Trying to Make it On My Own

Toronto

Photo by Kat Northern Lights Man via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to be old enough to live on my own. My dad had left just before I turned 14 and a couple years later my mom decided we needed a new start, so we moved to a small town of her choice a four-hour drive away. Unfortunately, I hated that town. This is going to sound really flaky, but I just got a bad, oppressive vibe there. Plus, it was really hard for me to make friends there, and it seemed like all the people my own age who were willing to have anything to do with me when I first moved there were heavy drug users. I drank alcohol, but illegal drugs were not my thing and being around them made me really uncomfortable. Meanwhile, I didn’t have a great relationship with my mom. She yelled a lot and was very critical. It’s like she took pleasure in pointing out things I was doing wrong and ways in which I was at fault for various things.

For example, sometimes my dad would phone and if I was friendly to him, my mom would scream at me, “How can you be so nice to him after the way he’s treated me? I’m the one who’s always been there for you! Where is your loyalty?” So then one time I refused to talk to him, thinking I was showing loyalty to my mom like she wanted. But then she yelled, “How dare you treat your father like that! No matter what he’s done, he’s still your father, and you have no right to disrespect him that way! If you keep doing this he’ll never come back to us!” This is only one of many examples. It was an ongoing pattern in our relationship when I was a teenager. I couldn’t do anything right in her eyes and I got yelled at for every little thing. It was unbearable. I don’t even have words to describe the pain and stress her yelling and criticism caused. Needless to say, home did not feel like an emotionally safe place for me.

I had dropped out of school when I was 14, but I was enrolled in a part-time education program by this point, and through that I got involved in a government-funded employment program for at-risk youth. They got me a summer job in an office, and when summer was over, I was kept on as a part-time employee. I was extremely good at not spending any money back then, so nearly every dime I earned went into my savings account. At 18, having saved up a small nest egg, and with my hours now being drastically cut at work anyway, I moved back to the hometown I desperately missed. Alone.

It never occurred to me that I might not be able to handle it. I had this boundless optimism (which is now long gone), and even though I had already failed at many things, it still never occurred to me that I might suck at life. I just thought anything would be better than living with my mean mom in that town I hated. And I was perfectly willing to work for what I needed. I assumed I was able to do that.

I initially rented a basement suite owned by a family friend. I assumed I would find a job right away, but it turned out to be harder than I thought. Part of the problem was the suite’s inconvenient location and the transportation issues resulting from that. I loved living alone, but seeing how quickly my little nest egg was diminishing just due to basic living expenses, I took a friend (the frenemy I wrote about here) up on her offer to share an apartment with her and her boyfriend. It seemed like a wise decision, as rent would be far cheaper and it was close to all amenities, making my job search much easier (there was no internet in those days; you had to pound the pavement, as they say). It actually went well at first, but then they broke up and my friend moved out.

Now here’s where I made one of my clueless social blunders. It didn’t occur to me that because my friend had moved out, I had to move out too. I liked the apartment and the location, and I got along well (platonically) with her ex-boyfriend. He was a really nice guy. It wasn’t like he had treated her badly; she had just gotten bored with him and wanted to move on, so I didn’t see how it could be a loyalty issue like when I was nice to my dad in spite of him treating my mom badly. But my friend got very angry at me for continuing to live there, and I was utterly clueless as to why. Now in retrospect I can understand that it was highly inappropriate for me to stay there, but I couldn’t see that back then. I was just baffled. I saw that apartment as my home. Why should I have to leave my home because of a decision someone else made? It was bad enough when my parents broke up and I had to go wherever my mom went, but I was an adult and could do what I wanted now, or so I thought. But it understandably led to a huge strain in our friendship.

And then a few months later my friend’s ex-boyfriend moved out too. He couldn’t cook and I certainly wasn’t doing that for him, so he found a room-and-board situation that included meals. And I couldn’t afford to pay the rent on my own, so after a disastrous situation resulting from placing an ad in the paper for a new roommate (which deserves its own post), I ended up having to move anyway.

The next couple years were spent moving from place to place and having roommate after roommate. In total I lived in six different apartments/suites with 9 different roommates. My living situation was a constant source of stress and worry. Some of my roommates were very unpleasant. One of them told me she thought I had a mental illness because I spent so much time in my room, but I was only doing that because being around her was a constant sensory assault.

I wished I could live alone again, but I just couldn’t afford it, even once I had found employment.

I was only able to find minimum-wage jobs (not surprising, given my lack of education). The first one was at McDonalds, where I started working a few weeks after moving in with my friend and her boyfriend, but I only lasted six weeks. The noise and the fast pace were more than I could handle and I ended up having a crying meltdown and getting labelled “emotionally unstable” by my boss, so I quit in a state of overload and humiliation. About a month later I landed a job in a mall bookstore and worked there for about 15 months.

I performed fairly well at the bookstore, despite the stress of dealing with customers, but I had a difficult boss. I got to be good friends with one of my co-workers (whom I’m still friends with to this day), and our boss became very paranoid about the friendship. She accused us of plotting against her (which was a completely false accusation; I wouldn’t know how to plot against someone even if I wanted to, and I have certainly never wanted to) and forbade us to speak to each other. One time, she saw us smiling at each other across the store and demanded to know what we were up to. We were “up to” nothing. We were friends, and we smiled when we saw each other; it was as simple as that.

I have always tended to get sick a lot (mostly bad colds/coughs and nausea/vomiting) when I’m in the workforce, so my choices are to either come in to work sick and get criticized for that, or call in sick a lot, and get criticized for that. During that time, I tended to call in, but then my boss accused me of calling in sick because of hangovers! She even wrote it in my employee record! Again, another completely false accusation. I have never called in sick because of a hangover in my whole life. I did drink socially, but I’ve never been falling-down drunk in my life and I have rarely had anything resembling a hangover. But I guess in her mind, there could be no other explanation for such frequent illnesses. It is odd, I admit, but I have always been this way and nothing I have tried has helped.

The work environment became increasingly tense, and soon the boss had become paranoid about the entire staff. Apparently another staff member overheard her telling someone that she intended to find reasons to fire the entire staff so she could start fresh with a new “uncorrupted” staff. This was because she thought one of the staff members (fortunately not me) was a troublemaker and was poisoning everyone else against her. It was insane; there was nothing like that going on. But she did start firing people one by one and I knew it would happen to me eventually. I dreaded going in there every day, not knowing if that day might be the day. One day I couldn’t take all the stress anymore and I quit. I knew it was unwise, as I had nothing else lined up, but I had reached a breaking point and I knew I would soon be fired anyway. Knowing that potential employers always ask why you left your last job, I knew it would be better to say that I left of my own volition than that I was fired.

In the following weeks, my former boss did indeed fire every last member of staff. In one case, she rummaged through a staff-member’s bag and found a roll of toilet paper, which she then accused her of stealing from the staff bathroom. My close friend was let go with the reason, “The length of time you have now worked here has made you overqualified for the position for which you were originally hired.”

For about three months I desperately tried to find another job, to no avail. Then some awful things happened with my roommate. I had come full circle; this was actually the same person who was my first roommate, the friend who had broken up with her boyfriend and moved out; we had since made up and moved in together again. She said she didn’t want to live alone because she had an ex-boyfriend (not the same one we had lived with) who had been violent with her and was continuing to threaten her, and she thought living with a roommate would offer some level of protection. It didn’t. She ended up getting assaulted by him and I was called to court as a witness (it turns out he had actually been on a bit of a rampage that night, so assaulting her wasn’t the only charge). But having reconciled with him before the court date, she lied in court to protect him and got angry with me for telling the truth. She moved out of our place and in with him (and eventually married him). We had been friends our whole lives but have not spoken to each other since that day. Her choice, not mine. I did not reject friends back then, no matter what, even when I probably should have.

Meanwhile, the guy I was seeing at the time was fast losing interest in me, dashing my hopes for something serious to develop there. A mutual friend he’d confided in told me he had developed feelings for someone else, so I asked him about it. I wasn’t angry (I never got angry about anything back then; it was almost like a weird deficit in my emotional repertoire), but I did want to know. He admitted it was true, but he got angry at the person who told me, which made that person angry at me. I apologized, but she said, “I don’t have time for this juvenile bullshit,” and never spoke to me again.

Emotionally, I hit rock bottom. I had tried and tried to make it on my own. I had been running on adrenaline for two years. I was exhausted, and I was getting physically sicker by the day (probably partly because I couldn’t afford to eat healthy food, or much of anything, really). I’d lost a couple friends, lost my boyfriend, had no job, my money had run out, I couldn’t afford rent on my own, and my mom had been calling me on the phone daily, begging me to move back in with her. I remember just sitting there thinking, okay, what are my options? Everything I had tried had failed, so I narrowed it down to two: I could either kill myself, or I could move back in with my mom. Killing myself would take a certain amount of courage and impetus that I just didn’t have. So I chose the latter. And it felt like a death of sorts anyway.

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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.