to recall - I've been writing this blog post in short bursts over a period of weeks, with long gaps in between.
It was in the last few years of secondary school that I began to really realise how little I fitted in with other people - how they thought, how they saw the world, what was important to them. Looking back, this lack of fit was of course always the case, but I'd managed not to fully notice it until mid-adolescence. I tried changing friends, and that kind of helped for a while (particularly as one of my new friends was alcohol). But everything fell apart for me in my first year of college (I was doing Science, and planning to be a science teacher). It wasn't even because I didn't make any friends; I made some very nice, witty, quirky ones, and had bursts of fun, sometimes almost feeling like I belonged... But these were only brief bursts of sunlight, warmth, and connection in an overall experience of feeling lost, disorientated, confused, weird, and most of all lonely. It felt like all of this was for other people, not for me, as if I'd stumbled accidentally into the activities of some secret society where everyone but me knew the rules (the social rules were clearer and simpler in school). I genuinely couldn't cope, and after a while I only attended college to complete the year for the sake of it - I knew I wasn't going back the following year (which further enhanced my loneliness and my sense of being an outsider).
I took a year out, and ended up doing some voluntary work with intellectually disabled people, which I loved - this helped my loneliness a bit, as I felt I was in the right place (I ended up working there for 5 years or so). But it wasn't a substitute for friends, and if anything it added to my sense of being different and only fitting in with the marginalised in society.
I did return to college, to do Psychology, and managed to settle in a bit better, with more of a sense of belonging, and I did manage to get to the end of the degree (just barely). I think a couple of years of maturing helped, as well as the fact that the subject suited me better. But I still mostly felt at home when discussing subjects like psychology and philosophy, had limited contact with friends outside of college, and was painfully shy with girls...
And the summers, though I managed some bits of contact with college friends, were some of the most helplessly, hopelessly desolate times of my life, like deserts of social isolation, despite generally good relationships with my parents and siblings. The long, bright days only made the loneliness worse - after dark, when the world had gone quieter, was always a little easier, the pain was dull instead of sharp.
After college I continued on a full-time basis in my job as a house parent to intellectually disabled men, and after a while I moved out of home into a bedsit. This was my early 20s, and I still don't know quite how I got through the grinding loneliness of this period - partly alcohol, to be honest, some family connections, lots of hiking, and some new friends a few years younger than me (I was sort of semi-adopted by one of their families, for which they have my eternal gratitude). Over these years I became familiar with loneliness as an ever-present, gnawing pain....
Loneliness, especially chronic loneliness, is experienced as real, physically-felt, pain. There are evolutionary reasons for this pain, as described in the 2008 book Loneliness: Human Nature & the Need for Social Connection, by John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick: "Physical pain protects the individual from physical dangers. Social pain, also known as loneliness, evolved for a similar reason: because it protected the individual from the danger of remaining isolated." As a pain, it has some similarities to the feeling of chronic hunger - during this period of my life I certainly felt starved of many of the essential elements of nourishing relationships, sometimes despite genuine efforts on the part of others. My main companions were books, and the main people I felt any real kinship with were certain authors and thinkers. When I did socialise, the loneliness often felt worse, because of the painful, embarrassing sense of having nothing in common, feeling weird, drinking too much, and trying to mask my difference and discomfort.
I've had other lonely times in my life since, including within relationships, but all in all I'm substantially less lonely these days, thankfully. If you’ve read this far, I hope you haven’t found it too dreary (to me it feels both too long and not long enough), but I’ve written it because it’s an accurate account of the terrible loneliness that can be experienced by those of us who are autistically minded, especially if we don’t know the explanation for our feeling of difference. Discovering the reality of who we are doesn’t solve everything, but it does help us look in the right places for connection - my discovery certainly helped me.
Loneliness can feel like a shameful secret, and needs airing. Of course, it’s not just autistic people whose lives can be blighted by loneliness (indeed many people have their loneliness heightened these days, because of the ongoing restrictions of living with COVID in early 2021), but there is a particular autistic loneliness that I think needs to be talked about. Thanks for reading.