Many years ago, when I was young and had no real responsibilities, I had quite the social life. Dinners, parties, shopping, and hanging out filled the hours when I wasn't working, sleeping, or studying. Yes, I'm talking about college.

Then, I became a high school English teacher. My free time was consumed with grading essays and working a second job to make ends meet. I barely had energy to pop a bag of popcorn for dinner, let alone reach out to my friends. On occasion, I did hang out with fellow teachers for a night of dinner and drinks. Those nights were few and far between, but when we had them, I loved spending time with people who totally got what I was going through.

Somewhere along the way, I got the crazy idea to become a foster parent. On my own. While teaching. And not just for one or two children at a time, but up to four. My house was a wreck. I was a wreck. And there was no time for socializing. 

Then, I decided to adopt three children! On my own. And continue to teach. And grade papers every night. Oh, and did I mention, the kids all have special needs? 

Things were tough. My life spiraled out of control, and I entered a deep depression. I was definitely not looking to spend time with anyone. 

But things got better. I got better. With the help of loving, knowledgeable professionals, my kids have gotten better. I left teaching for a job that is better suited for my very unique life circumstances. 

But still, something has been missing: Socialization.

With the challenges I brought on myself: a demanding job, the responsibility of taking on fostering and adopting on my own, the stress of having special needs children, I pulled away from friends. Not intentionally! It just happened. I neglected to make time for myself and to nurture those friendships. 

It did not make the hard times easier. It made them so much more difficult. I felt so alone.

One of my aunts researched support groups in my area. Did I mention that she lives in another state? She took it upon herself to do what I did not do for myself. She found a support group for parents of special needs children that met once a month and had free childcare. I started going, and I loved it! I was among people who understood my struggles, and I got so much out of the meetings. 

For some reason though, I stopped going. I think I may have felt like things were so much better that I didn't really need to get up early on a Saturday morning to attend the meetings. 

Facebook has also helped me believe I didn't need to spend time with people in person. No, I don't get to see my friends in person, but we could connect there at least. I can celebrate their happy life events and try to comfort them in their sad times. It also has been instrumental in both giving and receiving support and advice from people who are or who have been where I am. I love Facebook! 

Recently, though, I realized that social media is just not enough.

I am a very open person. I share my life with really anyone who will listen. So, at the only real places I socialize with humans face-to-face, work and family functions, everyone knows my business (more than any of them would like, I'm sure!). I have very kind people in my life, and they listen to me whine with patience and are kind enough to give me advice or to let me vent.  I appreciate them. They enrich my life and have helped me through some very difficult times.

Still, I'm starting to realize that it's not enough.

I attended a conference recently about living with disabilities. There was not a whole lot of time to socialize, but I loved being in a place filled to the brim with people who can truly understand what it's like to be me. The information I received at the conference was fantastic, but the experience of soaking in the material while sitting with parents who totally relate to me was powerful. 

Remember when I said I love Facebook? Here's one example why: Randomly, on a message board for buying and selling, I recently connected with another autism mom. She invited me to join a moms of special needs children's group. They were having an upcoming meeting. So, I agreed to go. I was nervous to go to a place where I knew nobody, but I went! I sat and visited with this amazing group of beautiful, strong women for a couple of hours. We shared our stories, we laughed, tears were shed, and we supported one another. Time flew, and it was time to go home. 

The entire way home that night, I felt like I was floating on a cloud! I suddenly realized just how important it is spend time with people who can totally relate to us.

Tonight, at our church life group meeting, we discussed relational health and the importance of spending time with people who will listen to you, accept you, support you, and who you can do the same for.  The church life group is one such group for me. They support my spiritual growth, and, hopefully, I also can support theirs. We relate to one another because we're all Christians who want to continue strengthening our relationship with Christ.

On our way home from tonight's meeting, I realized how much I have gotten out of my recent experiences spending time with people who can not just sympathize with me, but who can truly empathize with what I face day-to-day.

Reach out and connect with people! No matter your life circumstances, you are enriched by spending time with people who can relate to and empathize with you. If you like to knit, find a knitting club. If you like to garden find a gardening club. If you're a foster or adoptive parent, reach out to others in your shoes. 
If you're a special needs parent, find ways to connect with other special needs parents. 

I know it's hard. I know you're tired, and you don't know how you will find the time or energy, but find a way! Well-meaning friends, co-workers, and family members cannot give you the same support as those who are living or who have lived what you are going through. 

This is a lesson that has, sadly, taken me over a decade to learn. I still love social media and its ability to bring people together across the miles. Technology can be a beautiful thing, but I'm learning that it cannot be the only way I connect with others. I hope that you, too, will find ways to reach out to those who share your hobbies, passions, or life circumstances. I just know you'll be glad you did!