I’ve never been what some like to call a ‘people person.’ There have been times in my life where I have enjoyed the company of others but those experiences have been few and far between. When I was in the process of being diagnosed with Asperger’s my doctor asked me to think back on all the relationships I had been in over the course of my lifetime be it simple friendships or acquaintanceships or romantic relationships. He asked me to make a list and instructed me to bring it with me the next time I saw him. I did as he asked and was somewhat surprised at how long the list was. A week or two later I ran into someone I had worked with years ago and naturally I didn’t expect him to remember me as I barely remembered him. Sure enough though he did recognize me and I’ll never forget the look on his face when it finally hit him: it looked like panic. He came up to me and asked how I was doing and all the normal things that people do when they see someone they haven’t seen in some time but then there was a bit of an awkward silence as neither of us knew what to do next.
I wasn’t all that happy to see him and it wasn’t that I was unhappy to see him it was just that we had barely knew one another when we worked together so what was going to be accomplished here? We hung around for a little while and then said our goodbyes and I’ve yet to run into him since. That’s the way it goes for a lot of the people that I’ve known over the course of my life. I never thought that this was abnormal because people live busy lives and we run into lots of people over the course of our lifetimes but then I realized something that I frequently overlooked in the past when I saw someone from my not so distant past: I always remembered them. Maybe I have an above average memory, I don’t know, but it struck me as rather curious that I would remember most people that I’ve encountered throughout my life yet so many people would claim to not have any recollection as to who I was. I became a bit self-conscious after that and started reflecting on how my relationships usually ended. They rarely ended well. In fact, just finding cases where things didn’t end abruptly with insults hurled back and forth was difficult for me.
We don’t want to think of ourselves as terrible people so I think it’s almost a built in defense mechanism that we find ways of rationalizing the behavior of others especially when it feels hurtful. People have always told me that I was far too sensitive and that people don’t really hate me, but what do they know? Their opinion as to why someone doesn’t hate me holds just as little weight if not less than my opinion as to why they don’t like me. It’s a bit like selective amnesia in these circumstances because we can rationalize situations however we like. I can make a list of all the things I’m good at and omit the negative qualities that I have and reassure myself that I’m a good person but what would happen if you asked anyone who had the misfortune of knowing me? I mean, really? Outside of my immediate family, who is going to stand up and say that they know I’m a great person? The numbers are in the low single digits. This really got me thinking about not only how I manage relationships but how I maintain them. I started thinking that I had a serious problem with empathy and compassion. My worst fear was that I was some kind of psychopath.
When I met with my doctor about a week later I explained to him the reflections that I had been making and his answers to my questions were not reassuring.
“Who is to say that any of us are ‘good people?’” He asked. Relativity, now there’s a great way to make someone feel better.
“What if I’m just not a nice person? What if I’m just mean to everyone around me and no one has the heart or the guts to tell me that?” I asked.
“That’s always a possibility,” he said. It was like he was trying to destroy my self-esteem at this point.
“You do understand that your responses aren’t helping matters, right?” I asked. He nodded his head and continued taking notes.
“I find it interesting that you’re self-conscious about these things,” he said. Of course I was self-conscious. Everyone is self-conscious about how other people view them. It’s a simple matter of vanity.
“Do people often say hurtful things to you?” He asked.
“No,” I replied. “I don’t know anyone that mean or frankly self-confident enough to say something like that to my face.”
“Not everyone is passive-aggressive,” he replied. That was true of course, but the number of people who are going to bitch you out to your face is pretty small.
“If you were a psychopath you wouldn’t care what other people thought of you,” he said. “You’ve been diagnosed with all sorts of behavioral disorders over the course of your life but I wonder if everyone has been missing the obvious.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Do you find it easy to hold a conversation with someone?” He asked.
“If it’s someone I know,” I said. “I couldn’t approach someone on the street for the life of me though.”
“You have a history of not understanding different social cues and making mistakes that cause people to think less of you not because you’re stupid or a psychopath but because you genuinely don’t see how what you’re doing is wrong,” he said.
“It’s not wrong,” I said. “It’s the reaction I get. That’s what’s wrong. No one gets that I’m not trying to piss them off, I’m not trying to offend them it just turns out that way.”
“I think you have a form of Asperger’s” he said. I sat there quietly for a moment.
“What on Earth is that?” I asked.
“It’s an Autism spectrum disorder that is mainly diagnosed in children, but many adults have it as well,” he said. “You have all the classic symptoms. You haven’t made eye contact with me, ever, I don’t think. You can be unbelievably harsh for no apparent reason. You don’t seem to understand what the purpose of any basic relationship is nor do you seem all that interested in finding out.”
“I don’t need to find out,” I said. “I just don’t like people. They cause me nothing but trouble.”
“That might be part of the problem,” he said. “It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.”
“So I’m just supposed to accept that I don’t get along with people?” I asked.
“You can try and fix it, but I’d say your odds are slim to none on that front,” he said seeming perfectly confident in his answer.
“There’s nothing I can do?” I asked.
“There’s always something you can do. You can try and work on your relationship skills by finding people who accept you for who you are but that’s going to be difficult because you are not an easy person to get along with,” he explained.
“Just please tell me I don’t have to take any more meds,” I sad exhasperated.
“Unfortunately there is nothing I can give you that will make a significant impact,” he said. “What I can tell you is that – knowing you for over a decade – I know you have the capability to truly change and you have the drive to do it. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll find someone who will be willing to work with you and that eventually you’ll realize that this particular person is worth the effort.”
I couldn’t believe that he was being so positive. It was so unlike him to behave that way.
“98% of people aren’t going to like you,” he said. “But these people are making snap judgments and would you really want to be friends with people like that anyway?”
“I just want someone who’s willing to work with me – exactly as I am – and help me be a better person,” I said.
“And with that attitude,” he said. “Eventually that will happen.”
I felt relieved for a moment because impending doom no longer seemed to lurk around the corner, but I was still concerned about the fact that even my most basic friendships throughout my life had never worked out.
“Most people’s friendships don’t survive into adulthood,” he said. “I can remember a couple people I went to high school or college with but I’m not friends with them anymore.”
I had a professor once who tried to explain life as a series of transitions. As we transition from boyhood into adulthood we strip ourselves of the things we don’t need so that we can have room for the things we will need. As we move into middle age we identify what matters most to us and set up a prioritization chain. When we get old we reflect on what we accomplished and try to help those who are just starting out whatever help we can because toward the end of life we see exactly what’s worth it in the long run.
Since my diagnosis I have still yet to retain even the most basic of friendships and relationships of all kinds continue to suffer, but I haven’t given up hope because I know that someone is going to see the value that lies within me and that this person will see all of the positive things I have to offer the world. I’m not saying that they will see me as I see me, but I think that there has to be someone out there that understands what it’s like to have the best intentions and still come up short every time. The world is filled with people with myriad experiences. It’s up to us to find the value in them just as they seek to find the value in us.