There is always little doubt for most people who meet me that I am… different. Statistically and by all accounts, it’s true, I’m different. Finding out what makes me different has been a lifelong pursuit, and I finally, after 30 years, have it figured out.
There’s an insurmountable distance that exists between me and other people. I’ve known about, sensed it, felt it as far back as I can remember. I was always aware that I was set apart, different, odd, off…but as a kid I never knew what it was.
(Why do we cite our childhood knowledge as though it holds some great key to our future potential? We may have asked great questions, but we likely didn’t have many correct answers then. We likely still don’t. As a kid, I probably understood this better than I do now.)
Whatever made me different was the cause of the distance.
As a studious observer of human behavior (in retrospect, that says a lot), I went through phases of understanding. I did everything I could to label my difference, alter it, address it, and hopefully, find ways to get closer to people. What made me different from everyone else?
I was unlike the others because I was…
I towered over my peers for a time, but at 5’9″ the height difference wasn’t really the difference. We put so much weight in height as children. Adults make such a big deal out of it. It was just my earliest understanding of the world.
- smarter than average.
- too pretty.
These last two were observations made by my parents when I started asking them for the answer. As neither my mom nor my dad had close friends, they didn’t seem to be the best ones to be giving advice on the matter. People like smart, pretty people, don’t they?
- not dressing like other girls.
Oh, this had my attention for years. In an upper middle class neighborhood with working middle class parents, designer tags were coveted and, with extreme rarity, procured from second-hand shops.
I was aware of the financial difficulties of spending several hours’ pay on a sweatshirt, especially one that made you a walking billboard, but I thought wearing it might make me fit in. One Christmas, I put nothing on my list except for this very particularly chosen sweatshirt from A&F, maroon with white lettering, expecting no other gifts but this suburban peer uniform. I received a bright red Champion sweatshirt — before Champion was retro-chic — along with a ton of other gifts, and a lecture on the importance of not becoming a shill to corporate advertising. Merry Merry.
I went through a phase where I did everything I could to dress strangely, thinking it was …I don’t know, punk or something. That didn’t help either. Just ask the other cheerleaders, MY TEAMMATES, who shunned me.
It was never the clothing, despite my best childhood and teenage guesses. Even when I was able to finally adjust my wardrobe the way I wanted, spending my first two full-time working paychecks on a Brand New Me, I was left with the Same Old Feeling of Otherness.
Maybe I was different because I was…
- not hanging with the cool kids.
How could I be distant from my peers because I’m distant from my peers? Social invitations are like dominos. I believed if I got invited to one more party or sleepover or special event, maybe, just maybe, I’d be invited to the next one. Maybe this time, they’d make me one of the group.
It never happened. I got my hopes up countless times for nothing. There would be no Babysitter’s Club for me. I was even bullied by kids in the DRAMA CLUB, who are always portrayed to be so welcoming of every misfit and reject…except for whatever my problem was.
- not as wealthy as those in my neighborhood.
This would stay with me through my college years. I believed I was different, in part, because I was working 3 jobs to pay for textbooks for my 18 credit semesters, so I could graduate in 4, instead of 4.5, years, so I could quickly get a job and start paying back what many of my peers were being gifted on their birthdays, holidays, and graduation days. In a capitalist society, cash is king. My busy schedule might have caused me to turn down a hangout or two, but it wasn’t my lack of funds that made me different.
I made it my mission to save up for culturally relevant things, while militantly demanding financial independence from my parents. I’d never have the kind of scratch to get into fancy clubs or go on beachside vacations-not like I’d want to-not really.) So I flipped the money script.
There were plenty of people who didn’t value wealth like that, and maybe I could fit with them. I sought out the cheapest way to get a usable phone and still pay the least for my monthly plan. I bragged about my $10 purses and the pencil case I’d been using since grade school. I scrounged and saved. I flipped the money script. I was frugal, but that wasn’t enough to fit in either.
Whatever the difference was, it had nothing to do with economics.
Maybe the reason I felt apart from my peers was because I was…
- suffering greasy hair, bangs or no bangs, an inability to tan, not as skinny as a model, and had other cosmetic concerns.
It turns out you can combat greasy hair by using sulfate-free shampoo and giving yourself a week of oily misery. Bangs are a nightmare to keep shapely and to grow back out. That’s a common concern, though. As far as my inability to tan, sure, I hated looking pasty and splotchy in the sun for 5 months out of the year, but is that really a reason I couldn’t keep a friendship going? My weight fluctuated wildly but never really gave me any peace. Even while I lamented these parts of myself, I knew that whatever was putting space between me and my peers, it was bigger than physical appearance.
- raised by tough, but loving parents.
This is something most teens go through, I think, so it couldn’t be the thing that made me different. The fact that my parents had no interest in friendship, however, keeping only distant pen-pals and work friends on their lists — that should have been a clue.
- prone to vomiting and other nervous stomach conditions.
This one likely did set me apart, but as I’d learn later, it was only another facet of the reason I am different. One grand and sincere apology to anyone who ever sat near me or invited me to a party, and was then disgusted by the results. And let me assure one person in particular, I did not throw up on your mother’s brand new leather boots on purpose, but really, who has kids chop up onions to make their own lunch at a birthday party in a poorly ventilated room? Seems like a disaster waiting to happen, and that disaster was nausea.
The thinking continued.
For years, I consulted with peers and professionals. I started seeing therapists, who assured me I was imagining the distance between me and those I wanted to befriend. Socializing with me became a giant mysterious jack-in-the-box — turn the crank, listen to my off-key tune, and wait for the wrong thing to shoot out of my mouth and scare the person across from me.
What did the people say? I was someone who…
- thinks too much, talks too much, expects too much, falls for anything, uses too much sarcasm, is way too passionate, is way too driven, annoys the hell out of everyone, criticizes everyone, is unpredictably attractive one minute and unattractive the next, has unreasonable expectations, and is too smart for my own good.
These are all things I was told when I asked for advice. I took Every Single Opinion to heart. I considered. I adjusted, calibrated, overcompensated and recalibrated, and still… the differences remained. The distance between myself and the people around me loomed.
I carried this weight within me. It chipped away at me. I’d think I had the answer, change something or sacrifice something, and yet, the weight of the question was with me endlessly.
I was definitely…
- in possession of a pattern-loving brain that seeks out differences.
Ah ha! Wait, no, other people are pattern-seeking too. That’s not the difference.
But by this point in my self-discovery, I was starting to see a significant pattern and I was making strides at socializing…
The people I was closest with, most attracted to, able to almost bridge the divide with — they were all autistic, or had been labeled autistic by someone and had chosen to throw off that label later.
I had a special way of communicating with autistic people, who seemed to appreciate my direct language, my analysis skills, my ability to empathize and understand their stories, my odd sense of humor. So, drumroll please…. I must go to work with them! I’d specialize in being a therapist for autistic individuals. I hadn’t found a calling, and now I had! Surely, this was thing putting distance between me and everyone else.
I was just a late bloomer.
No again. It was at this point that perhaps anyone other than me might have realized where this was going. Not I. I held on to this, unsettled. I remained in the dark about myself and continued to struggle.
I hit wall after wall trying to connect with people, suffering friend breakups and romantic breakups on a regular basis. I had a new best friend every 6 months, a new boyfriend about once a year. There was a frightening, sickening regularity about the cycle that I couldn’t help but notice.
Instead, I threw myself into my work and convinced myself for a time that I didn’t need anyone else, that I was just likely a loner, that I was built on a Randian philosophy, and that someday I would find my mountaintop, settle down within its most elevated peak, drink tea, and read books.
Alas, my work life was no better than my personal life. I was a competent therapist working with children with disabilities and children on the spectrum, but I couldn’t communicate the simplest things to their parents, teachers, or paras. My supervisors all gave up trying to explain to me that personal boundaries were necessary for self-care — I would take every case home with me, I carried those kids with me all the time. I lost night after night of sleep designing more and more unique interventions, games, strategies and exercises for my dwindling client pool. I was even more fun at parties as I droned on about behavioral cues and how our current system didn’t really help all the kids who needed it. So many people flew under the radar that needed additional help. So many people, like me.
Eventually I quit the field, burned out way before my time, and spent the next years trying to figure out what my life was even worth. If the herd did not want me, perhaps a culling was in order. I cut myself off. The phone never rang.
It was in this time of deep isolation and despair that I found the answer, MY ANSWER, while reflecting over some of the stories I’d read and some of the teenagers I’d worked with. Like a train just leaving the station, I started writing everything I could think of that made me different, all my quirks and character traits, a much, much longer list than this essay would allow. There was a single question now, a different question, a question pounding in my mind day and night, a track that kept leading me forward.
Was I … neurodivergent?
Quickly, obsessively, and with little regard for anything else, I digested as much information on females with autism as I could. At the time, what little was known was anecdotal and nonspecific, posted in the blogs of pioneer weirdos like me. In college, I’d been taught THE RESEARCH, which I never knew was incredibly gender biased. It wasn’t that only boys were autistic. It was that for a long time boys were the only ones identified. There was an entire subset of personality traits, behaviors, and feelings that had been totally disregarded.
MY PERSONALITY TRAITS. MY BEHAVIORS. MY FEELINGS.
I finally had my answer.
I was an incredibly verbal, socially mimicking female, obsessed with being accepted by my peers. I had trouble making and keeping social connections. I was academically gifted but somehow, intangibly, lacking. I struggled with some aspects of executive function and was savant-like in others. I had many of the same physical attributes and associated maladies. I literally fit the bill.
Once I’d accepted my label, a lot of things began to make sense.
(I know that the puzzle piece symbolism is insulting to many autistic people and I understand that. We aren’t missing anything. For me, autism was the missing puzzle piece I’d been searching for, the answer to my ceaseless questioning, the reason for the divide.)
The “atypical” label made me fit, and it fit me. It brought me to find people, entire communities of people, that I could get along with, people I could understand, people who wanted to befriend me. It helped me explain why so many of my friendships and relationships had failed, why the feedback had been so variable, why I’d lived with this obsession gurgling under the surface for decades, desperate to make itself known.
I always had a sense that I was different from most people. I sit at the far end of many bell curves staring out in wonder at the standard deviations. I’d tell you about how I met my partner, how I made my first best friends, and how I’ve thrived in the knowledge, but…I diverge.