A couple of years ago I was asked to deliver some pain medications to a customer on my way home from the pharmacy where I work. I had not been informed that there had been a prior mix up resulting in her having been without her meds for a couple of days, just that she needed them that day. Walking home from work begins my decompression time from a job that I find highly stressful and so by the time I knocked on her door I was unprepared for the shock of her grabbing the bag, waving it in my face and yelling at me because they were late. I do not react fast to vocal information and so my feet had taken control and walked me away from the situation before I had a chance to explain anything. By the time I got home I was in tears. Then the next day I was called in to explain why the customer had emailed in with a furious complaint about me and included the line, “I hope she understands how I felt when she is old and in pain.” I think the phrase, “lack of empathy” was also used.
I was thinking about this occasion last night while I was pondering the decision to leave Twitter for a while, following the outpouring of grief, anger and confusion resulting from the EU referendum. I have a limit to how much of other people’s pain I can deal with. I suspect it is why I have become a fixer. I have become pretty good at offering solutions for upset or illness. But I cannot provide that shoulder to cry on or be part of that healing circle that others (mostly women) find useful as they discuss and talk their way through grievances. While others find solace, compassion and reassurance in shared experience I hear only voices in competition either in who suffered the most or who can sound the most sympathetic. While they feel relief from putting the world to rights over a bottle of wine and then sleeping soundly, I find their process stressful. To the point that I will probably be looking bored and will be forcing myself not to drum my fingers in the table in annoyance. Instead I want to offer solutions so that problems can be solved and so that I can sleep without obsessing all night.
For these same reasons I cannot read newspapers or listen to more than the most sanitised of headlines because my powerlessness to solve the worlds injustices crushes my very soul. Every Twitter link to the story of rape, torture, environmental destruction or war leaves visuals in my head that I cannot erase. (Even a fictional horror-film plot line someone told me over three years ago haunts me still.) And yet I cannot unfollow everyone who posts these because I do not wish to upset them and I cannot possibly ask people to sensor themselves on my behalf. So what the hell am I supposed to do? Cut myself off from all outside information and social interaction?
I don’t think so because the flip side of socialising, whether in person or online, is that other people’s happiness is drug like to me. Good news calms me, restores me, elevates me. It reminds me why life is worth living. Isolation would deny me that chance. And would also deny me the joy in passing on that good news and making someone else happy.
A girl at school once told me that I was irritating because I was always happy. She was wrong. I was mostly unhappy; anxious, confused, depressed and severely overwhelmed. But I figured that being chirpy and positive might make other people happy, and that then they might like me. And I stuck with that mindset even when experience taught me over and over again that it was wrong!
But, I’m off track. I’ve rambled off into reminiscence. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: autism is often associated with a lack of empathy. But autistics themselves maintain that, if anything, they have too much empathy. Speaking for myself, I think that maybe perceived empathy may be more of a problem. If you are distressed by a problem then I want that problem to go away, and fast. I do not want you to be distressed. Your distress, for me, is too abstract to help you to relieve directly and so I will put every emotional, mental and physical resource I have available into solving the problem itself for you. But if I cannot solve it then it becomes, for me, a black hole and I, in turn will become distressed to the extent that I have to withdraw completely. From the situation, from you, from everyone. So, contrary to outward appearance, I do not suffer a lack of empathy. Far from it.