Being alone together

by | 13 Mar, 2021 | Autism and mental health, Creating a happy autistic life

Are you happiest alone, or do you need someone with you to feel happy and safe? Or is it actually a mixture of the two?

I know I definitely need both. I’m happiest when I’m what I like to call ‘alone together’ with someone I love and trust. But it’s taken me a long time to recognise that and be okay with it – to give myself permission to live in a way that makes me happy, without constantly imagining other people judging me and finding my life strange and somehow wanting. 

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent most of your life worrying about whether you were ‘normal’, and what other people would think about you if they could see what your life actually looked like when you closed your front door. Now I understand that it’s okay to be happy in my own way; that it doesn’t matter whether my happiness looks the same as someone else’s happiness. Other (NT!) people might find my life and relationship odd, but it works for me and my wife.

Needing to be alone

When I was still in my teens I dated someone whose parents seemed to live separate lives. It seemed very odd to me – the mother was always in the house, while her husband spent most of his time in an enormous shed or garage at the bottom of the garden, pottering about and working on various projects. I assumed they must not have a very happy marriage. Perhaps they stayed together for their kids, or for financial reasons?  As a middle aged autistic woman I now completely understand their dynamic and how that worked.

Having companionship, but also my own space inside that, is the perfect situation for me. The idea of just pottering all day on my own, knowing someone who loves me is around somewhere, or will come home later, feels safe and easy to me. And it’s pretty much how I live my life now.

I interviewed a guest on my podcast recently who said that her autistic daughter told her she wants to live with somebody when she grows up, but she also wants to have her own space. She said, “I’d like to know there’s somebody around the place, but I want a lock on my door, and I need them to leave me alone.”

When I have to be around another person all the time, my mental health suffers. 

It’s something I relate to completely. My wife and I don’t have locks on our doors, because we don’t need them: we understand and respect one another’s need for solitude, our need to be in our own heads and to explore our different interests.

When I have to be around another person all the time, my mental health suffers. 2020 brought that into sharp relief for me, when we were locked down for three months and my wife and I were confined to the house together 24/7. I joked that I must be the only person who hated lockdown because I was with other people too much – but the stress was real. I love my wife, but I didn’t cope well with never being alone in all that time. The first time she left the house as lockdown lifted, my whole being seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. I could feel the pressure lifting.

Living alone and the impact on mental health

Yet ironically I also don’t cope well with living alone. I discovered in my twenties that living on my own is extremely bad for my mental health. There were many factors that led to my first breakdown in 2006, but three years of living alone definitely contributed. I was lonely. I had no one with whom to share my small joys and heartbreaks, my victories and frustrations; no one to come home to at the end of the day. I spent my evenings watching TV (when I wasn’t working – I was a high school teacher back then, with the heavy workload that entails) and on the Internet. I enjoyed being able to do as I liked, keep my own schedule, and not be answerable to anyone, but it didn’t make me happy.

I discovered in my twenties that living on my own is extremely bad for my mental health

A combination of too much solitude at home, too much peopling at work, and masking all day, while doing a stressful job (that was made worse by my undiagnosed autism) took its toll and I ended up signed off from work, suffering through what I now believe was autistic burnout, but was at the time diagnosed as depression, stress and anxiety.

I lived in a succession of flat shares after that, all of which had their tensions and difficulties, but ultimately saved my mental health and stopped me turning too far inward on myself.

Living together, alone

Fast forward 15 years and I’m now happily married. My wife and I live together. I work from home, while she goes out to work five days a week (or sometimes six; she’s self employed like me and works very hard on her business). For me, it’s the best of both worlds. I need a lot of time to myself to function well, and love being alone all day to work and explore other projects. 

We have our own spaces in the house, where we can do our own thing. I took over our dining room when I first became self employed, and over the years it’s become my study. It’s a space where I feel at home and very much myself. I have my favourite pictures on the walls (all framed by my extremely talented wife), my books around me, my computer and my notebooks. 

For me, alone togetherness is about both having your own space, and respecting one another’s space – both physical and mental. It’s about small kindnesses and shared silences.  It’s also about doing things alone, together. One of my favourite companionable activities has always been to sit and read with another person. It’s the perfect separate togetherness. Both lost in your own worlds, but physically present in the same space.

For me, alone togetherness is about both having your own space, and respecting one another’s space – both physical and mental. It’s about small kindnesses and shared silences. 

My wife and I do talk to each other of course! We tend to have our best conversations when we’re walking together, or sometimes a random thought will prompt an interesting discussion, often when we’re doing something else like household chores. But we don’t need to be together constantly, or to entertain one another.

For years I had an imaginary critic in my head, telling me that the way we lived was odd. I feel so much freer since I’ve given myself permission to enjoy my life and be happy in a way that makes sense to me, that fulfils my need both for solitude and companionship, that makes me feel at once safe and free.

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