When my wife Kate was still alive I published three posts dedicated to exploring whether I might qualify as borderline Aspergers.
Kate had become convinced that this explained the difference between her personality and mine – and the difficulty I experienced in understanding and responding to her emotional needs.
She read several books on the subject, insisting that I read them too, and she joined a support group for people with Aspie partners.
The first of my three posts was a broad introduction to the issues; the second set out the negative side of my personality, as Kate perceived it; and the third captured her assessment of the advantages of cohabiting with someone like me.
The fact is, since Kate’s tragic and untimely departure, I have been reassessing whether I am indeed as she defined me. Let me be clear: there has been no formal assessment one way or the other.
I do not doubt that Kate’s ‘diagnosis’ made sense to her. And I was quite ready to adopt it too, because it provided a useful framework in which to identify, isolate and address shortcomings in our relationship – shortcomings that we were consciously striving to overcome in readiness for spending our retirement together.
But, since she died, I have begun to ponder two related questions:
- First, is such an informal ‘diagnosis’ inevitably subjective, influenced by the eye of the beholder? Might Kate’s perception have been biased, affected by the sheer distance between our respective personalities? Was she so far removed from my experience, so close to the opposite pole, that she regarded as extreme a fairly typical introverted male response? Certainly that is the perception of some of those I have consulted; some but not all.
- Second, have I changed anyway, as a direct consequence of caring for Kate during her last illness? And subsequently, have I changed still further during the experience of bereavement, of associating much more frequently with other bereaved people and of doing my best to support them as, together, we strive to return to something approaching normality?
There isn’t much more to say on the first point, except to note that Kate was very much a ‘people person’ whose entire life was devoted to helping and supporting others.
That is why so many people miss her so badly – and why I am holding an annual #Kateday, to give all the people that she touched an opportunity to remember the contribution she made to their lives.
Recognising that her strength was my weakness, I consciously took a back seat while she forged almost all our social relationships. But, because those muscles were never exercised, they atrophied. Kate lost out because I could not support her as effectively as she supported me.
As for the second point, I do believe that the experience of living through Kate’s deterioration and death has awoken in me latent capacity for empathy and compassion that I never knew I possessed.
Poor Kate experienced their fledgling expression during her final months – and, in my more optimistic moments, I like to think they made those awful days slightly more bearable for her.
Not that I don’t regret that I wasn’t further along by then. But, nevertheless, her death brought out the best in me, as it then was.
Since her death I have found solace in the company of other bereaved people – and there has been ample opportunity to develop my emergent skills.
One friend in particular has been struggling to overcome her despair, to reach a point of stability and chart a way forward across the rest of her life.
The experience of supporting her has been truly cathartic for me. She also challenges me gently to develop the wider social skills I need to function without Kate.
In her darker moments she loses heart – accuses herself of dragging me down and urges me to cut myself loose.
Little does she know that, on several occasions during the last few months, she alone has stemmed the tide of my despair. She alone has bolstered my confidence by pushing me to hone these latent skills in readiness for my own uncertain future.
There is still a way to go but I shall be forever grateful for this simple act of human kindness.
How exactly have I changed?
In auditing my new personality against the portrayal in my three previous posts, much has seemingly changed:
- Inflexibility: the bereaved state is a solitary state, which is empowering me to break routines and not to set them up in the first place. I still have preferences but I am more ready to set them aside in favour of spontaneity. One of my personal mantras is that I should strive not to close down any new opportunities.
- Lack of empathy: I have learned to understand and share in others’ grief, and it is that which has unlocked for me the doors to empathy. I am developing a latent capacity to provide in-depth emotional support – I try to intuit how others are feeling and give all my attention to what I can say or do to make them feel better. I am even learning that, sometimes, a hug is worth more than any verbal offering!
- Egocentricity: I begin to understand how to see things from a different point of view – and to understand the value (to myself as well as others) of placing their interests ahead of mine, of doing what they want rather than what I want. This is trickier because the solitariness of bereavement breeds egocentricity – ‘put yourself first’ is often the advice one hears.
- Social interaction: Large groups are still difficult for me, but I am making a determined effort to interact positively with more people, to work my way around those who are unknown to me. I must now invest in and control my own social life, or I would not have one!
- Communication difficulties: dishonesty for the purpose of flattery remains a problem, but I am beginning to appreciate the distinction between what people say and what they are feeling, even if I cannot always intuit the latter.
- The positive side: I strive not to sacrifice WYSIWYG transparency; to be fearlessly honest, except when it is essential not to be; and to bring my drive and intelligence to bear on others’ problems as well as my own.
Is the joke on us both? Did it take Kate’s death – and so the end of our life together – to activate in me the emotional capacity she so desperately yearned for?
That would have appealed greatly to her dark sense of humour.
All I can do now is to practice constantly, to resign myself to much failure before I can reach the best of which I’m capable.
Rather optimistically I have customised my ‘Mr Strong’ T-shirt, adding ‘…and compassionate’ in red ink beneath. I try to live up to that description.
Meanwhile I ponder whether aspects of my (former?) Aspie self are beneficial to bereavement. Could it be that the Aspie’s familiarity with a solitary, alienated condition might help him to bear more easily than a ‘neurotypical’ the sheer loneliness of bereavement?
But optimism is essential to daily living – without it living becomes mere survival.
As, hopefully, I begin to leave despair behind I have found it necessary to cast a simple positive philosophy. It is this:
I am prepared to entertain the possibility (no more; no less) that the best days of my life might still be ahead of me.
And this I recommend to others in the same situation.