My Social Life (or Lack Thereof) in this City

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Photo by John Perivolaris via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I have absolutely zero social life in this city right now. I am not really lamenting this. It eliminates a lot of stress from my life, to be honest.

My husband and I first moved to this city in 2013. After a time of unemployment for both of us and getting to a point of utter desperation, we both managed to get something lined up here, and things seemed to fall into place for us to come here in other ways, even though it was never somewhere we had previously aspired to live and we didn’t know anyone here. Feeling like we had no other option at the time, this is where we ended up.

My job here ended up not going well (surprise surprise). On several occasions I had to e-mail the woman who had previously held my position (she had been fired abruptly and had not had the opportunity to tie up loose ends, leaving a lot for me to have to figure out) and when, after six months, she found out I too had been fired (in a nutshell, for back-answering my boss during my six-month performance review), she, probably feeling an affinity with me since we’d both been fired by the same man from the same position, invited me to go out for coffee with her and another woman I knew from work.

The coffee outing (I don’t actually drink coffee, but that’s what it’s called regardless, isn’t it? Going out for coffee?) turned out to be a surprisingly validating social experience for me. It’s not often I can say that. Both of these women are writers, one in her spare time outside of work and the other having moved on to a staff position at a magazine after getting fired from her office job, so we talked about writing and various ideas we had. Sometimes when I talk about these things, people’s eyes glaze over, but these women were interested and engaged. And I was interested and engaged in their ideas too. How rare! And when they asked how my job search was coming along, I told them about an awkward interview I’d had and then I confessed that I actually wanted to be at home. That was my real heart’s desire: To stay home and read books and maybe write or take online courses or pursue other personal projects. But I confessed I was worried about money.

They completely validated my desire to stay home! Most people do not. Most people treat me like it’s disgraceful to want to stay home. Being Christians, these women even told me that if I wanted to stay at home, I should do that and let God worry about the finances. No one had ever told me that before. I suppose it’s always nice when people tell us what we want to hear, isn’t it? For what it’s worth, they turned out to be right. While money is tight, it is no tighter now than when I was working, because I wasn’t earning very much and I tend to spend a lot more when I’m working, on transportation, office clothes, convenience foods because I end up too exhausted to cook, useless impulse purchases because I get too exhausted and overstimulated to practice my usual restraint, and medications, because the exhaustion and stress of being in the workforce, as well my poorer diet at those times, causes all my health issues to flare up. But I digress.

The social engagement didn’t go off completely without a hitch though. At one point they started talking and laughing about something that happened on a TV show I hadn’t seen. Understanding that it was a funny anecdote, I laughed along, only for one of them to turn to me and ask, “Have you seen it?” I then had to confess that I hadn’t. Busted! What a tool, huh? I was mortified, and still think about it sometimes, even though it was relatively minor.

Anyway, they invited me out for coffee with them again, but that time I was ill with nausea and… ahem… bathroom issues (not out of the ordinary for me, but some days are worse than others) so I declined. I legitimately was ill, but perhaps they thought I was making an excuse, and after that it was like the ball was in my court, and even though I had enjoyed being with them, I just never got in touch again.

The thing really holding me back was the fact that I don’t have a car. When they invited me out, it was their idea and one of them offered to come pick me up. But I didn’t know how to initiate an outing and then say, oh, but you’ll have to pick me up, okay? It just seemed to create this imbalance, and I didn’t want to come across like a user or a taker or whatever you call it. (I was accused of that once before, over twenty years ago, and I never want to be again, so it’s something I am very conscious of.) And it’s not like I could afford to treat them to make up for it.

I just didn’t know how to initiate under these circumstances, so I didn’t.

Then there was this guy I met on Twitter. He’s a little younger than us and is a local pastor of a small church, and we had great conversations online. He invited my husband and I out for coffee a couple of times, and then it progressed to having dinner at his home with his family. We got along fairly well, but then he pushed for us to attend his church and we declined, explaining that we don’t have a car and bus service is so drastically reduced on Sundays that we can’t feasibly get there and back. He said, “I’m sure I can arrange for someone to give you a ride every week.” But we explained that we weren’t comfortable with that, partly because there might be some weeks we wouldn’t want to go (especially with my health issues), and we would feel awkward cancelling and making excuses in those cases. And we explained this is not a temporary situation. Unless our situation dramatically changes we do not envision getting a car, so we would be an ongoing drain on whoever volunteered. (At our previous church, someone had even generously offered to lend us a car until we bought one, but we didn’t intend to buy one, so we thought we would have come across as taking advantage of them. Not to mention the fact that we would still have had to pay for insurance, gas, maintenance, repairs, and parking, which is not something we can commit to in our current situation.)

So anyway, we never heard from him again, and it became apparent that he didn’t really want to be friends with us, he was just trying to recruit us to his church. It is always so disappointing when you think someone likes you, but it turns out they have an ulterior motive.

So all that was in 2014, and I have not had any real social life in this city since. Both sets of parents have come to visit us here, and one of my long-time friends is coming here from another city to visit us next month, which I’m really looking forward to, but generally my life is void of in-person social contact, other than clerks in stores and whatnot, but that doesn’t really count.

For the most part, I don’t mind. When it does bother me, it’s more the idea of it that bothers me than the actual day-to-day experience of it. Like, “Yikes, we don’t have any friends; we’re all alone here. What if something happened? There’s no one we could call.” But I also kind of love the fact that I don’t have anyone trying to get me to go places when I don’t want to and making demands on my time, which I never feel like I have enough of, even though I’m not working now. I love that I never find myself in awkward social situations, where I’ve made a fool out of myself and ruminate on it endlessly afterward. I love that I don’t find myself in positions where I have to explain myself and my various quirks and the health issues that affect my life. Life is so peaceful now, and I need that.

This is one of those things that makes the person who shall remain nameless think there’s something seriously wrong with me. Who doesn’t even want friends? Once when this person was visiting, I got a phone call from one of my long-time friends in another city, and afterward the person who shall remain nameless said, “Oh, I’m so relieved you got a phone call from a friend. I do worry about you not having friends!” I just stared at the person, kind of shocked, not understanding why anyone would be thinking such things about me. If I’m not unhappy, what’s the problem?

My husband also hasn’t made any real friends here. There are people he’s friendly with at work, but no one he sees outside of work. Somehow that’s okay though. The pressure always seems to be on me, not on him, as if it’s the woman’s responsibility to make a social life for both members of a couple or something. I don’t understand that. But I don’t understand a lot of things about how people think.

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Reading People and Responding Correctly

waiting for trainPhoto by Hans G Bäckman via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I’ve read that people with Asperger’s have trouble reading people. This is one of the things that used to make me question if I really do have Asperger’s, because I don’t have any trouble reading people unless I’m already experiencing sensory overload. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I think I’m actually pretty good at it. However, I think a casual observer might assess me as not being able to read people at all, because I don’t necessarily show outward signs of that ability.

Even though I can read people, I usually have no idea what to do about it or what the correct response is. Even if I do know the correct response, I can’t always make it happen. So in a nutshell, it’s knowing how to respond, and being able to perform or manifest that response, that is my number one social problem.

I will give you an example. As I have mentioned in the past, I live in an apartment building that has frequent fire alarms. One time when my husband, cat, and I were out on the front lawn of our building, waiting for the all-clear from firefighters, we noticed another couple with an agitated-looking cat sitting across the lawn from us. I had a package of cat treats in my bag, and my husband suggested I offer some to the couple for their cat. I began walking across the lawn toward them. As I approached, the young woman looked at me with this look on her face like, “Oh no, who is this weirdo approaching and what does she want? Please make her go away.” Her expression was as clear to me as if she had said the words. She was suspicious and wary and not friendly or welcoming in the least. I could see that. But I didn’t know what to do. Maybe I should have just left her alone, but it’s like my course was already set. I was obviously walking toward them and I thought it would have looked even weirder if I’d abruptly about-faced. If I kept going, at least I could explain my intention. If I turned around, they would be left wondering what I was up to, and might imagine negative motives. I get misunderstood and suspected of negative motives a lot. So I kept going, but felt more and more humiliated with each step.

So you see, a casual observer might have concluded that I couldn’t read that I was unwelcome. Why else would I have continued my approach?

(The outcome was anticlimactic. I offered them some treats for their cat, the woman visibly relaxed but said they already had some, and I turned around and walked away.)

Another example is when my mother-in-law called to say that her brother had died. I felt incredibly saddened by the news and felt for her because she was grieving, but when I said, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I could hear that my voice came out in a monotone. I don’t always speak in a monotone, but for some reason the more pressure I feel to convey emotion or warmth, the less I actually do. I am incredibly embarrassed by this. I know my mother-in-law thinks I’m cold, but I’m not cold on the inside, I just can’t convey it on the outside. The more it’s socially required, the worse I perform. In this case, I understood and empathized with her grief, and I even knew the correct response, but I couldn’t make it happen in the correct way. I failed, and there are no re-dos on something like that.

 

A Faulty Chameleon

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Photo by NH53 via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

The book Aspergirls mentions the tendency for females with Asperger’s to lack a strong sense of identity and to be chameleon-like. That was certainly true of me when I younger. For most of my life, people had been telling me I was weird, and I didn’t know why. Unlike me, they always seemed to intuitively know how to act with each other, so I was always observing and quietly trying to learn from them. But trying to implement what I learned required putting on an act. I had learned that being myself was wrong, so to be right, I thought I had to be someone else.

The last time I remember doing this was when I was in my twenties, and it backfired big-time.

I had been railroaded into joining a church College and Career group, even though I was in the latter half of my twenties and everybody else there except the leader was between 18 and 20. I was like a fish out of water, and I hated it there, but I tried really, really hard to fit in because I had eventually (foolishly, I believe in retrospect) come to the conclusion that I was meant to be there for various reasons.

I got to know a young, dating couple quite well during my time there, Melissa and Phil. She was 18, he was 20. Melissa and I were very different in personality and did not become instant friends, but Phil liked me (as a friend) and he and I would often have long, heart-to-heart talks about deep spiritual things.

One day Melissa came to me and asked me to mentor her (which is a fairly common scenario in evangelical church culture). She said that Phil had told her she should try to be more like me. He wanted to marry her but felt she was not mature enough yet, but he really admired my (supposed) maturity and spiritual wisdom and thought if I could mentor her, she could become mature enough for marriage.

I did not feel equipped to mentor anyone, but I did not actually say no because I didn’t know how to do that back then, at least not in a social situation like that. And I suppose there was a small narcissistic part of me that was flattered. So Melissa and I started spending time together. I don’t think any real mentoring actually occurred though. At least not from me to her. I had no clue how to mentor someone and wasn’t convinced it was a good idea at all.

The thing is, I had observed that almost everybody absolutely adored Melissa. Nobody adored me. And Melissa was loved by Phil. Really, really loved. It was beautiful and painful to witness his love for her. I didn’t have romantic feelings for Phil, so I wasn’t jealous in that way, but I did want to be loved by somebody, and I never, ever had been.

I started modelling myself after Melissa, even though she was much younger than me. She was loved and I was not, so it made sense to me that I should become more like her rather than the other way around. That Phil would want the woman he loved to become more like a woman he didn’t love seemed utterly illogical and preposterous to me.

Melissa was very outgoing and outspoken, so I tried to be more outgoing and outspoken. She was very free with her opinions, both positive and negative, so I tried to do the same. She didn’t take things too seriously, so I tried to act less serious. She would playfully tease people, and even though I had never understood teasing and really don’t like it, I tried to learn by watching her how to do it.

The problem is, whenever I’ve tried to be anyone but myself, I’ve gotten it wrong. I’d think I was doing it the same way they were doing it, but I could tell from how people responded to me that I was missing the mark.

During this time, I tried playfully teasing the man I was interested in. I think he and I would have been very compatible if I had been being myself, but instead I was trying to be Melissa. And something I blurted out when trying to be Melissa completely missed the mark, and I believe he held it against me for the rest of the time I knew him. My attempts to backtrack and explain only made things worse, because I was making light of it the way someone like Melissa would have.

I don’t blame him for the way he reacted. I too would be upset if someone spoke to me like that, and yet when Melissa did it, she did it in such a charming way that people responded positively to her. I lacked her charm, I guess, and it was something I couldn’t fake.

This happened circa 1999, and to this day, at least once a week or so something reminds me of that thing I said, and I feel an unbearable sense of shame wash over me. I want to erase it from existence somehow, but I can’t, and that kills me.

That was not the first time I had tried to be someone else, but it was the last. I had finally learned my lesson. Being myself didn’t cut it socially, but trying to be someone else was far, far worse. At least when I’m being myself I appeal to the rare like-minded people I come across, but when I’m being someone else, I drive away the few people who might have otherwise sensed a kinship with me.

 

 

Talking to People

Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I’ve been told that I have good communication skills, but I don’t think I do. People only know what they hear me say. I know the difference between what I want to say and what actually comes out of my mouth. Often the two are not close enough for me to feel content that I’ve gotten my message across.

Yes, I am quite talkative for an introvert and a likely Aspie. And I did have an adult-sized vocabulary as a young child. But I know from the way people respond to me that just having the ability to converse isn’t enough. I am misunderstood a lot. Not only my words but my intentions. People often seem to assume I have wrong motives for things when I don’t. I have also been falsely accused of things many times in my life, first by my mom and sometimes by my teachers, and later by my bosses. Even worse, when I know someone thinks I’m guilty, I feel and act guilty, even though I’m not.

Often I lie awake at night, replaying conversations I’ve had with people, thinking of how wrongly I worded things and ways in which I could have worded them better. I have been known to send people e-mails at 3am saying, “You know that conversation we had earlier? There’s something I want to clarify…” This is one of those things that makes other people think I’m weird and/or obsessive. But it is important to me to ensure I haven’t misrepresented myself or given anyone misinformation, because I have inadvertently done that too many times in the past and it has blown up in my face.

I even think of things I said 10 or 15 or more years ago and my face gets hot with embarrassment and shame. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t try to talk to people at all, because I just say things that are stupid or wrong or that reveal myself to not think like a “normal” person. Sometimes it really doesn’t feel worth it.

“I was so happy, I was literally floating on air!”

Photo by J. Michael Raby, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by J. Michael Raby, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

You were literally floating on air? No, I don’t think you were.

As a child, I took everything people said literally. I have very clear memories of doing this.

1. When I mentioned something a boy had said to me, my dad asked, “Is he a boy you go to school with?” I thought carefully about the question and then replied, “No, I don’t go to school with him, I go to school with Jason,” referring to another boy whose mom gave me a ride every morning. While the boy I was initially referring to was in my class, I was thinking about the words go to, so I thought my dad meant who I literally travelled there with. The boy I had been mentioning got to school another way, therefore I did not see him as someone I went to school with.

2. When having a class picture taken, the teacher said, “Put your hands in your lap.” I looked down at my lap, not sure what exactly she meant. I tried to reason it out inside my head: Okay, when I sit on mom or dad’s lap, that’s on their lap. If that’s on, what’s in? I concluded that if the top of the thighs was on, there was only one place that could be considered in. So I pressed my hands together and stuffed them down in between my thighs. When I saw the resulting photo, I realized I’d gotten it wrong. Every other child sitting down in the photo had their hands neatly folded on top of their lap. In this context, “in your lap” meant the same thing as “on your lap” and I was apparently the only child who never would have guessed that.

3. For some unknown reason, there was a pile of boards stacked up beside the school building (that would never be allowed to happen these days, but nobody cared about safety back then). A friend of mine pointed at them and said, “On Friday, let’s use those boards to build a pedal car and pedal it to Disneyland.” I agreed to it and went to school that Friday actually thinking I was leaving for Disneyland that day. I didn’t know how to build a pedal car, but I assumed she did, since she proposed the idea. When she never mentioned it again, I was bewildered, disappointed, and a little relieved all at the same time. (We are friends to this day and still laugh about this.)

4. A certain celebrity at the time had the same name as me, and every time she would come on TV, my mom (who has always had the tendency to see significance in utterly insignificant things) would gleefully make a big deal about the woman’s name and say, “You’re just like her!” I remember examining this woman for similarities other than our shared name, and not being able to find any, announced that I wanted to be called something different.

5. I was a little older when this happened, but I had a friend who was from Ireland and often talked about her Irish heritage and Irish pride. One day when I was in a bookstore I saw a book about Irish myths and legends and I thought of her, so I bought it for her as a gift. (For what it’s worth, I thought the book was pretty cool and I would have liked it myself at the time, despite having no Irish heritage whatsoever.) When I presented it to her, she said, “Oh right, because I’m Irish, I’ll like anything to do with Ireland!” At the time I felt pleased that she liked the gift. It was only years later that I remembered the incident (I have an extremely good memory, to my detriment at times) and realized she was being sarcastic and the gift was actually a social blunder.

As I aged I learned to understand figures of speech and other nuances of language, as well as things like flights of fancy (2000 kilometres to Disneyland by self-propulsion, anyone?), mostly due to my love of literature, reading, writing, and English class. But there are times to this day when someone uses deadpan humour and I think they’re serious, even though I can use deadpan humour myself.

I think some people might hear (or read) me using figures of speech, metaphors, similes, slang, sarcasm, etc. and think that I must not have Asperger’s. But if you would have known me as a child and young adult, you might get that I probably do.

Social Skills, Then and Now

Photo by Jake Stimpson via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Jake Stimpson via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

When I was a child, no one had any idea that I was (possibly) autistic. I don’t think people knew a lot about Autism/Asperger’s back then. My parents and teachers considered me socially awkward and emotionally immature, but it was assumed it was because I was an only child. They thought if I were around other children more, I would gain the social skills I was lacking.

So, I was forced to join Brownies, gymnastics (wow, was that ever a bad fit for me!), and various church groups. I hated all of it. To this day I hate group dynamics and group activities. I usually like being with people one-on-one but I loathe being with people in groups.

After there was talk of having me skip grades and it was determined that I lacked the social maturity to be with older kids, my mom considered home schooling me so that I could advance academically at my own pace without being held back by my peers. She ended up deciding not to because she thought if I stopped being around other kids at school, I would never learn those all-important skills.

As it turned out, I never got better at social skills by going to school or participating in extracurricular activities. It was by taking the initiative to read self-help books, and then once the internet came along, by reading posts in discussion forums which helped me learn how other people think. I learned more that way than you would expect. For example, someone would post something like, “Help, there’s this creepy girl at school who wants to be friends with me!” And from the description of what the girl was doing that was so off-putting, I learned what not to do. It was very enlightening, and if it weren’t for the internet, I probably never would have been able to “eavesdrop” on conversations like that and mine them for clues about how to correctly interact with people.

I know there will be people reading this thinking, “You can’t learn social skills by reading!” But I really did. Reading is the way I learn, and it works well for me because I can do it in a non-overstimulating environment. If I’m overstimulated, which I always am when there’s a lot of people around, I absorb nothing.

TV also helped.* When I was a kid, there were a few years where my parents had determined that TV was evil and was poisoning young minds, so we didn’t have one (and then later when we did, we lived in a rural area where there was no cable and we could only get two channels). I feel that really set me back. Not only had I lost one of the only areas of commonality I had with other kids (leading me to ask questions like, “Who are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?!”), but I lost that window to the world and that opportunity to observe people interacting from a safe, non-overstimulating place. Not that TV always depicts the world or people’s interactions accurately, of course, but without it, and before the internet existed, a kid like me was almost completely cut off from the collective consciousness. If you’re already weird, it’s a great way to get even weirder, because you have nothing to compare yourself to. I couldn’t compare myself to the kids at school or in groups, because I’m unable to be observant when I’m overstimulated.

I’m an avid TV viewer now, and combined with the internet, it keeps me in touch not only with pop culture, but also with societal norms and values.

I think I am far more socially skilled as an adult than I was as a kid, and I think most people who know me would agree. (Unfortunately — and this may seem like a contradiction — I am also more socially anxious now. In other words, I perform better outwardly, but I feel worse on the inside. Perhaps that could be a topic for a future post.) I think I appear normal to most people. It’s not until they start asking me questions about my lifestyle and interests that they find out I’m weird. I’m not entirely sure if appearing normal is a great thing though. It just causes people to have expectations of me that I can’t live up to.

I think I’m one of those people who you either love or you hate. The small number of true friends I’ve accumulated over the years think I’m the nicest person they’ve ever met. I’m a good listener, I’m accepting, loyal, and I never expect people to be anything other than what they are. I’m horrified by the thought of hurting people’s feelings and even though I sometimes blurt out the wrong thing, especially if I’m overstimulated, I try very hard not to. Even then, my friends often tell me they value my honesty.

The people who don’t like me, loathe me. They think I’m an unfriendly, lazy, oversensitive, overemotional, stubborn oddball and who knows what else. I can only go by the things people actually say to me (I’ve been the recipient of an insane amount of criticism over the years).

I actually have less interest in sociability now than when I was a kid. Back then, I may have hated groups, but I did like people and want friends. Now, other than my desire to spend time with my long-time friends, which I can’t do because they live too far away, I almost don’t care anymore. I find it too exhausting to meet new people. Starting over from scratch with someone and having to answer all their questions and participate in all their social stuff just doesn’t feel worth it. If I found people I could really connect with like the friends I already have, I would love it. But the people I might have the ability to connect with are probably hiding somewhere like I am.

I find them on the internet sometimes. In Texas, in England, in Sweden. It seems I have to comb the world to find people I can relate to.

*Just to clarify, I’m not saying TV is always a positive thing for everybody. There might be people for whom TV shows become an unhealthy obsession and obscure reality, leading to absorption in a world of fantasy. But I’ve never been that way with it, and for me it’s been a positive thing.

Behind Frenemy Lines

Photo by Hartwig HKD, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Hartwig HKD, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I had a friend growing up whom I’d known since birth, as our mothers were close friends. She was a year older than me and she was always in my life until we became adults. I never had siblings (that I knew of at the time, that is), so she was the closest thing I had to a sister.

If we’d met in any other way, I don’t think we would have become friends, as we had very little in common. Unlike me, she was extremely outgoing and socially skilled, and I met many, many people through her. Every guy I dated in my teens, I either met through her or through someone else I’d previously met through her. I absolutely would have been a virgin until age 31 if it weren’t for her. I was incapable of finding anyone to date without her, at least until the internet came along.

For a while, she and I called ourselves best friends and we spent time together every day. When other kids were mean to me, she comforted me and talked to me as if she were on my side. I later found out, however, that she mocked me behind my back and even once conspired with my bullies to get me to a certain place so they could beat me up while she watched. At the time I didn’t know why she wasn’t doing anything to help. I assumed she was scared. The truth was, she was in on it. That was a tough truth to face. But even after I found out, I forgave her and we rekindled our friendship. The thing is, I didn’t even have the capacity to be angry or to hold a grudge. I liked everybody, I was willing to be friends with anybody, and I would have forgiven anybody for anything.

But back to that day I got beat up. I remember walking with her to the gathering she’d invited me to and getting a prickly feeling on the back of my neck. I blurted out, “I have a feeling something bad is going to happen.”

“Me too,” she replied.

Yes, I bet she did. She’d helped to plan and orchestrate the evil that was about to be done to me. And why? Because I was uncool. A geek. A loser. To maintain her own social status, she had to prove to the other kids that she was like them, not like me.

I should have turned around and gone home when I got that prickly feeling. Why did I always walk into trouble like that, even when I obviously knew better? I trusted my intuition enough to voice it but not enough to act on it.

If I truly am autistic, it sheds a new light on the whole incident.

Congratulations, “friend,” you threw a younger autistic kid who trusted you to the lions.

Congratulations, bullies, you beat the shit out of a younger, literally defenseless autistic kid.

Nice human-being-ing. Good job.

It’s been said that autistic people lack empathy. Do the neurotypical bullies who beat up autistic kids have empathy? Should autistic people be “fixed” to be more like them?

See, I might be autistic (or I might not be — does self-diagnosis count?), but I have never deliberately hurt anyone in my entire life. If everyone were like me, there would be no fighting, no crime, and no war.

Who needs to change?

Age (In)Appropriateness, Part 1

Photo by Daniel Hoherd, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Photo by Daniel Hoherd, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).

My actual age, versus the age I’m perceived to look or act, has always been an issue in my life. I’m almost hesitant to tell you my age because it will bring to mind certain stereotypes and they will likely not be accurate. I am not typical for my demographic. I am not typical for any demographic.

As I’ve already mentioned in my first post, I had an adult-sized vocabulary by the time I started kindergarten. It was very easy for me to converse with adults and I was often told how intelligent and even wise I was for my age. I remember people making comments like, “It’s like she’s an adult in a child’s body!” Unfortunately, it was not easy for me to relate to (most) other children. Their games seemed to be silly, pointless, and a bizarre combination of both overstimulating and dull. They always wanted to pretend things and I did not get that at all. I liked reading, painting pictures, doing crafts, and walking in the woods behind our home with my dog and cats (yes, my cats came for walks with me of their own volition). I did not enjoy make-believe on any level. My cousin had an imaginary friend. I did not.

I don’t mean to make it sound as if I were judging or disapproving of the other kids. The thing is, I considered them vastly superior to me and I would have been friends with absolutely any of them, even if I didn’t understand their games. Most of them seemed to mesh so well with one another and intuitively knew what to say and how to act. I envied them, not in a resentful way, but in a wistful way. They all seemed to be part of something that I wasn’t.

When I was 8, I was so academically advanced that there was talk of putting me ahead by at least two grades. There were meetings between my parents, teacher and principal where this was thoroughly discussed, but in the end, it was determined that although I had the academic ability to keep up with older kids, I did not have the required emotional or social maturity. This was explained to me without any sugar-coating. Because of my ability to converse like an adult, my mom had developed the habit of speaking to me as if I were one, even when perhaps she shouldn’t have.

Physically, I matured early. From age 7 to 12 I was one of the tallest girls in my class, usually in the back row of class pictures. (After that almost everyone surpassed me in height and at 5’2″ I am now considered short.) I grew breasts and started getting my period when I was 10. The same year, my family started going to church regularly. One woman there asked me what grade I was in and when I answered, she reacted with shock. “I thought you were 16!” she said. I felt baffled, as I really had no awareness of what I looked like or how I came across, but I also felt a bit flattered. When you’re 10, 16 seems pretty cool.

To my bewilderment, my early physical development upset my mom and my relationship with her changed drastically that year. She was convinced that I was fornicating. (Yes, that is the word she used.) She would read my diary to try to find evidence against me and she would scream at me to try to get me to confess. It was terrifying and confusing because she was completely off-base and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong to make her suspicious. “Fornication” would not be on the table for me until several years later. Meanwhile, my age and how I was perceived continued to cause problems for me.

One specific incident happened when I was 15, when a guy who was showing interest in me started inviting me to hang around with him and his large group of friends who ranged in age from my age to about 20. There was this one 20-year-old who utterly loathed me and didn’t try to hide it. One day when I found myself alone with her I asked, “Why don’t you like me?” She replied without hesitation, “Because you try to act older than you are.” I was confused and hurt. I answered with complete honesty, “I’m not trying to do anything!” I didn’t know why she was perceiving me that way. I just was what I was and I didn’t know how to be different or even what I was doing wrong. In retrospect, I can see why my precociousness could have been off-putting and even alarming, but at the time, I was clueless.

From age 16 to 26, I had a blessed reprieve from my age being an issue. It might be partly because I lived a rather reclusive life for a few years in my twenties and therefore didn’t give others the opportunity to tell me what they thought of me, or it might be because these were the only years of my life when my behavior and appearance coincided with my actual chronological age. Regardless of the reason, the next time I remember my age being an issue was at 26, but now people’s perception of me had swung the other way.

See part two to find out how.