Several hundred miles away, a slightly different scenario was playing out. The setting was similar in that the location was a medical facility: this time a therapist’s consulting room. Tears were also involved, however those were minimal and the mood was more upbeat; hopeful even.
Two middle aged ladies sat face to face in comfortable arm chairs. One was smartly dressed in a baby blue cardigan, floral blouse and practical brown slacks. A necklace of opals glittered in the soft light of a lamp, a concession to NHS practicalities. On the other side of the room, middle aged lady version two could not have been more different. She sat with both stockinged feet pulled up underneath her on the chair, one sock pink, the other yellow, the yellow sock sporting an artfully embroidered black cat. The pink sock on the other hand looked suspiciously like a white sock that had been put in a wash with a red tea towel. The black cat had crossed eyes but at least they were a nice shade of green and matched the hoodie that lady version two was wearing. Not matched exactly mind you. That would be too eighties.
This was a frequent ensemble for lady version two – aka Nicola – and had been often worn to work on a Friday at her last job in a solicitors office. A solicitor’s fashion faux pas. Sometimes the hoodie was a different colour, though the same style, make, age and size, as Nicola always bought multiple items of the same thing if it suited. Invariably the socks were not the same ones, not least because the washing machine had an insatiable appetite for them and never returned them in matching pairs. If at all. Always trousers, always black completed the look, along with a pair of bright orange trainers. Worn and slightly grubby.
The therapy session was drawing to a close, and one frequently recurring issue had been once more been discussed, that of social isolation and the damage it continued to inflict. Nicola had lost her job some weeks previously, added to which she had no friends. Not one. She did sometimes chat to faceless entities online, but she had no friends with whom she could meet up with face to face. Neither did she have a romantic relationship of any shape or form, her last date being before her beloved cats arrived in her life, some seventeen years previously.
Nicola’s entire family had been dead since she turned twenty-one, with the death of her mother from cancer. Raised by both her mother and grandparents, Nicola had suffered a great deal of loss in her formative years, her grandfather dying when she was only five. He had been the only person who had loved her unconditionally, his loss from a heart attack on New Year’s Eve rendering her mute and distraught. With no protection from her grandfather, the following years were a blur of tears and traumatic events. Aged fourteen Nicola’s grandmother died, throwing together Nicola and her mother, whose previously vague relationship deepened and blossomed. Sadly there was no happy ending, as Nicola’s mother was shortly thereafter diagnosed with cancer. The years they had together were precious, but all too few.
It’s hard for people to truly comprehend, but Nicola had no human contact from day to day. She spoke to her therapist once a week, her GP once a month and that was the limit of her human interaction. She often shopped in the middle of the night in order to avoid people, paying at the self service tills so she did not have to exchange a few words with the cashier. Even Nicola’s love of the countryside had been curtailed, her fear of humans, of getting it wrong, of being ostracised stopping her from walking outside during the day. Being identified for what she was and not what she pretended to be; the anxiety was overwhelming, despite no concrete consequences she could think of. But then she knew from experience, fear of the unknown can be a most effective tool of punishment.
It had not been until her autism diagnosis in her early forties that Nicola had finally started to understand and indeed forgive herself for her self imposed isolation. In the psychiatrist who diagnosed her she had finally found someone that understood her point of view, that did not see a freak in human’s clothing. One little sentence pronounced by the psychiatrist had encapsulated the pain of decades: ‘It’s very tiring being someone else all of the time.’
As an undiagnosed autistic woman, for over forty years Nicola had been pretending to be someone else, someone human. She had no choice. Who she was, was unacceptable to society. By age ten she was haunting the local library, reading adult psychology books on human behaviour and body language, desperate to understand the world in which she lived and to at least fit in enough not to be constantly bullied. Eye contact was learnt and practised, as was mirroring and other techniques, but it made little difference. At home, at school, in the park, in Sunday School: it didn’t matter where she went, she was rejected as a freak.
By necessity, as she aged Nicola had created a wardrobe full of personalities to suit every occasion: a serious one for work, an energetic one for sports, a slightly vacant one for everyday use. Like a comfortable sweater – in reverse – she slipped that days personality on in the morning and discarded it at night, back to the wardrobe. Or floordrobe as was the most common storage area for washing. Housework was never a priority when it took every fibre of her being to survive day to day life.
Only when she closed the door at home and was mercifully alone could Nicola be Nicola. No-one really knows how others perceive them and although these personalities had reasonable success in that the overt bullying stopped – mostly – she was still never wholly accepted by people and the price paid was high. Being an actor every second of every hour of every day of every month of every year of every decade – well it was exhausting. Often the sweater, such as it was, slipped, leaving bare not a freckled shoulder, but a sensitive human soul, the quick exposed, ready to bleed once again.
By age forty Nicola’s sense of fun had disappeared. She forgot how to smile, her caution increased, and for as long as she could remember, she had no hope of any sort of future. The pressure and stress of being around consistently hostile people in the workplace, not to mention the constraints of neurotypical society, had left her unable to work. Occasionally she would find a temporary job which she would try her best in until once again she had an inevitable break down.
A scholarship winner, the first of her family to attend university, the frustration of not being able to support herself without severely compromising her health, further damaged her self esteem. Remaining isolated on the fringe of society in grinding poverty, with no family, no friends and no way of understanding how to make friends, Nicola know she could not live like this much longer, not least because the love of her life was dying. Both of them.
For many years Holly and Poppy had been Nicola’s world and had taken the place of people in her life. Sleek and beautiful Bengal cats, they were her daughters pure and simple. Unfortunately, as with most felines, Holly and Poppy did not like leaving the house and at sixteen years young they were too old to be expected to adapt their ways to embrace a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. As attitudes to those with autism changed, it was now time for Nicola to change too. Change or die. Holly and Poppy were themselves both dying of chronic kidney disease, having already endured radiotherapy for hyperthyroidism a few years previously, the cost of which had caused Nicola to drop out of her fourth year at veterinarian school and end a lifelong dream. Realistically it was only a matter of time before both cats perished. For over ten years Nicola had planned to end her life on the death of her second cat, but recently as life had improved with help from her therapist, she was considering giving it one more chance. The last chance.
Nicola had made a decision. She was not hiding in the shadows any more, nor was she pretending to continue being someone she was not. She was going back into society just as she was, hand flapping exuberance and all, and if people did not like or accept her then that was their problem. This time however, Nicola was not going to do it alone. She was taking the advice of her therapist and she was going to find a partner in crime; one that did not mind leaving the house. Nicola was going to train her very own assistance dog.