The Town I’m Moving to and the Most Difficult Person There

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Photo by Picturepest via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

The town that I’m about to move to isn’t my hometown. I love my hometown and would be thrilled beyond measure to move back to it. It’s a really nice place. But my parents no longer live there (my dad cheated on my mom with so many women there it would be awkward for my parents to live there now that he’s reformed), and my husband has never been able to find work there, or even within commuting distance of there, even though he has tried. While I did get bullied in my hometown, mostly in junior high, my bullies have since found me on Facebook and apologized to me. Not so for the people who hurt me in the town I’m moving to.

My hometown is a four-hour drive away from this town I’m moving to.

The town I’m moving to is a smaller town where my mom decided to move us to around the time I turned 16. One of her brothers and his wife live there, which is why she chose it. It’s the town I couldn’t wait to move away from when I was 18, and the town I moved back to after I could no longer make it financially on my own when I was 20. Moving back there at age 20 felt like death. It kind of feels that way now. This will be the third time in my life I will be moving there, even though I’ve never wanted to live there even once.

I do have one friend there, thank goodness. I met her at church when I was 27. She’s the friend who inspired me to start this blog. I am really looking forward to seeing her again. Another friend of mine, the one who visited me this summer, is also from this town but no longer lives there. She doesn’t like it either and says she’ll never live there again. People were not nice to her there. But she does visit family there from time to time and that means I will get to see her more often than I currently do. We have already talked about seeing each other when she visits for Thanksgiving. So those are the two bright spots in all of this. I’m grateful that there are bright spots. It truly would be unbearable otherwise.

One of the people I’m most worried about dealing with there is my aunt. My aunt has the strongest, most dominating personality of anyone I’ve ever met. She is very negative and critical and she lies and schemes. She is nosy and meddlesome and seems to think it’s her right to know every little thing about other people’s lives. She’s extremely ignorant and uneducated (whether formal education or otherwise), yet is the most opinionated person I know. She’s also really into alternative medicine (but in the most ignorant and unskilled way imaginable), and has been known to walk up to me and start slathering goop onto my skin without my permission (I have eczema, psoriasis, and occasional bouts of hives) and every time, my condition has gotten worse instead of better.

All of these things make her an extremely difficult person for me to deal with.

I haven’t seen her since 2011. When I saw her then, one of the first things she said to me was, “Which route did you take to get here?” When I told her, she told me that was the wrong route, and another route would have been faster. Then she ordered my uncle to get a map so she could show me the other route. I was already well aware of the other route, and she was wrong, it was not faster. (According to Google maps, her route is 15 minutes slower.) Even if it had been faster, so what? Maybe I just like the route I took better. That is my prerogative. I don’t understand why she makes an issue out of every little thing. Even so, I didn’t argue with her or defend myself because it was just too much hassle (you have to pick your battles, right?) and because I don’t think well in overstimulating moments like that. She’s so overbearing I’m like a deer caught in the headlights when I’m with her. My point here is that even something as innocuous as which route I took is judged and criticized by her. Imagine what she does with the bigger issues.

When I was living with my mom in my twenties, she greatly disapproved. She thinks adults should be independent. For what it’s worth, I actually agree with her on that; I just haven’t been able to consistently make it happen. Her harassing me about it is not helpful.

It’s going to be so much worse now that I’m in my forties.

This woman is not an emotionally safe person for me to be around. Not only because of her disapproval and criticism, but because of her schemes. When I was in my twenties and didn’t have a job, she assumed I just wasn’t trying hard enough and was very critical of me. Then one day, she told me, “I have a new job managing a restaurant. I’ll give you a job. Come there first thing next Monday morning ready to work.” I said okay. But as the day approached I started getting an odd, prickly feeling about the whole thing. So I phoned the restaurant and asked for my aunt by name. I was told I must have the wrong number and there was no one there by that name. I explained that it was the manager I was wanting to speak to because she had offered me a job there. I was told, “I am the manager, that is not my name, and I am not hiring right now.”

Needless to say, I did not show up on Monday as my aunt had instructed me. The next time I saw her, I mentioned the apparent misunderstanding. She admitted she’d lied about being the manager there. She said she’d done it to “give me the push I needed.” She said if I had shown up at that restaurant Monday morning ready to work, they would have been so impressed by my initiative that they would have hired me on the spot. She is utterly delusional. Maybe that’s how people got jobs in her day but that is no longer the case. Can you imagine how humiliated I would have been if I’d shown up there? I was already feeling humiliated just from the phone call I’d made.

She has not changed. She just recently got my mom involved in a scheme. She told my mom that while visiting another town she’d run into an old childhood friend of my mom’s who wanted to see her. She offered to take my mom to visit this person. When my aunt and my mom arrived, this old friend had no idea who my mom was. She hadn’t been saying she wanted to see her. She had no clue. I can’t imagine what my aunt’s motive was, but something was fishy about the whole situation.

Ever since I got married almost 12 years ago I have managed to shield my husband from her. Especially because he’s a physicist and she thinks science is from the devil. She and my uncle (he’s not as bad as her in other ways, but he is with this kind of thing) once told me that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is evil because it states that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Say what?! I’m pretty sure they meant the philosophical concept of Relativism, which has absolutely nothing to do with Einstein, his theories, physics, or science (whether or not it’s evil is a whole other matter, but we should at least be clear on what we’re talking about before we get to that). But they were convinced they were correct and that this means physicists are doing the devil’s work.

I do not want them to meet. My husband does not need to be subjected to that kind of thing. But my aunt has it in her craw that she hasn’t met him yet. She writes in the Christmas cards she sends me, “When am I going to meet your husband?” She has meeting him on her agenda and the only thing preventing that from happening thus far has been a lack of proximity.

I know that once I’m living with my parents in that town again, I will not be able to avoid my aunt forever. But I was hoping to at least get settled and get my bearings before having to deal with her. Unfortunately, a well-meaning person who knows we’re moving back there and doesn’t realize we want to keep it on the down low for the time being mentioned it to my mom when my aunt was standing right there. So she knows. And I fully expect her to be a one-woman welcoming committee. That’s going to be a lot to deal with when I’m already stressed and freaked out by the whole thing.

I don’t hate my aunt. I wish her well. She had a rough upbringing and there are reasons she is the way she is. I get that. But I have a hard enough time dealing with ordinary people, and she is… extraordinary. The combination of her personality and my social and sensory difficulties is not a good thing for me. I seriously consider her dangerous to my well-being.

It’s possible to not hate someone and yet still recognize that they are not good for you.

 

The Hammer Has Fallen

This has been a really hard summer. There has pretty much only been one thing on my mind, and that is my husband’s unstable job situation, knowing he could become unemployed at the end of any month. That’s why I haven’t been blogging; there are only so many times I can write about all that.

But now the hammer has finally fallen. My husband’s last day of work is next week Wednesday. His employer is out of funding. My husband has met with the head of the department and had it confirmed that there is no more work there for him. He has been applying for other things to no avail.

About a month ago, it looked like everything was going to be okay. There was a position that opened up, and the head of the department had asked my husband to apply, implying that he would get it, but when the time came they gave it to another internal candidate who had more seniority. That was devastating, thinking he had something lined up only for it to be yanked away. We have been in situations like that more times than I can count, but it’s devastating every time.

So, if a miracle doesn’t occur before next Wednesday, we will be giving our notice to our landlord and then moving back in with my parents. Words cannot express how much I dread this. It will be even worse than the last time we lived with them, from 2011 to 2013, because they have moved back to a small town where I have a bad history and where there are people who really don’t like me. This is entirely my fault, of course, due to my social cluelessness and my tendency to not control my words when I’m overwhelmed and stressed and hurt (and I did get badly hurt there). There are people there I simply cannot face. I would rather die.

I have been crying for days, and the stress has been causing me and my husband to argue. I have been fighting the inevitability of moving back in with my parents and it has been bothering me how accepting he seems of it. But I think I have reached a point now where I too am resigned to it. I don’t have any fight left in me.

The Concert… And Talking to Someone Pretty Awesome

overdressed or overeducated
I think Oscar Wilde was wrong on both counts. 

So, I went to the concert. The evening went much better than I thought it would!

My husband and I got off at the right bus stop (something I always worry about when using public transit in an unfamiliar part of the city) and easily found our way from the bus stop to the venue. Things were a bit of a blur for me once we entered, which is how I always feel entering unfamiliar buildings, but my husband located our seats and I was delighted that for the first half of the concert, there was no one sitting next to me (other than my husband on my right, that is). That helped me adjust to the environment a little better than I otherwise would have.

I was wearing a little black dress with silver-coloured sandals, a long silver chain, and big silver earrings. And I was having a shockingly good hair day, if I may say so myself. It’s taken me until I’m almost 43 years old but I have finally figured out how to manage my naturally-curly hair. I was a mess when I was younger, but I am quite well-groomed now. The one negative thing about the night is that after all the effort I had put into my appearance, I was dressed inappropriately. (I really wish I could show you a photo of what I was wearing so you could see what I mean, but I’m trying to stay anonymous here. Which is the same reason I’m not naming the band. Revealing who it was and when it was can easily give away my location.) No one else was dressed even remotely like me. The audience was made up entirely of middle-aged people and all of the women I could see were wearing plain t-shirts and mom-jeans or other extremely casual outfits. No little black dresses. No dresses or skirts at all.

I actually had this moment where I was confused by the fact that there were only middle-aged people there until it hit me: I am middle aged! These are my peers! And as usual, I am out of step with them.

How do other people intuitively know what to wear to an event so they all look alike? I have educated myself a lot about such things since I used to get bullied as a youth for being unfashionable, but I still always seem to get it wrong. I’m either overdressed or underdressed, but I never nail it.

I was able to see the stage really well from my balcony seat and I liked having a bird’s eye view of things. Once the music started, it was very loud. You know how if you step out of a dark building into bright sunshine, your eyes take a minute to adjust, and until they do you can’t see very well? My ears are like that, and when I’ve told people that, they look at me like I’m crazy, so I gather that not everyone has this experience. But when the loud music started, it was so loud I could hardly hear it, all I could hear was noise. After a few minutes, my hearing adjusted and I was able to hear all the detail and subtleties of the music.

Unfortunately, the opening act was only mediocre, and it was rather dull sitting through their show. But once the band we were there to see took the stage, I was swooning in music-induced bliss. It is difficult to even explain the effect my favourite music has on me. I don’t think most other people, especially at my age, have this same experience and I can’t even find the words to describe it. It is just pure sensory pleasure, like a high. It courses through my body and makes me feel deep and amazing things. This explanation is so inadequate but it’s all I can think of.

This is a band I was into in the 80s and 90s, and I was impressed that after so many years they sounded in top form. Especially the guitar player. He blew me away with how good he was. I knew most of the songs by heart and, although I don’t sing (perhaps that’s a topic for another post), I mouthed the words. I even yelled, “Wooooooo!” a few times. Out loud. That’s something I could never do when I was young (I couldn’t make any sound come out of my mouth when I tried) but it comes out quite naturally now as an adult when I am excited by music.

When it was over, my husband and I went to the washroom and met up back in the lobby. We were standing there discussing getting a taxi and wondering if we should wait a bit since perhaps a lot of people would probably be trying to get taxis just then. I didn’t notice that we were standing right in front of a table. As I’ve mentioned before, I am really not visually observant at all. Like it’s a real problem I have. All of a sudden, the band came out and sat down at the table, with the guitar player, the one who has always been my favourite, the one whose guitar playing transports me to another place, the one I, to be perfectly frank, used to have romantic fantasies about when I was a teenager, sitting directly across the table from where I was standing.

I don’t have a lot of experience with this type of event. I wasn’t expecting that. I was not mentally prepared for such an eventuality. And I will admit right now that I am a hypocrite. Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve always said that if I ever saw a celebrity, I would not go up to him or her and try to initiate a conversation, because what could I possibly say that would be of any interest to them? I don’t mean that in a down-on-myself kind of way, I’m just being realistic. They probably get tired of awkward people saying stupid shit to them. And there are very, very few celebrities I would have any interest in meeting anyway. Despite how it may sound here, I am not generally the star-struck type (at least not now, as an adult). Celebrities are just people, and I’m not really a people-person.

But this seemed different. For one thing, this was one of the very few people I actually would like to meet. And I didn’t have to approach him. He was right there. And he was looking at me. And he looked friendly. And, not knowing how clueless and unsavvy I am, he probably assumed I meant to be there, at that table. So, despite having nothing prepared, I started blurting out what popped into my head, which was:

“Hi! I’m so excited to be here, because I’ve been a fan of your music since the 80s, but I’ve never seen you live before! When I first discovered your music I was living in the middle of nowhere…”

“Oh, where did you grow up?” he asked, with a smile. That threw me for a second. I first discovered their music in 1989 when I was 16, and at that time I was living in a new town, not the town(s) I had grown up in until that point. But after a few seconds of processing, thank goodness, I realized I didn’t need to give him a big explanation. I think I am getting better at this, as I usually have the tendency to, in the spirit of complete accuracy and honesty, over-explain things and include details that are irrelevant to the other person. So I told him the name of the small town where I lived when I first became aware of their music, which was really what he was asking anyway, despite the way he worded it. (See, this is another thing I am getting better at understanding: What people mean, not just the words I hear them say. I was clueless about such things when I was younger.) He had heard of the town and agreed it was a long way from anywhere, but then he said something about how I could have made a road trip to one of the big cities to see them (it would have been a 5 or 6 hour drive to one of the major cities from there). So then I felt like, “Uh oh, he’s thinking I’m not a real fan; that six hours is nothing for a real fan.” And I could hardly start explaining what I was like: Afraid to get my license, afraid of city driving, and at many times in my life, too poor to spend money on concerts. Once these things had changed, they had stopped touring. But then he said, “I guess either way that’s a pretty long haul,” and I nodded.

He asked me how long I’ve been living in this city, and told me that he did the opposite, moving from a big city to a small town and saying how much he loves it.

Then he said, kind of cheekily, “I’m [name],” and held out his hand for me to shake. I said, “I know!” and shook it. Duh. He said, “What’s your name?” And I told him. “That’s my wife’s name!” he said, and showed me a tattoo on his wrist. I couldn’t make out what it was, but I assumed it had to do with his wife and I said, “Cool!” He told me his wife is an author (I already knew that, but I pretended I didn’t because I didn’t want to seem stalkerish) and he explained that’s why living in a small town works for them, because she can do that from anywhere.

Then he looked at my husband and asked who he was, and I introduced him, feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t already done so. The whole time I was kind of feeling like a deer caught in the headlights so I hadn’t thought of it.

Then his band mate next to him said something and he turned toward him and they were talking and I, because awkward is my middle name, just wandered away. My husband followed. So I didn’t get an autograph, or a selfie with him, or anything. I left empty-handed. But I was kind of feeling like I was occupying too much of his time when other people were waiting (this is something I wouldn’t have thought of when I was younger, but all the criticism over the years has made me aware of such things), and I was worried that I was coming across as odd, and of course I hadn’t planned to have a conversation with him at all (and I really prefer interactions that are planned), and although I was happy and amazed that it happened in spite of my lack of intention, I was relieved to make an escape.

My husband says I did well. I had a normal conversation with him about normal things. That was good. A friend of mine said later that she would have been very nervous meeting an attractive celebrity, and mentioned that she once had the opportunity to talk to someone famous but got so nervous and tongue-tied she didn’t actually say anything, and it made me realize: As crazy as it may sound, I almost have an advantage over the average person in this area. I am always nervous talking to people I don’t know well. Nervousness is my baseline. I have learned to talk to people in spite of my nervousness. It’s uncomfortable, and I probably come across as awkward, but I can do it because I have to do it because social nervousness is always there for me. Talking to one of my all-time favourite guitarists did not feel any more nerve-wracking to me than talking to a church greeter in a church lobby or talking to my doctor every time I have an appointment. I was jittery and awkward, yes, but I am always jittery and awkward. That is my norm.

I am also comforted by the fact that he talks to a lot of people and will quickly forget me. He won’t be thinking, “That woman I met earlier sure was awkward.” He won’t be thinking of me at all. That is good. I can live with that.

My husband and I went out into the night air and it felt really good. There’s something special about the sensation of night air on my skin on a warm, late-spring night. It’s one of those rare things that makes sensory sensitivity a delight instead of the hardship it usually is. It was 11pm and I was surprised at how active the city’s streets still seemed at that hour. There were other people streaming away from the venue on foot and I felt like it was safe enough so I asked my husband if he wanted to get the bus home instead of calling for a taxi like we’d planned, and he agreed. It might seem strange that I suggested deviating from a plan, but the truth was, after all that I was socially worn out and I didn’t want to make a phone call or have to talk to a driver if I didn’t have to, and these things tend to fall on me to do because my husband thinks people won’t understand his accent (he’s often right about that, to be fair). So we walked the two blocks to the bus stop and after waiting a few minutes, caught the bus home without incident.

Really, other than my outfit, the whole night could not have gone better, under the circumstances. I’m still kind of amazed that the band member I like best is the one who sat down right in front of me. I would have been happy to meet the others, of course, but the fact that it was my favourite was especially cool.

It even turned out that my husband really enjoyed the music! He grew up in England where this band never had success, so he was not familiar with them and only went to the concert for my sake, but he enjoyed it so much he said he’d like to see them again the next time they tour (assuming they do continue touring, that is). Maybe next time, knowing that they might be available for autographs after the show, I can plan out what to say in advance and maybe even get an actual autograph next time!

I just wish I could get a message to my 16-year-old self and tell her about the conversation. It was a nice experience for me in my 40s, but it would have meant the world to me in my teens!

 

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.

 

Leaving a Friend Behind

bye
Photo from Photofunia.

So what do you do when you really don’t want to be friends with someone anymore?

I don’t think I have ever taken the initiative to end a friendship in my life. Other people have stopped being friends with me, and in some cases we’ve just sort of mutually drifted apart, but I have never chosen to end a friendship.

Is it a matter of personal growth that I have reached a point where I can willfully leave someone behind? Or does it mean I’m just not as nice as I used to be?

The friend I’ve blogged about before, the one who didn’t invite me to her wedding but then sent me a really nice Christmas gift and kept messaging me like nothing ever happened, is not a positive, supportive person in my life. She talks down to me like I’m an idiot. She seems to have developed a really low tolerance for weakness and stupidity, and she sees weakness and stupidity everywhere. She once told me that people call her “the dragon lady” at work and I’m starting to see why.

I’m afraid to say anything to her at this point because she’ll just argue with me or point out some way in which she thinks I’m off base. I could probably handle her doing that once in a while. If it were 80% support and 20% correction, maybe I could live with that (I get that nobody’s going to agree with me 100% of the time or be able to honestly support everything I say or do), but it’s the other way around. I do think that a friend should be able to tell it like it is, but it’s also her general attitude that’s getting to me, like she’s exasperated and annoyed by everything that comes out of my mouth. I can’t take it anymore. I end up feeling bad almost every time I communicate with her. So it’s not even a matter of needing to forgive her for individual things she’s done to hurt me; this is an ongoing pattern of behavior.

And if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I have to admit that if she’s finding it so hard to tolerate me and the things I say and do, the friendship is probably not a positive, beneficial thing for her any more than it is for me. It is probably for the best for both of us if we can wish each other well but go our separate ways.

I’m not sure of the best way to end things with her though. After 31 years I probably owe her some kind of explanation. But I don’t want it to turn into some kind of back-and-forth accusatory thing. Usually when people have stopped being friends with me, they’ve just stopped getting in touch and not replied when I’ve gotten in touch. Perhaps that’s the way to do it, but it seems cold and wrong after so many years.

 

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.

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.

 

 

Choosing a Seat

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Photo by Jack Lyons via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I have developed almost a phobia about choosing a seat when I’m out somewhere. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s because I have often gotten it wrong. Not only is finding a spot where I’ll be comfortable a challenge, but it also seems that there is a certain etiquette surrounding where to sit that other people intuitively know and I don’t.

I suppose it started when I was a kid. At Christmas dinner with the extended family (which we didn’t usually attend), I went to sit down at the dining table and my aunt snapped at me that I had to sit at the kids’ table. Until then I had never heard of such a thing as a kids’ table. I suppose if I’d been more savvy I would have noticed where my cousins were going and realized I was in the same category as them, but I have never been very savvy or observant. Oops.

And then there was the school bus. My mom stopped driving me to school after her breakdown, so I had to take the bus. Even though I didn’t live close to the school, my stop was the last one on the route, and by the time it got there, there was at least one kid already sitting in each two-person seat. None of those kids would let me sit down next to them. So I would walk down the aisle trying to find a place to sit, only to be denied again and again, usually along with insults like “freak” and “weirdo.” Then the bus driver would scream at me to sit down, as if I were being deliberately difficult. This is yet another thing that contributed to me quitting school.

Then there was this time after my dad left when he decided to try to be civil for once and took my mom and I out for dinner. We were led to a booth and he sat down first, and then I sat down across from him. I wasn’t thinking about where I was sitting, I was overwhelmed as I usually am in public and just sat down wherever. When my mom and I got home, she screamed at me at length, saying that couples sit across from each other in restaurants so that they can look into each other’s eyes and that I had made it look like my dad and I were a couple. She said she should have been sitting across from him, not me. I was baffled, and I still kind of am. When my husband and I go to a restaurant with another couple, we tend to sit side-by-side with each other, and across from the other couple. I try to be more mindful of this kind of thing now, and not make it look like I want to be a couple with anyone other than my husband, so if I have a choice I try to sit beside my husband and across from the woman instead of the man, but I might still be getting this wrong because I don’t understand these supposed unwritten rules.

My mother also screamed at me once for choosing a seat across from a window, accusing me of wanting to admire my own reflection, and saying that everyone could tell how conceited I was. Again, I was baffled. I’d just sat down in the first available chair without any ulterior motive whatsoever. I didn’t understand why my mom read so much into everything I did, and I still don’t know if other people think like her or not.

Then there are issues at other people’s houses, like in the past when my husband and I have been part of a church home group. Probably because of my poor balance, unless I have a table or something in front of me to rest my arms on, I am extremely uncomfortable in any sitting position other than cross-legged. Like, really, unbearably uncomfortable. Sometimes I have no choice, like in church, but if I’m somewhere where there are different kinds of seats to choose from, like in someone else’s living room, I look for a place where I can sit cross-legged, like a couch or a large easy chair. If those are already occupied, and the only seats left are hard chairs that have been brought in from the dining room, I would much rather sit on the floor. It’s still hard, but at least I can sit in my preferred position. But people make a big deal about it if I sit on the floor. Even if I explain that I’m comfortable there, they don’t seem to believe me.

But then, people have even made comments when I’ve sat in an easy chair, saying almost teasingly, “Oh yeah, of course you’d choose the most comfortable seat in the place!” Okay, why is that something tease-worthy? Is it a faux pas? I guess it’s selfish? Like I should have left the most comfortable seat in the place for someone else? I can understand saving it for an elderly person, but we didn’t have any elderly people in our group. So why was it selfish of me to take that seat, but it wouldn’t have been selfish of someone else to take it if I hadn’t? It’s not like that seat remained empty if I didn’t sit there. I just don’t get it.

And then there’s church. I don’t actually go to church anymore, but I plan to again in the future, and seating is always an issue for me. I am most comfortable sitting at the back, where I feel like I can make a quick escape if I get overstimulated beyond my ability to bear, and also where the speaker or singers can’t see my facial expression, which apparently often looks unpleasant or disapproving. But when attending a new church (I have lived in four cities in ten years, so I’ve done that a lot) I’ve sat through a whole service in the back row before realizing it had a sign at the end of it saying, “Reserved for families with small children.” Oops. I hadn’t even seen that sign when I’d arrived because the sensory overload caused by entering a new building and trying to find a seat makes everything a blur to me. I am not very observant at the best of times, but at those times I am even less so.

Another issue with church is that I feel I have to get there early so I can choose my own seat, because I feel really overwhelmed if the church is almost full and an usher needs to find a seat for me. Inevitably this means having to squeeze by other people who are already seated. I fear stepping on people’s toes (literally) and I’m ashamed that my big butt is practically right in their faces. I end up apologizing profusely, which other people seem to find odd or amusing. Then I can’t even pay attention to the service because things remain a blur for me. It’s best for me to just get there early so I can choose a seat while the place is still mostly empty.

This is yet another reason I am so much more comfortable at home. Much like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, at home I have my own spot, which works for me for several reasons. First of all, it’s a spot I know I can sit comfortably in. Secondly, it takes away having to make any kind of choice or decision about where to sit. Thirdly, I have all my stuff stored in the drawer in the end table beside my spot. My tablet, e-reader, phone charger, nail clippers, prescription medications, notebook and pen, etc. There are times when a visitor sits in my spot, and unlike Sheldon Cooper, I don’t say anything because I know it would be impolite, but on the inside I feel very agitated and uncomfortable.

 

The Obligation to Talk

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Photo by Ike ofSpain via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I had my hair cut over the weekend. I hate getting my hair cut, because it means having to make small talk with the hairdresser. I dread it, and sometimes I put off getting a hair cut for months and months for this reason.

This time, I sat down in the chair and started desperately trying to think of something to say. I was drawing a blank, and was starting to panic. Then the hairdresser said, “I’ve cut your hair before, haven’t I?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Last time you were planning to go out for a date night that evening, weren’t you?”

“Yes, it was my wedding anniversary. You have a really good memory. I’m impressed; you must talk to a lot of people.”

“Yeah, but I always remember the clients who talk a lot,” she said. “You talked the whole time. Most people just sit there and don’t say anything.”

This was one of those moments that take me aback and force me to do a mental adjustment. Most people sit there and say nothing? So while I’m stressing myself out thinking I have to talk, other people are just sitting there thinking their own thoughts and waiting for it to be over? Is that what normal people do? That’s what I want to do, but I thought it would be rude. As much as I hate small talk, I hate the thought of making anyone feel bad even more. I assumed if I didn’t talk to her, she would feel like I didn’t like her or didn’t think she was worth talking to. I don’t ever want to make anyone feel that way.

Can this be for real? Have I been putting pressure on myself to socially perform in a way that’s not even required?

“How is [insert name here] doing?”

When people ask me how I’m doing, I know it’s just a social nicety and I’m expected to say, “Fine.” I have learned that.

But I still get confused when someone asks me how someone else is doing. If I treat the question the same way and simply say “Fine,” they continue looking at me expectantly, as if waiting for more information.

What is it they want to hear? Is it gossip? That’s what I suspect. They are wanting to hear gossipy details about other people’s lives.

But I don’t gossip about people. The people who confide in me do so because they feel safe with me and they know they can trust me. I’m not going to use the things they confide in me as fodder for casual conversation with other people.

This is done both to me and about me. My mom told me one of my cousins sent her a message through Facebook asking how I’m doing. But the thing is, I too am friends with this cousin on Facebook. Why didn’t she send the message to me and ask me directly? She didn’t want to talk to me, apparently; she wanted to talk to someone else about me. Or did she not care about me at all, and she was just using inquiring about me as an excuse to contact my mom, who was the one she really wanted to talk to? I don’t get it.

Another one of my relatives does this kind of thing all the time. Let’s call her Sharon. She talks about nothing except other people. I have heard details of the lives of people I never have and likely never will meet, and they know details about my life. While visiting the town Sharon lives in, strangers came up to me and asked me if my husband had gotten a certain job he’d applied for and asked me about the health conditions I’ve been diagnosed with. While I stammered in shock as I tried to process who these people were and how they knew about all this, they laughed and introduced themselves. They were friends of Sharon’s, and they’d heard all about me and even seen photos of my wedding.

I hated every moment of that encounter. I hated that strangers knew things about me and were now wanting more information from me about the things they’d heard. When I tell people things, it’s because I’m already close to them and already consider them emotionally safe people to talk to. And since they know me and already like me, I think they’re not going to be judging me based on one or two bits of information. They know my character and my history, and will take any details shared with them in context. A stranger who doesn’t know me might judge me on the individual details they hear about me because they don’t know me as a whole person.

Because I feel this way, I am not going to put other people in such a position. The Golden Rule, and all that.

So anyway, Sharon often asks me about my friends (whom she doesn’t even really know except having met them once through me), and when I don’t say anything except, “Fine,” she gets almost annoyed as if she thinks I’m being unfriendly, stubborn, and uncooperative. Sometimes she asks follow-up questions like, “Does she have a boyfriend yet?” or “How old are her children now?”

But I don’t understand why she needs to know these things. Of what possible relevance could it be to her whether my friend has a boyfriend or not? Or how old children she’s never even met are? And why am I expected to be forthcoming with these details, to the point where I look like a jerk if I don’t provide them?

Perhaps I just need to throw out some additional, innocuous details to satisfy her, and others who ask such things. Like, “She’s fine. Still living in Vancouver. Drives a Toyota.” Would that be enough to seem friendly and communicative? Or do I need to provide all the intimate details of their lives and relationships? Is that how normal people interact?

It’s funny how my own friends never do this. We share details about our own lives with each other, but we don’t inquire about other people we know, and we rarely even talk about other people unless it’s something that really affects us. This is not the way we socialize at all. So it’s something I really, really don’t understand and have trouble socially navigating. As usual in social situations, it’s knowing the correct way to respond that’s my real problem.