Like most socially challenged people, I remember being thirteen. It was a bad year. I sat in the guidance counselor’s office every week wailing about how the other kids didn’t like me. Even though I was smart. And sensitive.
“People like unique people as they get older,” she’d said. Or something like that.
But then one day I went home and discovered something awful.
I opened the Buffy fan guide I’d been waiting for. And at the back of the book, in the cast interviews, the gloriously bitchy Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia!) was saying that adult life is basically high school.
How shocking is that for a kid! You’ve got most adults telling you that this is just a provisional phase. Those catty bitches will get their comeuppance once everyone learns that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And you, being a unique, misunderstood, and very special individual that you are, are going to own this world when you grow up. Because you deserve it.
But you did grow up. And by now you’ve probably realized that Cordelia was right after all.
Now that’s not saying it doesn’t get better. You’ve probably made an incredible amount of progress. But sometimes you still get reminders. Like when you make friends with a particularly hard-to-infiltrate circle at your office. You sit with them at lunch. There’s just that little push left to make before they become bona-fide friends.
And then you find out that they’re having their parties without you.
It’s just another reminder that, as an inherently awkward person, there’s some ceilings you haven’t broken yet. And you’ve got an impending creepy feeling that you probably never will.
I’m a 29-year-old woman with Asperger’s. I know.
There’s an arc that every outcast goes through. It looks something like this:
- Low point
- Pushing yourself
- Moderate success
The low point comes early. When I was a kid, my mom begged the other moms to send their kids to my birthday party. My only friend was a girl named Heloise from special-ed who the other kids thought was mute. I spent high school in this born-again guy’s basement playing Dungeons and Dragons. I didn’t go to a party until college. And that was only because my one popular friend- this slick twink named Mario- decided to bring me.
The moderate success was in grad school. I spent the better part of a year in this dive bar with a bad reputation. Patrons called it a Wild West saloon.
I loved that bar so much. I could throw on my not-quite-on-the-nose clothes and go play poker with the cool kids. I drank too much and fell asleep listening to folk music. I was chill, and people liked that. So I didn’t really have to initiate anything. Plus everybody was so fucking baked that you were expected to trail in conversation.
For that one year, in that one bar, I was cool.
I became a fixture at the party house. Which was kind of a feat. We hear about hippies being all love-everybody and everything, but this crowd was as selective as the top 10 percent of anyone else. I had a wonderful time that year. But as nice as people were to me, I was never actually comfortable.
That’s the thing about growing up as an outcast. You carry it with you. You can’t let yourself go around anyone who talks to people with ease. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Not to mention the fact that your newfound cool probably won’t carry over as much as you want. At some point, you’re gonna have to have that reckoning.
It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It could be just that the crowd breaks up naturally and you can’t make your way into another one.
Or maybe, like I did, you’ll start to feel like a little bit of a hypocrite.
My reckoning was when I started dating that bar’s outcast. (After having been dumped by that crowd’s local clique-bridging sage because he couldn’t deal with my Asperger’s.) Interests-wise, my new man totally belonged there. But he rubbed people the wrong way. He spoke more sharply than he meant to. He was more competitive at poker than he was supposed to be too. He knew that, but he was so eager to compensate for his lack of social graces that he couldn’t help it.
I hated listening to my new friends trash him. But I didn’t defend him as much as I should have since I was so worried about looking uncool. I remember my sage ex glaring at me from across the table, like You’re not sticking up for Chris? Where’s your honor?
Four years later, Chris is the only person from that bar I’m still in touch with.
Knowing your place is a dark concept for us forward-thinking Americans to digest. But it’s always been true. People go from frat house to Wall Street. Queen bee to head of the PTA. Awkward girls who can’t make friends in middle school become the weird old ladies in the nursing home who no one wants to play bridge with. Some nerds make money. Especially in tech. But there’s cliques you have to impress in the workplace too.
We can have plenty of nerd friends. There’s an unlimited number of nerds out there honestly. But most of us still have that quiet desperation. We still don’t go out as much, even together. Even though we’d have more power than we think if we rolled in 20 nerds deep.
I think a lot of us feel like we don’t have the right to complain. Like this shit is a First World problem. It’s not. Poor social skills are a shitty hand to be dealt. Because no matter how far you’ve come, you always feel like you’re not doing enough. You’re always scared that people are going to find someone better to hang out with and leave you. It’s such a weight on your back.
Worst of all, being socially inept is a cross that everybody can see.
You should check yourself sometimes, if you’re awkward. You could become a mean, bitter person. Many of us prioritize our few outgoing, cool friends over the nerds. Even though the nerds are going to be there once the cool crowd fades out.
I used to be a real shit about this. I got an inch and I tried to take a mile. I got hit on by charismatic men. But it never worked out. I treated awkward men horribly because I was pissed that they were all I could get.
I hated my friends. And myself. I burned bridges beyond repair. I was cruel to people who cared about me because I assumed they’d hurt me first.
It’s hard facing this life. Being socially inept is real damage. We’ll always have to work harder to be liked. We’ll always have to be more competent to get the job. But if we work on what we have to offer the world we might find doors opening for us that we never knew existed.
Keep some perspective too. Hard knocks exempt no one. I still have a hard time having sympathy for anyone who has social skills. But as you get older you learn that life catches up with all of us.
I know a girl whose life was almost perfect. Last year, her partner of four years: her dream guy- abruptly left her for someone else. I’m not sure I’d trade autism for the deep-seated trust issues she’s living with now. Not to mention, you know, everyone who has cancer, is stuck in a wheelchair, has schizophrenia, etc.
There’s a reason underdog stories are popular. People want justice. But the only real equalizer is pain. We get betrayed by someone we trusted more than anyone else in this world. We have dreams that pass us by. We get old. We die. You’d think humans would love each other more since we’re so fragile and all.
The best thing you can do is try to make a small positive change in the world. Be good to your friends. Find some people more awkward than you are and try to help them along.
I know it’s still a badge of honor to transcend our circle. But we’re not inherently less. We’re not. Clear your mind. I’d trade a thousand Cosmo-reading, public-relations-working bridezillas for one weird girl who knows her shit about eighteenth-century France. Nerds are smart. Smart is interesting. Trust me, it’s far more difficult for the average person to be interesting than cool.
Our world might be smaller you guys. But it doesn’t have to be lonely. We can still sit on a comfy sofa in the corner of the room with our friends, having inappropriately intense conversations while other people pour cheap drinks and dance. That’s our natural state anyway. We just have to let ourselves love it.