Elton John sang ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’. But for Autistic people like me, the social expectation to provide greetings and farewells can be one of the hardest and most uncomfortable aspects of interacting with others.
It sounds simple enough doesn’t it? Saying hello and goodbye is surely one of the first social rules we are taught when we are children, alongside ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
But it’s not simple. Even when you know the person or people really well. Our youngest son H is 6 and when I walk him through the playground every morning he stares straight ahead and appears not to hear the chimes of hello from his headmistress nor his class teachers. I fight the urge to apologise for him as I remind him ‘say hello H!’ But he doesn’t say it, he doesn’t even look up at them. And I know exactly how he feels.
If I notice a familiar face when I’m out and about at the supermarket I stare at the floor, studiously read labels on tins or pretend I’m on a phone call, praying the other person hasn’t noticed me. Even if I meet up with a friend or family member, I find it hard to deliver an appropriate greeting. It’s like a cloak of awkwardness that I can’t get undone in time to appear ‘normal’. It’s worse if I haven’t seen the person for a while. No matter how close we are, those first few minutes of greeting and welcome feel excruciatingly awkward. It’s almost like I’m starting from scratch every time I see someone after a few weeks or months apart.
Goodbye’s are even worse. It’s such an ambiguous word. Unless you know exactly when you will see the other person again, the uncertainty makes the Autistic heart feel vulnerable and anxious. Or we may feel overcome by embarrassment. Should we hug or kiss the other person? Shake hands? Wave? Keep waving as they walk away? Should we close the door once they’re off the step or wait until they reach their car? I’m laughing to myself as I write this because it is oddly comical to me, the way I torture myself wondering if I’ve said and done the correct thing.
There have been countless occasions where I’ve simply disappeared without saying a word rather than experience that awkward goodbye. It doesn’t even have to be an important person in my life. Just saying goodbye to someone I’ve admired at work, or a teacher I was grateful for, or a work experience student I mentored; each farewell seems to fill me with regret and loss, so it’s easier to avoid the leaving drinks or not turn up for the ‘last day’ to escape the dreaded goodbye.
Even worse are the ‘forever’ goodbyes. When I separated from my first husband, I couldn’t bear to say goodbye. I worried about him constantly and insisted on seeing him regularly as friends. I thought I was right to hold onto that person who had been so important in my life for so many years. But of course, you can’t have it both ways. I was only prolonging the agony for both of us. As for his family, I had loved them very much. They were kinder to me and had done more for me than my own parents ever had. But I was so ashamed for letting them down and hurting their son, that instead of talking, explaining, apologising, I went underground. I stayed away. I didn’t phone or visit. This is something that has weighed heavy on my heart for 18 years. And now I’m crying because I’m angry at myself for not doing things the way I should have, the way they deserved.
I never even realised that my issues with greetings and farewells was part of my Autism until I saw how my sweet boy H struggled with the very same thing. So I did my research and hallelujah! I wasn’t rude, weird, cold or unfeeling – I was simply Autistic. At the very core of our neurology is our difficulty with social communication and social interaction. Marry this with the fact we find transitions and change very difficult, how vulnerable we feel with ambiguity and uncertainty – and it’s no wonder that the hellos and goodbyes most neurotypical people take for granted, can be a source of great stress for Autistic individuals. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we feel too much! All of our emotions are dialled up to ‘ten’. The finality of goodbye can be physically painful, gut wrenching. So sometimes we avoid it all together, wounding others in the process.
Yesterday my therapist, guardian of my sanity and keeper of secrets for the last 10 months, told me he is changing jobs. Consequently, my therapy will come to an end in September. And I will need to say goodbye.
He asked me how I felt about my therapy coming to an end and I told him I felt sad, whilst trying to swallow the wave of overwhelming grief and fear that flooded through me. This man, this stranger, has listened patiently, without judgement, while I shared my most personal thoughts, feelings and experiences. He has steered me to find answers and coping strategies. He has helped me to prioritise my needs and recognise my strengths.
Most importantly, this man has been incredibly kind, patient and consistent, which is priceless to someone like me. Throughout my life I’ve been hurt, manipulated and let down by family members who I loved and trusted, leaving me wounded and defensive, on high alert for danger. But this man, my psychologist, has provided a safe space where I don’t feel awkward or weird for being Autistic, where I don’t feel like a failure for having a mental illness.
Our early therapy sessions were exhausting and confusing. I struggled to connect with the softly spoken man behind the mask. Not being able to see his face made the conversation feel surreal. I was so angry at the world and resentful that I needed therapy in the first place. I just wanted to be fixed but of course mental health doesn’t work like that.
It got easier when our sessions moved online. A video call from the safety of my own home, no masks to obscure our identities. No unwanted sensory distractions, no badly lit meeting rooms or unfamiliar sound or smells.
Through therapy I cried (a lot), laughed (mostly at myself) and I have slowly realised that much of the pain I feel at being estranged from my birth family is because I never got to say goodbye. I realize now, that thing I fear and dread is a necessary part of grieving. Without a farewell there is just unfinished business and unspoken words. There is no closure. This is something I will learn to live with because I have to. Because we all have to sometimes, right?
And in a few short weeks I will say goodbye to my therapist who I am so thankful for. That will hurt. I will feel scared and sad. But I will also feel proud because I’ve come a long way in 10 months. I am stronger, calmer, healthier, happier. I’m still Autistic, you can’t escape neurology and actually I wouldn’t want to. I’m still mental – Bipolar is not something I’ll ever be cured of but it’s something I’m learning to live with.
So I will say goodbye and I will try and do it properly. Maybe I’ll write a card. I will most definitely say thank you. At 46 I am finally able to accept that some people are only meant to be in my life for a short while. Others (like my husband N and our children) are in my forever plan and no matter what happens, I will love them till the end of time.
Until next time. Goodbye.
All photos were taken on our recent holiday to the Lake District. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed taking them.
4 thoughts on “Say Hello and Wave Goodbye”
I loved you Liz before any other human did.
From the second I knew you were growing inside me.
From the second I first saw your face and you looked into my eyes.
From the second I first held you in my arms, as I lay , just a kid myself, waiting for my GP to stitch me up, I loved you with every part of me.
I have loved you with all my heart every second of every day since then and will go on loving you always.
No one can take that away from me.
If you loved me then you would have told the truth.
If you loved me you would have been brave enough to revisit my childhood, my adolescence, my adulthood instead of repeatedly refusing to talk to me about it. Do you know what that felt like? It felt like I was being gagged and suffocated.
If you loved me you would have listened to the extreme hurt and pain you have caused me throughout my life instead of trying to pretend I was mad and making it all up.
You would have accepted responsibility for your actions. It doesn’t matter if what you did was deliberate or negligent or unintentional, what matters is that YOU HURT ME and you’ve never once said sorry, never once tried to repair the damage.
If you loved me you would have stopped playing the victim and realized that you had broken me. But instead you continued to break me exactly how your own mum has broken and damaged you while your father turned a blind eye. I know you hate to be compared to her but can you seriously not see history repeating itself? She toys with you exactly how you used to toy with me. You learned all her tactics, just like she learned from her wicked witch of a mother. You have both had hard lives, faced tragedy and loss. But does that give you a free pass to f*** up the next generation with your destructive behaviour?
You might think you loved me, but your actions are not those of a loving parent.
Your love for me was tarnished with resentment that I am braver, stronger and more fortunate than you.
You don’t see how hard I’ve worked or how courageous I’ve been or how I’ve made good choices instead of bad ones like you…you just think that I am ‘luckier’ than you and you think it’s not fair.
Yes you grew me in your belly and birthed me and I imagine I was easy to love as a helpless baby. Finally you had someone that belonged to you and you were devoted to me, as was I to you. Because I was utterly and naively devoted to you for so long. Do you not remember just a few months before our final fall out, you sent old family photos to the WhatsApp group and commented how I’d always been the one looking after you when it should have been the other away around?
But children grow up. They have opinions, emotions, hormones. There are confrontations and arguments. They become harder to love. And you gave up loving me so easily. I wasn’t a bad kid! I was a good student. I helped at home. I never even socialised until I was 16. I needed a friend and a guide and a confidant but you were my judge and jury. You assassinated my character and turned family members against me because I stood up to you. You made me feel disgusting about my body and my sexuality. You treated me like a criminal. But not my brothers. It was all so different for them.
If you loved me you wouldn’t have treated me differently to the boys my whole life. They are allowed to abuse you, attack you, take your last penny, trash your house…but if I so much as challenged you about anything you would go absolutely crazy. You rejected me so brutally again and again and again if I did the slightest thing wrong. I lived in fear of you rejecting me my whole adult life because I knew any minute you could turn on me.
If you loved me then you’d have used your experience of working with Autistic children to help me. Yet from the moment I got my diagnosis you have done nothing but criticise and chastise me for my strong emotions, outspoken opinions, sensory reactions and meltdowns. You and my so called brothers, so ignorant, so arrogant. Not one of you tried to educate yourselves about my different brain. You never once tried to help me or understand me. The very reason I had to end all contact with you was because your lies, your manipulation, your abuse towards me was literally making me suicidal.
If you loved me then why were you were so quick to tell my Nick and anyone else that would listen that I was mad and needed help, that I was ‘in crisis’ when you knew I’d been in a good place for several months. You yourself kept telling me how well I looked and how happy I seemed!!
I see now that you were angry and frightened. You were so used to being able to control me and you knew this time was different. You knew I meant it. So you tried to convince everyone I had lost the plot. Yet, if you’d really believed that I was mentally ill, wasn’t it both reckless and dangerous that you rallied my brothers and grandparents against me and oversaw the stream of vile and vicious abuse those cowards threw at me and Nick?
Talking of Nick, my kind, strong, loyal, hardworking husband who stood up to you and called you out for your abuse and manipulation…my husband was the only decent son you had. He lent you money, he was your taxi, he took you on holiday with us, he listened to your woes, he was a friend. You always said he was your only son who gave you a proper cuddle.
If you loved me, why did you try and turn Nick against me? If you’d loved him, why did you let your sons and father attack and abuse him. Not one of them is even a fraction of the man he is. You know that. But how quick you were to dispose of him when he couldn’t be manipulated by you anymore.
It’s been over a year since I heard from you. I knew this moment would come and I’ve dreaded it. I was terrified it would break me all over again. My fragile heart.
But actually, your vain insistence you love me, with no apology, no accountably, has made me stronger. You say no one can take that love from you…I’m not trying to take anything from you. I really DID love you and I’m the only one of your children who didn’t run away to escape responsibility for you, the only one who hasn’t taken your money and abused your trust. I allowed you to be a part of MY family’s lives. With my husband and my children. All we ever did was give to you. We asked for nothing back. But you threw all that away in a heartbeat because I called you out for playing cruel mind games with me, for lying to me.
If you’d ever loved me then you wouldn’t have robbed my children of their Nanny and their Uncles and their Cousins. You would have stopped. Taken a breath. Realised it was finally time to be honest and open, to reflect, talk, revisit the past that accept how deeply traumatised I was.
But rather than talk to me you tried to make everyone think I was a liar, that I was mad. Did you stop to think for even a second that in punishing me you were also punishing my beautiful boys. With every attack on their Mummy and Daddy, you were pushing your grandchildren further away. How could you expect to have a relationship with them after what you’d done to us? If you’d given a damn about Leo & Hen you’d have stopped my brothers and grandfather from judging and attacking me. You’d have been honest about how badly you’ve treated me.
I was born into a weak and violent family where problems were swept under the carpet and abuse was perpetuated through the generations. But I broke free. I have made my OWN family. A loving, happy, honest and safe family who are an unbreakable team. That really pisses you off I think, that I achieved what you didn’t.
I’m not saying everything you did was bad. Of course there were good times, happy memories, times you were there for me. I miss those times so much. We all miss the happy times with you. But hand on heart, the bad times FAR outweigh the good for me. The bad times have ruined so much of my life, left me with bipolar 2 disorder. You have been able to hurt me more than any other person in my life because I loved you the most until I met Nick and had our boys.
I’m not saying that I didn’t contribute to our conflict. I’ve spent so much of my life feeling angry with you, hating you, trying so hard to be nice and forgive you when inside I’m in turmoil because you never showed any remorse or recognition of how badly you’ve treated me.
My authentic, Autistic self is someone who struggles to regulate my emotions, is so protective over my routines and ways of doing things, who can’t keep my mouth shut and will call out bad behaviour regardless of who it hurts. But you and my brothers hated all those things about me. I wasn’t good enough. I was a nuisance. I was judged.
I don’t want to hurt you. I’ve stopped hoping for your apology. I just want to live out the rest of my life with people who really do love and accept and value me.
I want you to be happy. To be healthy. To live a good life. I want you to find peace. Just please don’t contact me again. Some things are too broken to be fixed and I can’t forgive you or my brothers. I don’t want to be judged by you all anymore. I don’t want to have to apologise for being different. I like me. I’m proud of me. I’m not perfect, but then who is? Away from you and my brothers I am happier, calmer, kinder, safer.
I will always be thankful for the good memories with you and I genuinely want you to be happy. We still look at family photos and we talk about funny memories. But we are part of each other’s past. That’s the only way things can be. Look after yourself. Goodbye Mum xxx
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Thank you so much. Photography is one of my special interests. I like using my photos to tell stories and illustrate my feelings. I appreciate you reading my blog.
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