love or fluff?

When someone declares with grandiose largesse they “love” you after having only just met you, do you believe them literally, does it make you feel good, or do you cringe? Do you ask yourself, “Is it love, or just fluff?”

Here are a few thoughts from my autistic perspective on a recent social situation where a person keeps declaring utmost “love” for me, but, try as I might (and I have tried hard for many months now) I have been unable to match her actions to her words.

Be warned, though, these are my thoughts, and I do not claim to represent a universal autistic perspective. I do not even claim to be a nice or good person. I am just a person, struggling to survive in order to do what I must do in this one short life. (Autism is a neurological system of functioning, but we are still individuals, just as neurotypicals are individuals too. We experience our similar functional modalities in different ways, and we respond and express them diversely.)

The social arena is difficult for me, because my mind operates differently. I find myself prime target for social manipulators, and although I am not emotionally hurt by this person in this instance, the fiasco has cost me a great deal of time, effort, anxiety and the loss of a few very precious personal belongings. Still, an elderly song diva’s words of wisdom to me, on a previous occasion where I was betrayed by a trusted friend (yes, that one hurt!) still rings clear: “Take it as a valuable lesson learned, and move on.” Of course, my autistic mind will need time and some processing to be able to ‘move on’ and here is an exercise towards that goal. A letter to Mary, an act of exorcism, to expunge the unpleasant taste from my hypersensory system, with a serious lesson embedded within.

Dear Mary,

You have repeatedly treated me with crass bullying shabbiness, all of which I politely and patiently endured for months. I kept telling myself, “Mary is not a bad person, she just has some selfish, childish quirks.”

You surround yourself with dramatic emergencies, then call me on the phone demanding immediate attention. I’ve dropped everything important to rush to your aid several times, only to find you engaging in elaborate social orchestration, rousing the entire neighbourhood to sing to you cantatas of sympathy.

A raging fierce argument with a tradesman who has disturbed your morning peace, at whom you had the unction and gumption to hurl the most unkind and demeaning insults, and then proudly repeat them to me. Somehow, amidst your purported fear and terror of him, you managed to tell him that he will never rise above his economic station in life and live in an expensive, beautiful house such as yours, he will never go to college, nor will his children, while you brandish your university degree. Is it any wonder that the tradesman threatens to hit you? Yet, I played right into your hands, rushed you to the police station, spent all day comforting you, because you said you were afraid. I cannot remember how many times you asked me to call the local council on your behalf to lodge repeated complaints about the construction noise. Your excuse? Poor English. Yet, I find out eventually that you actually have no problem making yourself understood when you want to. Then another time, you summoned me because the son of a neighbour was lying naked in your pool deck, and later used your bathroom with the door deliberately left open. I was nonplussed: despite the grand opera, you resolutely refuse to tell the neighbour about her son, and you refuse to lodge a police report. On another occasion, you tell me you are in so much pain you “feel like shit,” so I forgo an entire morning of urgent work to take you to the doctor’s, but you throw a tantrum afterwards when I am unwilling to traipse in and out of shops watching you finger and toss blouses, skirts and other merchandise hither thither, while the sales persons endure the mess you make. My crime? That I desperately needed to get back to work. You stamped your feet, called me boring and loudly hissed that I was causing you distress. I felt like a fool, really, because it was only then that I realised you most definitely were not very unwell at all.

I am autistic. I have tried hard to explain my functional modes to you. I have sent you articles to read. I have detailed the role of assistance dogs to you, how Lucy helps me, and how assistance dogs are as important as wheelchairs and hearing aids, but you laughed at me, and said you wanted to procure a fake service dog vest for your dog so you can bring her everywhere with you, just like me! Over and over again, your actions failed to reflect any level of understanding or consideration for who I am and what I have tried to tell you. In fact, you have repeatedly pressured me to pay you social attention at great cost to my wellbeing, and then turned around to laugh at me when I tell you of my limitations. It is not a joke, dear Mary, I am not a joke.

You even made me sell your things for you, so you could pay me for the handbag you wanted to buy off me for a mere $300. In the course of the exercise, you demanded that I retake the photos several times because you were not satisfied with them, you pestered me every single day about the sales, you were fickle when I found buyers and you kept changing your mind. In the end, I was so exhausted and overwhelmed by your oppressiveness that I gave up. I let you have the handbag at a huge discount, because I just wasn’t able to continue to try and sell those terribly old shoes at the prices you wanted. You boast about how ‘high class’ you are, yet you have no idea that your treatment of me has been nothing but low, graceless and coarse.

Perhaps, I finally began to lose my determination to think only well of you at the point when you told me in a Facebook message spelled out in CAPITAL LETTERS not to bring my assistance dog Lucy to your birthday party. Even though I left early because I was near sensory meltdown and in a lot of pain from the terrible cacophony and meaningless social chatter, it was a grave mistake on my part to even attend at all, after your crass insult to me. I owe myself an apology for that act of self-disrespect.

The final straw that broke the camel’s back? When you treated my friend so shabbily. $100 for an entire afternoon’s work cleaning a large house, including windows, pool, deck and wiping all your many decorations. My friend consented because he was at the time in need of money. He wanted to buy his brother in Ireland a birthday gift. He was counting on this job. You had plenty of time to cancel the engagement and I had asked you over and over again, throughout the course of two weeks, whether or not you really wanted him to come and clean your house. You cancelled only when my friend had already arrived. He was rightfully upset. He did not speak to me for weeks afterwards. In a way, I do admit some responsibility, because when you went away and did not leave any money for him, I should have known you were not sincere. It was socially naive of me to trust your word, after all that had transpired by then.

I still tried to get the message across to you. I told you that what you did was wrong, that people with money should not treat the poor this way. What was your mocking reply to me? You laughed and said that you too were “poor”!!!! Not funny at all, Mary dear, your jokes are tired and really rather sick. Especially repugnant since this came after you had just boasted about your $3,000 spend on brand new designer handbags!

Nevertheless, I gave you one final chance. I told you honestly and in detail all that was bothering me about your interactions, drawing some boundaries of respect if you wanted to continue any kind of congenial relationship henceforth. Your response? You told me never to contact you again.

Then you set to work behind the scenes, telling all mutual acquiantances that you “love” me so very much but I am now upset with you and am ignoring you. Brilliant brushstrokes, my dear Mary, scintillating even!

How does my autistic mind compute all this?

I am slow on the social feel-good stuff. I am poor navigating the social mazes that people like you create and prance gleefully in. My approach is logical and concrete, but I do bend over backwards, too far in fact, to be patient and overlook the foibles that make me recoil. Your actions do not match your words. And that in itself is very telling, is it not?

Let’s talk about material gifts. While I do not believe for a moment that gifts are the foundation for friendship, they are nevertheless very telling reflections of affection and regard, when viewed within proper context.

My gifts to you are all pristine, lovingly maintained high-end collector’s items. I did not detail how much money they are worth – you yourself most accurately and gleefully made the assessment in the region of several thousand dollars. These were very precious items that I loved. I gave them to you because you agreed to take care of my very precious Lucy for a week. I had no money to pay you for that favour, living now on a meagre Ph.D scholarship, so I gave you those things. What were your gifts to me? You gave me a whole lot of things from out of your garage, when you were clearing your stuff. Some were mouldy too. Discards. Nothing else.

I do not need or want gifts that cost a lot of money. It is the encapsulated meaning that is important to me. I have a homeless friend who gives me lovely gifts – he has nothing, but the fact that he thinks of me every time he scours the neighbourhoods for things that people throw away, his gifts to me make me cry with gratitude and humble honour. Your gifts to me are worthless in comparison to those from my homeless friend, because they were all mere afterthoughts, discards from your vast collection of junk when you wanted to clear your garage. Not only worthless, really, but because they came with giggled snide remarks making fun of my current dire financial status, they were insults. I do not lack self confidence, I grew up in a wealthy environment, I am not ashamed of my current status as a poor scholar, in fact, I am proud of it, very happy with myself that I am able to survive thusly challenged, and thankful that I have wonderful friends who have been supporting me. But your gifts? They were not gifts from a true friend at all. In other words, you never gave me one single gift that meant a lot to you. To add salt to an already festering wound, when I agreed to take care of your dog for an entire month while you were away, you did not even bother to buy treats for your own dog, you just left some money on your table, of which one third of the amount was money you owed me for buying dog food. Later, when I informed you I was baking dog treats for your dog because your money only covered two bags of treats and I could not afford to buy more, you carelessly offered me $200 in a careless Facebook message (for the record, no money actually came my way), two weeks into the arduous effort – yes, yet another afterthought of yours, yet another unfulfilled promise in any case. Another stinging insult.

Talking about dogs… Lucy means the world to me, but out of respect for you, I did not protest when you poisoned my dog with macadamia nuts, through your ignorance and negligence. For someone who dons the persona of a champion for dog welfare, you showed a shocking lack of understanding and regard for dogs. Remember that argument we had over your insisting it was ok to leave your dog in the car while you went shopping? You laughed at me for being “too paranoid”! Well, you happily fed my dog and yours macadamia nuts! Mind you, I did not scold you, I even tried to comfort you for your ignorance! I did not even ask you to pay the vet bill. I merely informed you that I was taking Lucy to the vet immediately and you should take your dog to your own vet too. You insisted on going to my vet with me, and you insisted on paying the bill. I even kept silent when you proceeded to gripe and complain thereafter that my vet cost you $20 more than your vet! Not very ‘high-class’ of you, was it, Mary?

Ah, and now, you are finally back in the neighbourhood, after a protracted holiday. The grand finale is still playing out, is it not? You declare to a mutual friend yet again how sorry you are for all your transgressions, and how very very much you “love” me still. But you did not even bother to make the effort to return my house keys, and I had to ask for it through the mutual friend. You hand the mutual friend a dog coat for Lucy, another one of your little gestures – the Chinese term for this is most apt: 小動作. Oh and all the things I gave to you which you declared you will return to me? I never ask for my gifts back. Even when I realise they were given to most unworthy persons. You were the one who said you will return everything, declaring that you had plenty of money and did not need my old things – a remark that showed that you completely missed the point I was trying to make, because sadly you have no idea what encapsulated meaning is all about. Now, why am I not at all surprised that you have no intention of following through? Of course not – by now, I know that those things matter to you because they are very expensive items. More meaningless words, that is all.

To me, your actions have spoken much louder than your effusive proclamations of love. Declaring to mutual friends behind my back that you are sorry and you love me, but not making an ounce of effort to simply return my house keys – I am just across the road to you – let alone apologise honestly, is clearly not my idea of “love” and definitely not honourable.

Of course, love means different things to different people. I am aware of that. I am also prepared to accept that others’ concepts of love may be more similar to yours than to mine. That is fine. It takes all kinds to make the world.

But you are not my kind. Nor are you the kind of friend I want around me. Too much drama, too little respect and no reliability. I have enough friends. Concrete, truthful, honest friends who are willing and able to engage in solid mutual discussions on personal boundaries and offer practical necessary support. That, to me is love enough. I do not need fluff in my life. If you love, you don’t need to spout copious words about it, just show me.

So long and thank you for the very profound lesson I have learned, but you know, I actually paid well for this tuition. Yes, I am very happy to comply with your own dictate: i.e. never to have anything to do with you.

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