27: What is it like to be an appendage?
How my autistic brain understands groups
I’ve written in several posts about the idea that, for most of my life, I have appended myself to different groups of friends but rarely, if ever, felt that I was truly a part of a group of friends. I’ve met other people - both autistic and not - who describe the same thing. There is something about the deepness of the relationships of the people who are in the group that seems inaccessible when you are on the periphery, but it’s just within reach so that you can see it, and imagine it, and even empathize with it to a degree.
My senior year of high school, I found a group that I felt closer to than the previous groups I had hung around. I think of them now as the punk rockers. They didn’t just hang out with each other, they seemed to have adopted an entire identity around their music and style. I was attracted to what I perceived as their rules, their philosophy. Everything corporate was bad. Everything popular was bad. Drugs and alcohol were bad. Music that made other people cringe was cool. Reading was cool. Making fun of “normal” people was cool. (I later came to realize that these “rules” were probably more my perception than reality, and the others didn’t understand or interpret them the way I did).
As I observed this group, I wanted to identify myself with them. I started listening to the music, and trying to understand it. I drew big black “X”s on the back of my hands to indicate I didn’t drink or do drugs. I tried my best to play a part in their world. They took me in, in a way, and allowed me to participate. I felt like my connection to their group was giving me some sense of what it was like to have a group, to be part of a group. By the spring of my senior year, I had spent more time with them, and seen them in more situations away from school, than I had with any other group.
We went places at night together. Hung out by the pools of lavish homes of the wealthier kids, spent hours listening to music in the cramped sectioned off bedrooms of the kids whose parents were just scraping by, and caused minor amounts of trouble on the dark, empty streets of the touristy parts of town. Mostly we spent Friday and Saturday nights occupying large booth tables in one of several twenty four hour “family restaurant” chains that were invariably located in stripmall parking lots. Denny’s, the Village Inn, Perkins, Carrows. They were generally indistinguishable from one another, with the exception of Denny’s, which featured entrees with names like Moons Over My Hammy, providing at least some superficial variation to the vinyl clad, fluorescent lit, funky smelling atmosphere of the dining room.
They hung out with each other all the time. There were about ten of them all together, with a couple of sub groups that were especially close. I felt a true friendship with one of them, Shawn, and I aspired to be accepted by the rest. I would go along with them if Shawn told me where they were meeting, or if I ran into them downtown where high school kids would congregate to find each other most Friday and Saturday nights (before cell phones, meeting up spontaneously was harder than it is now). But a lot of nights I would stay home, alone, wondering what they were up to and feeling left out.
On one of those nights, I remember waiting until about 9:00 PM and then getting in my mom’s red Subaru wagon and going for a drive. Often, when some of the group members were hanging out in a restaurant booth, others of them would come by. People would make the rounds - drive by each of the five dreary stripmall parking lots to see if any familiar cars were parked there. When we were sitting in a booth drinking our coffee and eating our fries, if one of the friends walked in they were always greeted with welcoming cheers. But for some reason, I could never do that - I could never just go find the group. I was always waiting at home for someone to call me and tell me what the plan was. The idea of heading out to look for them felt inaccessible to me. I didn’t feel I had that privilege with the group - I could only join them if I was asked to.
That night I got in my mom’s Subaru and started driving, I didn’t have a plan. Sometimes I would just drive around for twenty minutes and come home, having no idea what other kids did when they “went out” on a Friday night. I decided to drive out to Perkins, probably the most common destination, and see if anyone was there. I was sure they wouldn’t be. Shawn had told me that there were no plans; nobody was really doing anything that night.
I found a spot in the Perkins parking lot and sat with the music blasting. It was winter, and the car felt warm and cozy. I looked around at the other cars in the lot and didn’t see any familiar ones. They aren’t here, I thought, feeling somehow relieved. If I had recognized one of their cars, would I have gone in to say hi? Could I do that, uninvited? I was sure they wouldn’t be happy to see me. I wouldn't get the warm greeting and the welcoming cheers. I would probably be met with confusion, “What are you doing here?” or, “Oh, hey. How did you know where to find us?” I would just sit in the car for a bit, perhaps long enough to make my parents think I had someplace to go on a Friday night, and then head home.
After a few minutes a car pulled into the lot and drove by me. I watched the familiar shape of the old red Saab as it parked further down the aisle. It was packed with friends - my friends, or at least the people I thought of as my friends. They would always cram as many people into a car as possible. As they got out they were laughing, smiling, making jokes and seeming so happy. It’s the way they always were, and part of why I liked to hang out with them. When I saw Shawn climb out of the car, my stomach sank.
I always imagined that when I wasn’t hanging out with them, they were still hanging out, just not with me. I wanted to believe that if they told me there were no plans, there were really no plans. But deep down I knew that it meant there were no plans that included me. Seeing the evidence, though, was hard. The logic of my brain started to kick in - if they are all in one car together, they must have met some place first. I wonder where they met? Have they all been hanging out since after school? Or did they have a plan to meet downtown, or at someone’s house? They must have called each other to work out the details. Of course I wouldn’t expect them to remember to call me. Or perhaps they did remember, but they decided not to?
I started the ignition quickly, backed out of my parking spot, and drove off (probably a bit too urgently). I thought I saw them, through my rear view mirror, looking up as I pulled away. Did they see me, realize that I had been parked there alone, and then watch me drive off in a huff? I imagined what they might think about me if they had seen me, or what they might say. If they thought I was weird before, now they must think I’m really weird.
Running away in a moment like that has always felt to me like the only option. It never occurred to me that, instead of running away, I could have actually gotten out of the car, walked up to them like I was part of their group, and just joined in. In my head, they had created a plan that excluded me on purpose. They had, perhaps, conspired to make me think they weren’t hanging out that night so that I wouldn’t come. In my way of seeing the situation, for them to have fun required my absence. If I were to approach them, they would be disappointed as they saw me walk up. They would think, “Great, there goes the evening” or “How did he find us?”. They would be annoyed. Some of them would be nice, but some would let me know they didn’t want me there one way or another. Why would I want to go someplace where I wasn’t wanted?
Of course, the reality is they probably didn’t think about me much at all. I’ve never quite been able to appreciate the difference between how I imagine things are and how things really are. This was especially true when I was younger. I’ve always carried a clear idea in my mind about what other people are thinking, what is motivating them, and what the true intentions behind their actions are (especially as it relates to me). The idea that the story in my head was just that - a story in my head with no basis in reality - never occurred to me.
This is what it feels like to be an appendage. Always on the outside, trying to get in, wanting to get in, but not sure what “getting in” means. Being an appendage is like being in a foreign country on a student visa - it’s OK for a time, but you aren’t allowed to fully participate and you are not a permanent resident. Seeing the group gather in the Perkins parking lot that night confirmed the story that I told myself; it provided evidence to validate my theory that I wasn’t really welcome, that I wasn’t really part of the group, that I wasn’t really one of the friends.
I’d like to say that I grew out of this way of thinking and learned to integrate with and participate in groups of friends after I moved on from high school, or at least from college, but that didn’t happen. For my whole adult life I have appended myself to groups of friends, where I felt like everyone else in the group was on the inside of it, and I was just hanging out with them from time to time. Usually I had a strong relationship with one person - perhaps a girlfriend, or a friend I was close to, and they would introduce me to the others. I would see myself as a provisional member of the group, allowed to participate only when my connection was with me. In my head, groups of friends had rules of membership, like neighborhood associations or private clubs, where members voted on who was allowed in, what peoples’ status was, and when to kick someone out.
I had a conversation in my mid thirties with a friend who I was meeting for a glass of wine after not seeing him for a while. He was part of a group of friends that I loved and that I wanted so much to be a part of, but which I had finally given up on after resigning myself to the reality that I would never be accepted as part of their group. I just wasn't “one of them”. I tried to explain to him how I accepted the fact that he and the others had a connection that was deeper, longer lived, and more profound than any connection I had with any of them. They had known each other since middle school, I reasoned. They had been through the most formative times of their lives together. They had come of age together. I was just someone they met in their early twenties who thought they were fun and liked being around them. And, I said, I was OK with it, and I was moving on.
My friend looked at me with a confused smile on his face, seemingly unable to grasp what I was trying to say. I was trying to tell him that I had made terms with the fact that I wasn’t a member of his group, but the expression on his face was saying, “What group? What are you talking about?” It was as if I was breaking up with someone I had been dating, but they didn’t know we had been dating, and so the idea of me breaking up with them just didn’t compute.
I left that conversation feeling a sense of closure and contentment, and only now as I look back on it does it occur to me that the story I had told myself may not have existed for my friend at all. And it makes me wonder - am I always on the outside because I see myself that way? Would I be on the inside if I just acted as if that was the case? Perhaps more to the point, I wonder if there even is an inside and an outside at all.