DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have long struggled to connect with others in a meaningful way. I do have plenty of friends and people who like me, but I’ve always longed for something else, and I never knew why. I am married, good job, etc, and I still have felt alone. I do indeed have issues with depression, but it’s more than that.
After a year of therapy, I finally realized, with the help of my doctor, that I’m on the very high functioning end of the autism spectrum, and everything makes sense now. I’ve always longed not to feel differently from everyone, I’ve become very anxious when emotionally overwhelmed, and I do a lot of the things that people say spectrum folks do, even down to the obsession with trains stereotype.
Anyway, not asking for help with depression really. And unlike many who write in, my life externally is fine.
The problem is that suddenly so much of my behavior makes sense and makes me upset when I think about it. (I should note, in 2018, I am not at all talking about abuse or anything of the sort, before speculation occurs.)
I spent so much time aping the people around me out of a desperate desire to be accepted. Everyone always told me not to care what others thought, but I always felt so alone that just not caring didn’t feel like an option. I know now that I did much of this because the utter inscrutability of subtle human emotions was just a genetic (or whatever) quirk rather than a character flaw like I always thought.
Because I always went to class, did my homework, did well on tests, no one ever really noticed I struggled internally, so no one, not even my family, picked up on it (or maybe my family has the same stuff going on so I seemed the same).I did a lot of little things that looking back made people uncomfortable (women, sure, but men too), like standing too close, talking a little too loud, not really being very good at the right level of eye contact. Whenever I was told I was annoying someone (which happened a lot), I was ashamed and apologized immediately. Eventually, I learned I can fake it. I do well in job interviews, and I’m actually a teacher (to adults), and a good one. I’m getting a terminal degree. I am loved
Yet I can’t stop thinking about how I spent decades thinking I was an annoying boy that a lot of people didn’t like because there was something wrong with me when I was just wired a little different and that that was okay.
I will continue to work this out in my sessions and my sessions will help me figure this out for the future. But how do I reframe my past, really my entire past since about second grade? With this new news, I think of it as a time when I could have known I was just a little different and come to terms with it but instead was teased and shunned by many, spent far too much time with people who didn’t treat me well because I wanted their acceptance, and have only just recently come to a point where I like myself.
I just sort of feel like I was robbed of the chance to grow up feeling happy. I’m not dead yet, I’ve got some decades left, but that’s a lot of time I wish I could get back. Any thoughts as to how I can reframe my past?
DEAR WASTED YEARS: This is a topic that comes up a lot for folks, WY: you’ve had X many years where there was this important piece of the puzzle missing from your life. Now that you’ve found that missing piece, you’re looking back at your life and thinking “My God, look at all these missed opportunities! Look at these things I never got to do because I was missing this piece! Look at all these mysteries that now make sense! What I could’ve done if I’d just known this sooner!”
That missing piece is going to vary for everyone. For some people it’s a critical diagnosis of a chronic condition – they’re just now learning that they had a health issue that nobody recognized at first. For some, it’s a revelation: this relationship was toxic or abusive and it’s affected how they see themselves or interact with others. For still more people it’s learning how to socialize or meet people more effectively; now they’ve improved themselves, they’re finally able to date the way they always wanted to.
For me, one of my missing pieces was finally being diagnosed with depression. When I accepted that diagnosis – which took some time, because people still don’t always take mental health issues seriously – I was able to look back on so much my life with new eyes. Suddenly so much of how I lived, behaved and felt made sense. I’d pushed people away, isolated myself and limited myself because of a condition that I’d had. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t trying hard enough or that I didn’t have the mental fortitude to push through, it was that there was a neurological problem that needed medical intervention before I started getting things under control.
At first, it was liberating: Oh my God, for the first time in my life, I actually have self-worth! I don’t feel completely hopeless! The world isn’t just one giant gray haze that apparently only affects me. I can actually do things instead of wondering what the point of it was! But hard on the heels of that revelation was OH MY GOD, look at everything I missed out on because of this! Look at how many chances I had to do things, to meet people, to have friends, to have a life. I could have been happy. I could have enjoyed being alive.
And y’know, at first, I really resented it. I resented the fact that it took this long for me to get an answer as to why I was so different and why life sucked for me in ways that it didn’t seem to for other people. I resented the frustration of knowing that I was living a life of privilege and yet still felt like ten pounds of ass in a five pound bag. I was bitter about how long it took to get an answer, longer to get a treatment and even longer to get through it all.
So many wasted years. So many missed opportunities. So much wasted potential.
But here’s the thing: I can’t do anything about any of that. I don’t have a flux capacitor, I don’t have a TARDIS, a Time Turner or anything else. I can’t go back in time and change things, and even if I could… well, that would change who I am now, and I like who I am now. But what I can change is how I interpret my past. Yeah, it would have been great if I could’ve gotten this sorted out earlier, but you know what? I still got there. I got my missing piece. I got my answer. I got that x-factor that made so much of my life finally make sense to me. And in reframing it from “look at what I missed out on” to “hey, I finally got my answer”, I was able to find acceptance. Because I may not be able to change my past, but I can take that answer, that missing piece and change my present. I can change my future.
That’s where you are now, WY. Yeah, there was a long, long time where you felt like an alien or an outsider. You had so much in your life that didn’t make sense and you didn’t know why. You felt like you were always doing something wrong, like you were just screwing up something that came so naturally to everyone else. But now you know: it was just this quirk of who you are. Nobody realized it, nobody knew about it but it was always there. And now that you know: it all makes sense. You know more about yourself than you did before. You understand yourself in ways you never could before. Like wizards of old, you have discovered it’s True Name and now you have power over it.
And it sucks that you can’t go and give yourself that knowledge when you were younger. But you have that answer now. That knowledge and understanding can scratch that itch of “why was I so different, why was everything so difficult.” It’s like getting the last bit of music that finally gets that song out of your head. And you’re able to take that knowledge and reshape your life now and in the future. You have the power to take control of things more fully and more completely and direct your life in the ways you want it to go. You may have missed chances to be happy when you were younger, but you can have it now.
Your past isn’t what you wish it could be. But your present and future can be. Reframe your past: you were working from incomplete information. Now you’ve got that information. You got that missing piece of the puzzle. And now you can move forward the way you always wish you could have.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: First of all I’d like to thank you for the amazing job you do, it’s certainly helped me a great deal in the past. I used to struggle to make any meaningful friends (sorta kinda got through high-school and most of uni with a lot of acquaintances and one very good friend). Now though, thanks in no small part to you, people keep telling me they feel like they’ve known me for years when in fact it’s been weeks or months. I guess that’s a good thing – or it means I’m so catastrophically boring that time spent with me seem reeeeeeeeaaally long. I’ve convinced myself of the former, and I’m pretty happy with where I’m at, and constantly working to improve.
On to the question – I moved to a new city recently (from one side of the world to the other), and was facing the scariest thing anyone with nerd(ish) tendencies can face: rebuild a social life from scratch, without knowing a soul in the place you’re going to. I got lucky and am working with an astonishing group of people. It really feels like I am going to see friends every day I go to work. Even after almost a year, I can’t believe my luck. However, work is still work and I really wanted to build up something not connected to work. So I did the second most scariest thing that someone with my disposition can do: signed up for dance classes, and then forced myself to go.
The dance I chose was Swing, and I’m ever so glad that I did because it’s been amazing. The thing is, I signed up to meet people and make friends. I most certainly didn’t want to be the dude who hits on everyone at dance class. However, as it turns out there are quite a few amazing women in class and at workshops and at socials. And once you’ve gotten to the point of being able to ask them for a dance, talking to them really isn’t a big deal so dancing has been a huge help in that regard.
On one hand maybe one day I’d like to date someone I meet at a social, workshop, class etc. On the other, I still don’t want to be that guy… Rejection doesn’t bother me much beyond a slight twinge of disappointment, but I go dancing three or four times a week and I’d really rather not have every potential dance partner in the room go “oh great, wonder who he’s gonna hit on this time?” whenever I show up to the social. When I ask someone to dance, it’s because I’d like to dance and not because I have some ulterior motive. I worry a bit that if I get a reputation like that, it’ll make everyone who dances with me uncomfortable, and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.
So… advice? Is it socially acceptable to ask someone whom you’ve met dancing a few times and clicked with on a date? Or ist it a big no no?
Thanks for your help, and keep up the amazing work!
To Date or Not to Date
DEAR TO DATE OR NOT TO DATE: First of all TDoNtD: congratulations on the work you’ve put in and the life you’ve built for yourself. That takes a lot of courage and dedication, and you should be proud of what you’ve achieved.
So let’s talk about how to meet women within your social circle without being a creep. Now the good news is that you’ve already taken the correct first step: you’re going to swing class to learn how to dance, not just to get laid. You’re meeting people, learning some interesting new skills and becoming a cooler, more social person in the process. That’s great… and that’s also what makes you different from someone who’s just there to try to bang his way through the attendance record.
See, the thing that people dread at events like these isn’t someone who joins the group and maybe asks somebody out if there happens to be some chemistry. They’re worried about the guy who treats swing class like a “target rich environment” and who’s going to hit on people relentlessly. The guy who’s been around and integrated himself into the scene, gotten to know the social “rules” of that particular group and generally merged in seamlessly is going to be seen differently than the guy who cruises around like a horny shark that tries to take a bite out of anyone who looks vaguely tasty.
Let’s say that you’re dancing with someone. They make you laugh, you think they’re pretty alright themselves and you two get along like a house on fire. You’re interested in seeing if maybe there’s a bit more there, so you ask them out on a date. Maybe they say yes and hey, awesome. Maybe they say no and you say “OK, no problem” and continue treating them like you had before. That’s not going to get you a reputation for hitting on people relentlessly.
But let’s say you’re there on your first day and you hit on someone you’re dancing with. They turn you down and now you’re trying your luck again with another person that same night. Or even the next night. Every time you show up, you’re asking somebody out for drinks, for dinner, for ten minutes of squishy noises in the back seat of your car. That is going to get you a reputation as someone who’s just there to get laid and you’ll run out of dance partners very quickly.
So relax, TDoNtD. You’re going about this the right way. If you’ve got chemistry with someone then feel free to ask them out and take any potential rejection with grace. Otherwise, just enjoy dancing and meeting people. Don’t treat it like a sex ATM and you’ll be fine.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)