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.