Deeper into Allegheny National Forest, I made camp for a few nights at a designated site along one of the narrow, meandering, unpaved forest roads. It was one of the rare few that got decent sunlight for my solar panels and still looked directly into the dense wooded forest that I fell in love with at Hearts Content.
A rabbit hopped gingerly into the clearing each afternoon to eat the grass and leaves. I enjoyed watching him munching.
I’m slowly making my way toward Connecticut for a family gathering, and as I’m getting closer, I’m feeling more and more anxious. It probably won’t be as bad as my anxiety is making it out to be, but there’s a lot of anxiety talking right now. There will be a lot of group socialization, and I’m not sure how people will react to this new version of me, which I am painfully aware is still in process. Plus, the group time will be mostly outside with bugs and wind and grass brushing my skin. I spend a lot of time in forests but I don’t actually go outside for long because of sensory issues. I’ll also be sharing my van—my refuge—with someone else for several days as Mom lives here with me.
I am intentionally not distracting myself from my anxiety, which is a particularly uncomfortable feeling, in order to listen to it to find what is at the root of my fears: stuff that has been bubbling just below the surface for a while.
It’s good that this is coming up, and I’m not afraid that I’ll get sucked into it—I have too much support from friends and family who won’t let me “go to the dark”—because I need to deal with this gunk in order to resolve it so it can actually go away. Hiding from it, or pushing it down, or refusing to think about it, are short term strategies that have let me get on with the day to day practicalities of life, but they became ingrained habits long ago and it is finally time to freak out (in a safe, padded environment) for a bit.
What I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, are rules. And feeling a lot like I’ve been forced, throughout my life, to try to make the best out of a set of rules don’t work for me.
You know how sometimes a rule is made for one particular situation but gets over-generalized to fit way more people and circumstances then is reasonable? Or was a bad rule to begin with? And there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change it or get around it, so you just have to make do? Well, I think I’ve been feeling like that for a good chunk of my life. At least since late elementary school.
The teachers complained that I read too advanced books for my age, that I didn’t raise my hand to answer questions even though they knew that I knew the answer, and that I didn’t play enough with the other kids. Later that I was weird for liking Latin and was too enthusiastic in science and actually liked math even though I struggled.
By high school they were complaining that I wasn’t a “peacock”—that I didn’t show off all that I could do but just did it without fanfare. That I wanted to take too many math and science classes but was also good at English and history and they couldn’t figure that out. And I wasn’t interested in boys or dating, which apparently meant there was something wrong with me, or lacking, as well.
I didn’t fit into their “types,” and that was a problem for some people. Although they weren’t usually the people who mattered most to me, I took that to heart and really believed that something was wrong with me.
So I tried to fit in, tried to be normal, but no matter what I tried, it didn’t work right. That’s not how my brain works, so when I tried something, when I tried to act like the people around me, to imitate their behaviors, it backfired as often as not and I got laughed at or teased or ridiculed. Most of the time I couldn’t even figure out what it was that I did or said that was in any way different from what they were doing. It was apparently just a little off but I could never figure out how.
Over time, the frequent repetitions of that scenario made me shy away and want to retreat farther inside myself. Yet retreating specifically prevented me from learning how to get better in social situations, so that when I tried again or was forced into that situation again, I was more anxious and hadn’t learned anything since the last time because of lack of exposure, so it was more likely to go bad then well and that heaped on more anxiety. It became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Even though I’m not completely inept in social situations, I had built up a belief that I was.
A Ted Talk keeps coming to mind, in which Rosie King, a young autistic woman, describes something similar to this, and asks how it would feel “if that was the best compliment you ever received. ‘Wow, you are really normal.’ ” That’s a pretty pathetic life goal, but it was essentially what some part of me wanted more than anything.
I worked hard for years to make the best out of a set of social rules that defines my way of being in the world as bad or wrong or lacking. Our society highly values group socialization and treats someone who is not comfortable with that as a party pooper, spoil sport, no fun, kill joy, antisocial, and I’ve even heard jerk and loser.
Those are all derogatory terms in ways that the socially comfortable do not understand. And their message was clear, so I’ve forced myself to go to parties and family events and birthday celebrations and all sorts of things because I felt I ought to or should or was expected to or they bugged me enough until I agreed or made me feel bad for not wanting to go, as if it were a personal insult to them. As if not wanting to go to someone’s birthday party meant that I hated them. (And when I got there they spent hardly any time with me but seemed upset when I wanted to leave early.)
Maybe I just didn’t want to be around 15 to 20 people including screaming kids and a dozen conversations at once and balloons popping and brightly colored decorations glaring at me and maybe all of that made me feel like I was going to crawl out of my skin or go mad and I spent the entire time trying not to scream or cry or run away. How am I a jerk for avoiding that?
Not to dwell on the social stuff alone, I’ve tried to have the one track career and find the one thing that will be my passion and that will make me happy and still make money, but almost every career-track job I’ve ever had was a nightmare of sensory overwhelm and inept bureaucratic rules that prevented me from changing anything that would possibly help.
And relationship rules don’t work for me, either. I’m apparently weird and abnormal and deficient because I don’t have a string of ex-boyfriends and broken heart tragedies and maybe a kid or two in tow.
I would in fact like an emotionally intimate, stable, long-term relationship with someone who shares some interests, and who is, yes, male, but I’m not particularly romantic and never have been.
That’s one for which I haven’t worked all that hard at conforming to other peoples rules, yet I’ve beat myself up emotionally for not being married with children by now. I’ve paradoxically been very proud of not having a string of relationships, because that felt like staying within the (idealized) rules (not society’s actual expectations), but that probably had more to do with my sensory issues not letting me get close enough to anyone to even have a chance of breaking those particular rules, not my own virtue as I have thought for many years.
I have tried so hard to play by society’s rulebook, or what I understand of it, and it has been killing me a little more every decade. And so I bitterly hate those rules.
Yet the perverse situation now is that, since I have worked for so long and so hard at conforming to, and making the best of, a set of rules that hurt me, now that I am trying to figure out what I actually want, I don’t even know what I want. How do I know if what I think I want is because I actually want it or because I’ve been told so much that I should want it that I have absorbed that message?
Do I actually want to get married because I want to get married or because society tells me that I should want to get married? Do I actually want children or am I just responding to a mix of biological urges and social pressures?
I’ve already figured out for sure that I don’t want a long-term career in a single field, yet I’m still having to consciously acknowledge that over and over to myself because the pressure of that particular message was so strong for me.
And even though I’m accepting my own social comfort zone more and more, so many things are set up as big group events. Everything from going to church to birthdays to the family gathering I am heading to right now. Even though I like all the people that will be there and would be happy to talk with each of them one on one or in twos and threes, having everyone there at once is massively overwhelming and yet I feel like a jerk for even thinking of not going because it’s a family event and so I’m supposed to want to go. And if I do go, I hate myself because then I’m not honoring my needs. Ack! Aagh! Argh!
Our society pays a lot of lip service to accepting people for who they are, but as a practical matter, that doesn’t happen very much. (And I painfully acknowledge that I am just as guilty of this as most people.)
I have tried so hard to carve out for myself a life that I can love within other people’s standards of what they consider good. It hasn’t worked. And I have felt trapped and imprisoned by this quest that is as impossible and self-contradictory as it is maddening.
And I think this quest is the root of another self-realization that I have only recently been able to admit.
It has been dawning on me over the last several months that I haven’t actually liked myself in a long time. I was terrified of saying that, of even admitting the faintest hint of that thought, for a really long time.
As a teenager I developed a philosophy that I had no regrets because all the choices that I made in my life made me who I was, and since I liked who I was, I wouldn’t change any of those choices. I told that to my dad once and I wasn’t ever sure from his face whether he was impressed or thought I was naïve. I have thought about his noncommittal reaction a lot, and about my certainty at such a young age.
Perhaps at the time I actually believed what I said, but now as I look back, I think I had already learned not to like myself but couldn’t bear that thought so much that I had to declare firmly that I did in order to protect my tender ego.
I am finally able to face the terrible thought that I don’t like the person who I became, and yes, it hurts, but I’m not going to be destroyed by it. Yet I have lately seen sparks of the wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, strong, loving, creative, interesting, compassionate person I like and love who is still inside me somewhere, and I want to meet her in her fullness someday.
But that can only happen if I stop forcing myself to conform to a set of rules that don’t work for me, and which are largely arbitrary anyway. (Birthday party invites are social norms, not a moral standard of what is right or good or true. A single-track career is easier to describe but no less legitimate or fulfilling than a meandering one.)
I am ready to give up that quest but don’t know what to replace it with. Do I even need to replace it? What would the alternative be? I’m lost and confused and don’t know which way to go.
I have a vague idea of what a better life might look like, and the road to get there, but the directions to that particular destination aren’t a roadmap, they are “pinch of salt” directions and I would so love to have a rulebook. And therein lies the problem. That I like rules. That I cling to rules as something stable and concrete that I can wrap my head around.
I don’t want to hear that “the journey will teach you the lessons of the journey,” and “praying will teach you to pray,” and wisdom like that.
I’m not so mired in concrete thinking that I need the whole thing spelled out for me in advance. I am willing to walk by faith to some extent. This Grand Adventure has been a lot of walking by faith. But I’ve also been confused a lot and could really use some role models of people who have done this before.
Okay, I’m going to stop myself there and clarify, because in the Orthodox Church we have tons of role models of Elders and Fathers of the Church and Mothers of the Church and Saints who have done this Journey and done it much better than I am doing, but their stories are usually something along the lines of “…and then he struggled in asceticism and spiritual labors for 20 years…” and then he died. (Excuse me, he was translated into glory.) All of the struggle has been reduced to a single line, and that line is the part that I need some role models for right now.
I know they got tempted to quit and didn’t. And they got tempted to cave in and didn’t. Over and over. Yet it all looks like it was a single giant effort when it’s a single line in a book, but it wasn’t. It was temptation after temptation, one more subtle than the next, for years and years. Which in many ways is much harder. A single giant effort is arduous and tremendous and impressive and all of that, but then it is over. Done. The race is won. There is no more war to fight.
But the constant battles require one to rise to the challenge, muster the effort, fight the good fight, time and again. Reminiscent of exasperatedly venting, “How many times have I told you…,” I just want the issue to be settled and done, once and for all.
What I am attempting, with modern trappings but faithfully following the footsteps of many before me, is a war that will not be over as long as I am on this Earth, and right now I just need to know that I’m on the right track. That I’m not just twisting myself into circles or building up yet another emotional or egotistical house of cards in a different guise. This is exactly what a Spiritual Father is for, by the way, and I really should reach out to mine once I get some cell signal again.
I know that I need to clear out my psychological baggage as a prerequisite to making any other kind of spiritual progress, and that includes learning not to judge myself by standards that have nothing to do with moral or spiritual goodness, like whether or not I have a job at any given time, whether I will ever get married, whether I’m seeing the must-see tourist attractions as I’m traveling, or visiting everyone I know along the way, and what I’m going to do next with my life. The answers to those questions don’t make me a good or bad person, and yet I have a hard time letting go of them because they’ve been so drilled into me and because people keep asking—out of innocent curiosity, probably, but my burdened psyche still feels pressure to have answers.
But accepting myself could so very easily turn into holding myself above others, and accepting my needs could so very easily turn into degrading other peoples’ needs. And sometimes I do this, especially when I start ranting about how I’ve felt trapped by other peoples’ expectations (wink), and how very, truly painful that has been. And of course everyone feels the pain of being different from the norm to varying extents and in varying ways, but that does not make my experience of it any less valid.
I don’t want to start comparing my pain to other peoples’ pain because I don’t know what their pain has been. And yet somehow, in some mystical way, empathy for others is precisely what’s needed, but isn’t empathy comparing? Just without the judgment? Or is it understanding? Identifying with, but not being lost in, the other? I’m not sure.
I’m not even sure if I’m expressing something that needs to be shared or if I’m just ranting. Have I at least gotten across how confused I am, if not by what? I’m not even sure I know exactly what I’m confused by, it’s just a big mess of confusion in my head right now.
Well, thank you for getting all the way through this. I hope you enjoyed the slightly out of focus pictures of the bunny.
I need to leave to head to Connecticut now. I’m not ready to leave. These woods are beautiful and calming (believe it or not) and I’m heading into a big frightening unknown. Check back soon to find out how it goes.
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