Melissa and I had a fight yesterday. We have this fight once or twice a month. Someone who neither of us knows well will ask Melissa something about me just out of an odd curiosity about my life. Something stupid, like, What's Penelope doing for Thanksgiving?
It's stupid, yes, but I think it's even more stupid that Melissa answers. So I tell her don't talk to anyone about me. I don't want her to be a source of Penelope information. I just want her to be a friend.
You will notice this is very hypocritical of me. But I don't care. I make the rule anyway: No talking about me. Ever.
Then she thinks everything is an exception. Like, telling her co-worker what it's like sitting across from me while I make up dialogue that she is not saying.
So I say, “I'm not talking to you anymore. You're a terrible friend.”
She says, “I am not a terrible friend. I have really good intentions.”
“Okay. You're a retarded friend. You don't understand boundaries.”
“I'm trying. And you see everything black and white and it's not.”
“Do you think that when Jennifer Aniston's friend tells the National Enquirer where Jennifer’s eating then her friend just says, oh sorry, I'm trying.”
“Are you crazy? You are not Jennifer Aniston.”
“I'm making a point.”
“No. You're not. You're sounding crazy.”
“Well, so are you. We should just not be friends. I don't even need any friends.”
“Call me back when you are not angry.”
Then I call back in ten minutes. But the truth is, I don't really like having friends. I don't like that friends are as much trouble as a boyfriend but they don't go down on you.
Still, I don't want to end up being a crazy person. Did you see Grey Gardens? I worry a lot that I'll end up like them. Has anyone said that Big Edie and Little Edie have Asperger's? I am diagnosing them right now. I'm not even going to google it to see if I'm alone in this theory because I know I'm right.
Anyway, I worry that if I don't take steps to be normal in friendships then I'll end up like them.
Loneliness is a serious matter. It's a medical condition. New York Magazine ran an article about loneliness about two years ago. I'm going to quote liberally from it, so I'd better link to it now: Is Urban Loneliness a Myth? by Jennifer Senior (one of my favorite journalists). She writes: “Studies show that loneliness is associated with morning surges in cortisol, the stress hormone, and increased vascular resistance, which results in higher blood pressure. They also show the lonely drink more, exercise less, get divorced more often, and have more family estrangement and run-ins with the neighbors. And they're fatter.”
I read that, more than a year ago, and then I started paying attention to how people avoid loneliness.
1. Get a friend at work. Or leave.
Friendship is one of the key factors that make the difference between a bad job and a good job. This research comes from a huge poll from Gallup. Tom Rath, the Gallup pollster who puts data into bestselling books, wrote Vital Friends, which, in a nutshell is about how it's nearly impossible to hate your job if you have a friend at work.
I have found this to be true. You could have that nagging feeling that the work is not right for you—maybe you'd be better suited in another field—but you will not dread going to work if a friend is there for you.
2. Pick a location that does not feel lonely.
Loneliness isn't about objective matters, like whether we live alone. It's about subjective matters, like whether we feel alone, according to Senior. And loneliness, it turns out, is relative. If you live in a town full of single people, you feel less alone than if your town is full of married people.
If you are not married but your friends are, a city is better because it trades on weak ties, according to Stanford University professor Mark Granovetter, in his essay The Strength of Weak Ties.
Weak ties provide a lot of value in our lives. They are, for example, much better for helping us find jobs because they offer us diversity and breadth. The same goes for love. Think about it: if you're single, you already know all your friends' single friends. It's your acquaintance's single friends you don't know.
3. Learn rules for friendship, and then bend them to suit you.
One of the most interesting things about Aspergers, I think, is that the need for friendship is very low. It's there, for sure. People with Aspergers want a friend. But they pretty much want just one. So they spend a lot of time searching for that friend and then don't let the friend go. People with Asperger's are extremely loyal, but you couldn't call us clingy because our need for alone time is so high. (A common marriage for two people with Aspergers is two separate bedrooms so they can have maximum alone time. Knowing the person is next door is often enough.)
I am like this, for the most part. So I'm fascinated by how other people have their friendships. I have had to study the rules of making friends to make sure I have some. (Michelle Winner wrote a great book about these rules.)
For example, I used to have a schedule of when to call people, because friends call friends. But it tired me out. I ended up picking friends who don't use the phone.
Then I had a schedule of when to visit friends. Because friends hang out together. But instead, I found myself focusing on friends who were out of town. It was an easy solution.
I know I'm not the only person who is confused by the ideas of friendship. I had a friend who was a call girl, and she did only a minimum of seven days with a client. Her specialty was going on business trips with men who could not get their wife to come with him on the trip because she had to stay home with the kids. I asked my friend if it was just crazy, nonstop sex for a week, and how was that not exhausting. She said the week-long trips were the best type of clients because, “Mostly, the guys just wanted a friend.”