The Glass Ceiling

It’s been a long time since I wrote on this blog, after my triumphant Graduation Day. But a graduate is not as skilled as a professor, and I have continued to reflect on my abilities and limitations.

A few days ago I watched the movie Still Alice, a portrayal of a young professor’s decline due to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her neurologist commented that intelligent people seem to decline more rapidly with Alzheimer’s – they develop coping strategies to ‘work around’ their memory loss until the disease progresses to the point where they can’t do so any more and their full decline is laid bare. A similar cliff-edge seems to apply to my ability to build close relationships.

I’ve been reading around the subject of alexithymia lately. There’s a growing body of research distinguishing other autistic traits from the inability to know one’s own emotions and identify emotions in others. The term alexithymia literally means ‘no words for feelings’ but also covers the absence of feelings. A recurring theme in alexithymia, which I have also noticed in my own life, is what happens when a relationship grows beyond one’s ability to compensate for not actually having emotions:

Here’s a quote from an article by Emma Young; it concerns the difficulties an alexithymic man, Stephen, began to face in his marriage:

“At the beginning of a relationship, I’m totally into who that person is,” he explains. “I’ve been told I’m very good at maintaining a honeymoon period for ‘longer than expected.’ But after a year, it takes a massive turn. It all falls apart. I’ve put myself on a pedestal to be this person which I’m really not. I react mostly cognitively, rather than it being emotions making me react. Obviously, that is not valid. It’s not real. It seems fake. Because it is fake. And you can only pretend for so long.”

Or consider this comment by Dr Samantha Rodman:

Alexithymics often have a range of canned responses to normal social situations in which empathy is required. They can mimic others’ responses and assemble a repertoire of phrases like, “That must be so hard” and “Awww,” with the correct, imitated, tone. Only an intimate partner will notice that the same responses recur over and over and the pseudo-emotion that is exhibited dissipates instantly.

I’m in an invidious position. Do I care about other people? Absolutely! Am I able to empathise with other people? No. I don’t experience a rich palette of emotions myself, so it’s simply not possible for me to know ‘from the inside’ what another person is likely to be feeling in most situations. I do know, intellectually, that it’s important to come across as sympathetic in certain circumstances, and I do my best to literally ‘make the right noises’ – but this can only get me so far.

Due to covid-19 I am currently residing with some other members of the Catholic community I belong to. In a recent conversation, a person shared a piece of sad news. I said “Aww” in the tone of voice I usually use to indicate compassion. Someone then passed comment that that was my “sympathetic noise”. That’s probably a sign that members of my community have known me now for long enough to notice that I am not expressing a deep heartfelt empathy but doing my best to project a simulation of empathy – because it’s the only way I can communicate that I do care.

Why is it that 30 years after realising I was part of a community of loving, caring humans and nearly 20 years after getting my diagnosis of Asperger’s, that in my circles of friends I am often welcomed but seldom wanted? The people I call friends are happy when I call them but rarely if ever call me? I am wanted for what I can do as a priest, or to fix someone’s computer, but not for the sole reason of my company. That combination of not giving and receiving non-verbal cues, and having a limited understanding of other people’s feelings, combine to mean I rarely appeal to others to rise to the rank of ‘close friend’. If they are wanting to reach out to that one person who gives them empathy in return, it won’t be me. I keep reaching this glass ceiling beyond which I see people who seek out one another’s company, but I am never the one sought.

Sometimes it has happened in my life that there’s been one person who has drawn close to me. Usually this is someone who is bubbly, often but not always quite tactile, and tries to build good relations with everyone they meet. I experience this as someone ‘taking an interest in me’. At one level this is true, but at another it’s not very personal because the other person is trying to take an interest in everyone. This becomes a dangerous situation for me, because at my brain is reacting as if this person were signalling a desire for a reciprocal close friendship – and if I am not very careful, I can become over-dependent on this one person. Then I will probably overstep my ability to emulate emotions without realising it. The good-natured friend politely tolerates my increasingly gauche behaviour until I cause some kind of bust-up. And unfortunately, although in more recent years I have tried explaining about my autistic condition and my need for verbal feedback, such good-natured friends turn out to be very reticent about giving any negative feedback until a pinch has become a crunch!