It’s bad enough to know that your disorder makes it hard to make friends and talk easily to people. It’s worse when someone you love confirms it for you. One of my adult children, whom I love dearly, recently told me that I interact with people “about as well as an animatronic figure at Walt Disney World.” To soften the blow, they added “But one of those nice new next-generation animatronics, like the Jack Sparrow figure in The Pirates of the Caribbean ride.”
I’ve never been able to get the “knack” of talking to people. I used to blame it on my childhood—we moved approximately every six months, so I went to about two dozen different schools before I turned 17. I was always the new kid, always friendless and alone. What I didn’t know then was that my extreme anxiety and shyness was just an early manifestation of my Bipolar I disorder. And I didn’t know then that I also carried enough of the genetics of autism that I would later have a child with one of the most severe forms of autism spectrum disorder.
So, the dice were loaded against me from the start. Whatever it is that children have to learn in order to make a lot of friends, I didn’t pick up. It would have been hard to learn even if I’d been in one school for my entire life, because I don’t have the natural ability. It would have been easier if people had known, way back then, what to do in order to encourage kids with mental health issues to make friends. They had no clue in the 70’s and 80’s—they just shunted you into a classroom, told the class your name, and you made the best of it from there.
According to my adult children, who, alas, have to deal with me whether I’m good at dealing with people or not, I’m intimidating: too direct, too honest, and too loud. That’s hard to reconcile with my mental image of myself, formed as a child, of being a small, shy, quiet, mousy little person. Okay, I’ve always been way too tall, but otherwise, hey, I thought of myself as mousy and small. I felt invisible, and mostly I still feel that way.
So how do you escape this loneliness trap? You can’t change who you are, and I would argue that you shouldn’t have to become someone else in order to make friends. But it’s very difficult to make it through life without friends. The loneliness is just one part of it. Without friends, you lack a very real support system for when times are bad. You lack people to celebrate with you when times are good. There’s no one to drag you out to the movies when you’re feeling low, or to go dancing with when you’re feeling great. And, just as importantly, there’s no one there for you to help out, either. Helping others helps you, too. I can observe that in other people, even if I don’t get to experience it very often for myself.
I’ll be honest: I don’t know the magic formula. If I did, I wouldn’t be sitting alone so often watching brooding detective shows on Amazon Prime. All I can offer are the observations that I’ve made of other people. Those are pretty simple: try to talk to the people that you know more often on the phone instead of just texting. Make dates to meet whatever friends that you do have more often. If your anxiety is overwhelming, try just real-time chatting with someone in a messaging service. It’s more “real” than texting someone intermittently over several hours.
Probably the best way to expand your friend group is to expand on your hobbies. If you’re into gaming, join a gaming group at your local game shop. If you’re into handicrafts such as sewing or knitting, join a local group that’s devoted to those things. There are clubs and groups for nearly any interest, not to mention conventions to visit and expositions to see. If there isn’t a local group devoted to your hobby, consider starting one. Most reading groups start with just a couple of friends with a shared interest in books, inviting others to join them. From such humble beginnings, you can not only expand your number of friends, but possibly improve on your social skills.
The bigger, more life-changing ideas are a little more intimidating. If you know that you have a problem with a certain conversational “skill,” ask someone close to you to help you work on it. My autistic daughter usually will not talk to someone unless prompted to do so. I tend to talk too much when unprompted—it’s just a matter of learning how to hit the right conversational notes, for her and me both. This takes practice, so it requires that most frightening of all things—going out and talking to complete strangers. I think strangers are actually the best choice for practicing on, since you probably won’t see them again. If you mess up, there’s no lasting awkwardness! So, yes, smile and say hello to that stranger. Try to strike up a conversation. If it’s awkward, well, just let it drift off. If you’re lucky, though, it will actually be a pleasant few moments while you’re waiting in a line or riding a train or whatever.
Ultimately, though, it’s just a matter of finding your own people—the people who like you for WHO YOU ARE. Those may be pretty rare people. Treasure the ones that you do find. Remember that a lot of what passes for human relationships is actually fakery—people pretending interest, people pretending to care. Find the people that don’t require you to be a fake, no matter how rare they are. They’re the friends worth keeping.