Friday, 28 November 2014

Why We Need Mentors

I've called this "Why We Need Mentors", but it could just have easily been titled "What Happened To My Life?"

I began my adult life with a whole bunch of expectations, most of which involved assuming my life would be like other people's - marriage, motherhood, mortgages, the white-picket-fence-with-2.5-kids life in the 'burbs' thing... I didn't truly know how people got all that. It seemed to 'just happen' for them, and so I presumed it would for me too.

Well, some of it did. I did get married and become a mother, though younger than I'd thought I would. My marriage however was an abject failure - I made a lousy choice of mate, who proved not a good provider or all that stable, and we were never able to buy our own home. And then I started reading feminist stuff, eventually leaving the marriage and coming out.

 Still, all that meant was that I reframed my expectations. Instead of a man, I assumed I would find a long-term female partner, I'd get my degree, get off the benefit, and we'd settle down in happy domesticity, a sort of lesbian version of the white picket fence thing.

It didn't happen. Instead I had a string of short-term failures interspersed with long periods of celibacy, where I tried to figure out "what I did wrong", and how to do it differently next time. Then I'd launch myself out into the mating market again, thinking I'd solved all my problems, only to find - BANG. Another failure, and I'd reel back into celibacy again.

Friendships were another area I consistently failed in. They imploded, or drifted apart, or just never got off the ground properly in the first place. I couldn't understand it. I thought I was being friendly, helpful, nice, etc, why did no-one want to know me? Why was it such a struggle to connect with others?

I was attending university on and off during these years, but at times I struggled there too. Academically, I was doing okay, getting mostly As and Bs, but there was a lot of social stuff that I just didn't 'get'. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself at this time to be 'normal', and eventually, that pressure resulted in my health collapsing under the strain.

It would take another ten years before I would be diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but the pattern was clear from the beginning - any severe stress, and my health took a nosedive. I began to use it as a reason to not do certain things, but only because I couldn't articulate my deeper, more long-standing reasons, which no-one would have accepted or understood at that time anyway. I still kept believing that my life would, at some magic point, straighten out, that everything would fall into place and come right. It never did.

I ended up leaving the city and living in the country for many years, while I tried to heal. During that time I finally managed a long-term relationship - only it wasn't exactly as happy as I'd dreamt it would be... I tried so hard to 'fix' it, draining my health, my vitality, the last of my youth, hope, romanticism and emotional energy in the process. I finally left only when I felt I had nothing more to give. And only then did I come to understand, way too late, that I'd been the victim of sustained emotional abuse.

I took stock - no partner, few if any friends, no job, no money, no possessions worth a damn, my health a wreck - where did I go next? Eventually I moved away to be closer to my family and start anew. Life since then has had a few ups and downs, but I still find myself, in my late fifties, poorer than I've ever been. I have no permanent job and little chance of one, my health is still not the best and in some ways is getting worse with ageing (eg the onset of arthritis), I've never owned my own home and am never likely to, short of a miracle. My family are supportive and help when and as they can, but still, life could be better. A lot better.

As for relationships - well. I picked all the wrong people, it's true, but then I could also say that none of the 'right' ones ever picked me. Suffice to say it's an area I'm not willing to venture into again, for a whole host of complicated reasons, of which being 'burnt' too often is only a part. In terms of connecting to others, the best thing that's happened for me in the last few years is not relationships but the aspie friendships I've made - they're one of the highlights of my life now.

But overall, my life has been, in many ways, a train wreck. Very few of my dreams and expectations have ever been met or realised - I've never owned my own home, never had a relationship that was worth the effort involved, never had a career (except for my writing of course, but I've yet to work out how to make that pay), I didn't even manage to finish my university degree. I rate raising my daughter as my biggest achievement - and don't get me wrong, I would still rate it that way no matter what else I'd done - I just wish I'd been able to achieve a whole bunch of other stuff too.

So what has all this to do with mentors?

It's this - when things have gone right in my life, it's always with the help, guidance and support of others. A typical instance is my getting to uni - for a while, I was friends with a woman who'd done several degrees, and who 'knew the ropes'. I quizzed her endlessly, and she very patiently showed me how to enrol, told me all about degrees, courses, prerequisites etc - we later drifted apart but I'll always be grateful to her for her assistance. It's very likely that I wouldn't have gotten to uni at all without her help. It was typical of a consistent pattern - if people were willing to patiently explain things to me, and guide me through new things, my life went much, much better. Other times, I got through life changes only with the practical help of family and friends. When I was lacking such support, that's when my life would go haywire. The inevitable result was a good deal of anguish and stress.

Maybe some of all this would have happened anyway, aspie or not, mentors or not, - I would still have come out for instance. But there's no doubt in my mind my life would have gone a lot better, if only people had realised just how ignorant and in need of help I really was, and given me a lot more guidance.

Many other aspies seem to be the same, I've heard many lament how they can't make or keep friends or relationships or jobs or stay in education, how their lives are going to ruin, they're homeless or unemployed or whatever, because they just don't know how best to get by in the world, they lack the practical knowledge or skills or social skills to rescue themselves - and no-one is helping them.
WE ALL NEED MENTORS. Everyone of us on the spectrum needs mentoring, sometimes throughout our lives. It doesn't have to be a big, formal thing - though that can help those who don't have families etc to step in and do this role - but it is a very real need, even when the individual is well into adulthood and seemingly independent.

Now, I understand that most people live busy lives and they can't always spare the time - even if they understand the need - to mentor someone. But whenever anyone, be it a private individual or a member of an agency or organisation, can fulfil this role, I would plead with them to do so, as the lives of the autistics they touch can only be better off for it. Because with the right practical help and patient support, we can achieve great things.


  1. Your paintings are very moving. I love them.

  2. So very true. Thankfully these days one can google stuff but it doesnt take away the emotional abandonment.