Credit: AJ Duncan

I forgot that you existed…

By Hailie Pentleton

Editor-in-Chief Hailie Pentleton explores the unique impact that the past two years have had upon her ability to maintain friendship as a neurodivergent adult.

Like most of the scatterbrains I’ve encountered recently, my inbox is awash with unread messages. Well-wishes from friends, requests for favours, and moody recollections all abandoned to a sea of missed notifications until the eventual arrival of that half-baked “sorry, I’ve been really bad at replying” message. Only then, when guilt has made you her meal, do you actually realise just how bad you’ve actually been. Not just at replying, but in general. Typing up that cookie-cutter response about your lack of capacity (you know the tweet), there’s a desire to promise that you’ll do better next time, or to lament the real reasons for your absence. Then you scroll up, notice a similar paragraph scribed just two weeks before, and come to the realisation that, for now, this is your reality. And it makes you feel really, really guilty. 

The endemic of guilt that the past two years has inflicted upon us has been a difficult sea to sail, rocking us each when we least expect it. Whether it be forgetting to pick up a mask on your way out the front door, infecting a loved one with that inescapable virus, or being too drained to keep on top of your over-stretched inbox, I’ve found that there’s a permanent undertone of guilt in everything that I do, especially when it involves other people. I suppose, having spent almost two years being told that if you don’t wash your hands you’ll kill your gran, it makes sense that we may have become a little over-conscious of our actions and their implications. And although this amped-up focus on individual responsibility has been crucial to preventing the spread of infection where possible, I worry that I have instead come down with an insurmountable sense of guilt, especially in the realm of friendships. 

“I worry that I have instead come down with an insurmountable sense of guilt, especially in the realm of friendships.”

As an autistic person with ADHD, being state-mandated to translate most of my relationships into a digital kinda love (I hear you Daft Punk) sounded like the ideal situation. I’ve never been the best at maintaining friendships, always stumbling under the weight of sensory struggles, forever cancelling to stay at home until the storm-cloud of self-doubt has passed. As a child, I could never tell whether people were being welcoming or winding me up. Now, an (almost) fully-fledged adult, a lot of my energy is spent questioning and challenging the legitimacy of my relationships, erring on the side of caution just in case I’m being lulled into a false sense of support. It sounds cynical, but when your ways of expression and identity are so often the object of amusement, pity, and criticism, it’s hard to know who your real friends are. Coupled with communication difficulties, a literal sense of understanding, and an increased base level of anxiety, relationships are just outright exhausting. Rather naively, I thought that the removal of in-person pressures would free up some of this energy to learn how to be the most supportive and sincere friend that I could be. Now, as notifications continue to pile up like laundry, I realise that this wasn’t the fix-all I needed. And now, having let the guilt that accompanies swallow me up, I don’t know if there is such a thing. 

A common experience for neurodivergent people, especially those of us with ADHD, is an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality. It affects every aspect of my life, responsible for piles of out of date food, multiple copies of the same books, and the failure of (some of) my friendships. Often compared to the notion of object permanence, which relates to our understanding that things continue to exist when we can’t see them, the poor working memory that tends to characterise ADHD often means that, unless we are actively engaged with something, even the most important things can fall to the wayside. For me, this has meant that a number of my friendships and relationships with family members have suffered over the course of the last two years. There is an unspoken expectation that your active status equals your emotional availability, increased further by our over-dependence on social media to navigate social isolation. Having my notifications double in response to limited time with loved ones, the thought of tackling ten conversations in a day often exhausts me before I’d even had the chance to preview the messages. Unintentionally, I’ve found that unless it seems urgent, I tend to reply to the same handful of people. In turn, I miss out on fruitful conversations with equally interesting and deserving friends and family. And still, I continue to feel really, really guilty. 

“There is an unspoken expectation that your active status equals your emotional availability…”

Have you ever let your phone die despite sitting right next to the charger for hours on end? You know the charger is there, you know how to use the charger, you know you need to use the charger, but you just can’t will yourself to stick the stupid wire in the stupid port? It’s exhausting. For neurodivergent people who struggle with executive dysfunction, that unique sense of exhaustion can be a prominent factor in our relationships. I know that I’m confusing and disappointing and just outright annoying people that I really care about, and yet I just can’t seem to sort myself out. Some people are more understanding than others. Others grow tired of my inattentiveness, albeit unintentional. And although it is unintentional, I fear I’d be asking too much of people to continue to be on stand-by until my zest for conversation zips back into action. I can be as apologetic and transparent as I like, and I am, but people aren’t always going to vibe with someone who can’t always show up. 

Often this forgetfulness is characterised as self-centredness. And sometimes it is, and sometimes people will weaponise these struggles to excuse being unsupportive. But this is a love letter to my fellow neurodivergent friends who give all they can, who hold those people they love in their minds even if they can’t always do so with their words. To those of us who have struggled even more with feelings of isolation than we did before. There isn’t a fix-all or a magic marker to erase all of the accidental absences we’ve had over this period of time. But it isn’t your fault. One conversation at a time.


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