I felt lonely yesterday. It used to be one of my most familiar feelings, but I’ve become much more accustomed to spending the day by myself with very little interaction outside of the brief morning overlap with my husband. I enjoy working from home and as an introvert, I relish solitude because social time is so draining for me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t experience loneliness. I can actually experience the simultaneous dichotomous feelings of loneliness and wanting to be alone. I naturally withdraw from stimulating environments, whether active with laughter, people, and conversations, or bubbling with sensory stimuli like bright lights, constant noises, strong smells, or moving parts. Like a turtle intuitively retreating into its shell, any anticipation or brief exposure to any type of boisterous or verbally interactive situation flips a switch in my brain that has me ducking out or avoiding that place all together.
While this bestows upon me a pleasant calm feeling, it’s more important function is to prevent me from being so uncomfortably overwhelmed or exhausted. In this way, avoidance acts as a protective measure against perceived “danger” or pain more than a motion that brings me joy or feels good. It’s like wearing a bike helmet when cycling: Wearing the helmet isn’t inherently comfortable or enjoyable, but it guards against potentially serious harm should a fall occur. I don’t want to be alone or miss out on fun places that are too stimulating (a movie theater, a crowded museum, a town fair, a restaurant, stores, etc.). It’s not “fun” to stay home in a quiet house and miss out on a family gathering, a party, or a paint night with friends. Even if I try to fill that time that would have been spent at the social event doing something recreational like working on a puzzle or going for a walk with the dog, I feel an emptiness or longing to be able to do the other activity with everyone else or to go to some of the aforementioned sensory-assaulting places. I recognize that I’m missing out.
That said, I’ve had thirty years of trying to go to such places or attend such gatherings. I’ve amassed enough data to fill a theoretical guidebook pertaining to myself. I’ve seen what makes me feel sick, what gives me migraines, what’s so socially taxing that I get depleted too quickly to make going worthwhile, and also those things that I can make work (and with what modifications to optimize my comfort and enjoyment). This mental guidebook is just that–a guide. It’s not a rule book or book of laws that must be rigidly upheld.
Over the past year, I’ve gotten better at retrying certain environments or social activities previously deemed in no uncertainty to be bad choices for my physical and mental health and wellbeing. After all, I do change and grow over time so I don’t want to preemptively preclude myself from every situation that sounds like a bad fit. My nature is to be extremely regimented and black and white rule thinking, which seems to be common in autistic people. Because I’m aware of this character trait (for me personally, I consider it a character flaw in myself simply because it’s not the way I’d like to be (I wish I were more easygoing and spontaneous)), I make a concerted effort to not let my past experiences or data in my “guidebook” act as wholly inflexible laws that dictate my behavior and choices. Though my tendency would be to veer this way, I do try to use these amassed experiences and outcomes to help me decide about the viability of a new engagement with the understanding that it’s possible to try again with the hopes of a more positive experience.
Through OT and my own experimentation over the years, I’ve also built a small toolbox of strategies and accoutrements that can help me better tolerate certain environments. I also like to think that my brain is at least partially adaptable and may therefore handle stimulation and socialization better over time. (Unfortunately, most of the reattempts yield the same unfavorable outcome.)
Working from my home office is a true blessing and makes my job possible for me. It does, however, come with the inherently isolating solitude of the home office. This helps me stay productive, physically healthy (because my fragile immunity isn’t taxed by commuting and the utter depletion that comes from sensory and social elements of an office), and dependable. I rarely need to call out sick, which used to always be my unfortunate weakness as a regular in-person employee of most of my previous companies of employment. I can set the environmental parameters to meet my needs: only natural light (no lamps), comfortable clothes without materials or tags that drive me crazy, no perfumes or scents, no talking or repetitive noises, etc. My ability to modify and construct a healthy work environment not only improves productivity and preserves my health, but it keeps me relaxed, happy, and sane. The agitation that would build from trying to tamp down my unbearable discomfort from previous offices would fester into depression, anxiety, anger, moodiness, and volatility. I was miserable.
All this increased control and resultant comfort comes at a price. It can be too isolating. Many stay-at-home employees probably offset this solitude with active social calendars, children, clubs, or other regular interactive engagements. Not me. Nearly all of what I do, like I said, except for the short morning time with Ben, is spent alone. I do make a few calls each day to family and friends, but I don’t participate in many routine social or out-in-the-world activities to speak of. Again, this has its significant and necessary health and protection-against-feeling-poorly benefits, but it doesn’t feel “good.” I am not deriving enjoyment from the inherently independent, asocial nature of this lifestyle. Rather, I’m human. We are creatures that do desire connection to others.
My opinion is that being autistic, as well as having the disposition and personality I have, reduces the degree to which I have the human internal drive for social interaction, intimacy, and constant companionship. It’s still there, but much less prominent than in an extroverted person. I want to connect, I want to feel close, I want to be accepted and needed by my peers, I want to have intimate relationships (emotional and physical), and I want to be in the presence of my “tribe.” I do feel human in these ways.
However, often more pronounced is my conflicting need and interest to have alone time to restore my energy, vitality, and desire for connection. I imagine that’s why I struggle to feel connected to others when I design a lifestyle of isolation so that I can feel well most of the time. In the previous periods of my life where I tried to camouflage as “normal” and live a much more typical and social life, I was constantly stressed and unhappy, lost so much weight or had an eating disorder, was depressed to the point of attempting suicide, or felt so confused and weird. Those lives didn’t work for me. I’m much happier and healthier now living authentically and within means that work for my physical, psychological, and social needs.
This way of life is not a panacea though. I certainly feel lonely and left out (self-selectively) in many cases. In the various iterations of “lives” I’ve tried on (different jobs, social lives, home environments, etc.), I haven’t yet struck the ideal balance. I’m much closer to an overall optimal design these days, but clearly I need to find ways to comfortably insert more interaction and human connection. I need to add a chapter to my guidebook by testing out various possibilities.
The good news is that these days, I’m more open-minded in my willingness to experiment and try different engagements and opportunities. Hopefully, I’ll be brave and honor that quiet human drive inside me to connect, attempt some activities with an open mind, and find at least pockets of workable opportunities for fostering in-person relationships with others. Loneliness hurts. It serves that as I built a lifestyle to protect me against the problems of overstimulation, so too do I need to build a modification in it that protects against the pain of loneliness. Finding tolerable, and maybe even enjoyable, ways to forge more active friendships will help me carve out that needed modification and strike the desired balance.
*To answer the question posed in the title of this post, yes, an introverted autistic person can definitely feel lonely, at least in the n=1 case study of myself. I can’t speak for others, but I imagine I’m not alone in this, nor is it only a dichotomous phenomenon experienced by autistic people.