“Let’s make a friend.”
The earliest memory I can recall is probably from a time when I was three or four years old.
Here’s the memory: me and two friends are talking, playing, engaged in a sort of role playing discussion, where an adventure is in progress…or something like that. The memory is that we’re working out who plays which role…how the adventure should proceed.
We’re laying out rules; negotiating. We’re pre-playing, in a way, because we know that any subsequent recreation will only be meaningful if it’s predicated on a reliable, stable set of principles.
This is my first memory. Negotiating…laying out the ground rules. Play.
I don’t think it’s terribly relevant that these two friends did not actually exist. It was all imaginary, something I would end up doing a lot over the years. What does seem relevant to me is the fact that this memory contains a contradiction that would become a defining feature of my social existence: a strong need for solitary play combined with a strong need for friends.
Early in life, I noticed that playing alone seemed to meet all of my recreational needs. It was engaging, it made sense. I could invent characters to take the place of friends. And yet, at the same time, I felt an intense need to be with people. I had a hard time understanding this growing conflict inside of me.
Even as a very young kid, I could look at myself, my habits- then look at other kids and see that there were differences between us. I couldn’t name the differences, I just knew they were there.
I made perfect sense to me. Other people…not so much.
Around second grade, when I was seven, I put a lot of effort into bridging this gap between myself and others. I was motivated by this incipient desire to connect.
The problem is that my recreational habits were very specific to me. I liked to create stories in my head, act them out with imagined characters, all according to a very specific set of rules that I was constantly creating and refining (all while taking frequent breaks to rub walls, smell books, just meeting whatever random sensory needs came along).
Other kids seemed to engage in a communal style of interaction that allowed them to be with others, all without ever having to explicitly state goals and ground rules. And they never seemed to pause for sensory needs. They just…played. Naturally, intuitively.
I couldn’t figure out how they were doing it. For me, group activities were like a different language; and no matter how much I wanted to, I didn’t speak play.
Back to my efforts to make friends…here’s how it played out.
At school, usually on the playground, I would survey my surroundings…identify people I wanted to speak with. I would then walk up and begin verbalizing whatever was on my mind. No greeting or preface, I would just talk directly out of my head.
I was always enthusiastic about my interests, so I was more than happy to discuss those. I would talk about cartoons a lot. Cartoons were interesting. Also, for a lot of my childhood, I had an obsessive interest in aliens. I read a lot of science fiction as a kid and kept a pretty extensive list of which aliens I thought were most likely real, so I liked talking about that situation. (I wasn’t a deep thinker. Give me cartoons and/or aliens…I was good to go.)
That was the scene: me, walking up to kids, abruptly launching into a monologue, followed by a dozen or so questions designed to bring others into the discussion. I just had this strong impulse to both share my reactions and hear what others were thinking about the same topics.
I didn’t know this until I started to work on the making-a-friend project…but I was hungry for conversation.
These efforts obviously didn’t go over so well. I didn’t mean to be, but I was disruptive. Kids busy playing together weren’t thrilled when their game was interrupted by some rambling, awkward kid. Invariably, after I’d gone on for a few minutes, kids would push me away…sometimes I’d get kicked or hit.
The group-play-as-different-language: it was a problem. Other kids just wanted to play together, but I was solitary about that sort of thing. For me, group stuff meant conversation. It meant lots and lots of talking. Our styles were profoundly incompatible.
At first, I didn’t take rejection too hard. I assumed I’d have plenty of opportunities to make something happen. Looking around, the playground was filled with so many groups…all of these roaming, mysterious, kid-filled consortiums…it just seemed inevitable that I’d finally break into one of them.
Following a bad interaction, I’d go off somewhere, try to puzzle out what was going wrong. I thought maybe my conversation topics needed work…or I just had to find the right group. I’d think it through, try again…walk up to kids, start talking, get pushed away.
It was pretty brutal. Took a few years before I finally gave up the project. I don’t know why it took so long to quit. Some part of me kept thinking I’d figure it out. That loneliness grew and grew.
Adults would sometimes try to help, but they weren’t so helpful. One time, in fifth grade, I got knocked around by bullies so much that a teacher took me aside, told me I should start seeing the school counselor.
I didn’t know what she meant by that. But she set it up; for the rest of the school year, once a week or so, I’d sit in this little office and the school counselor would talk to me about self-esteem and being confident and feeling good about myself.
I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. Why were we discussing me? I had lots of serious questions about the other kids…how they worked, how communication and connection worked…I needed real help with all of that. None of this self-esteem crap seemed particularly relevant.
The only good thing is that the counselor would give me some grape juice and a few cookies each time I went. That wasn’t so bad. I’d sit there, listen to her lecture about stuff that seemed off topic. I’d tear into the cookies and juice, wait it out.
The help my parents offered was usually quite a bit worse (I suspect because they had the power to actually implement plans and re-organize my life). They meant well, but anytime they got involved, it was usually a pretty big headache.
For example, I’d come home from school emotional, upset about feeling alone. Sometimes I’d have bruises from getting knocked around.
My parents’ thinking was that, if I had trouble making friends, I should sign up for youth sports. That way, I was guaranteed to be part of a group, one with shared activities and goals…it just seemed like a logical way for me to start meshing with my peers.
The problem is that lack of friends was just a symptom and not the core issue. (Later, the underlying neurological stuff would be explained to me…the fact that I wasn’t learning to send and receive non-verbal communication; the fact that I couldn’t interpret body language.) With the core issues being so invisible, “solutions” tended to miss the mark and not make a lot of difference.
Instead of making it easier to form friendships, sports just gave me all new chances to struggle socially. I continued to have issues joining group dynamics. Other kids confused me; I confused them. It was no good.
It didn’t help that I’m just not constructed to be athletic. I’m an introvert. A reader. An inside cat. In a competitive context, I was too low-energy and disorganized to make anything happen.
I remember during my one season of baseball, the coaches stuck me in an outfield position. I’d stare at the grass, kick around trying to make bugs appear. If a ball landed near me, I’d startle…think, “Whoa, that almost hit me.” Then I would notice everyone screaming, pointing at the ball. I’d pick it up, toss it wherever. I don’t know. Sports didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
They made sense to my parents, though…they thought the whole thing was a pretty great solution to my social deficits. Each year, they would stick me into a different sport…I would find all new ways to baffle coaches and alienate my peers.
Sometimes mom would arrange play-dates for me. My parents were heavily into church…it functioned as a community for them, where they could seek help from people they trusted.
So, every so often, mom would go to a friend’s house, someone who had a kid my age…and the parents would hang out. Ostensibly, I would “hang out” as well, but mostly I just remained in the general vicinity of the other kid, doing my best to seem life-like. I’d stare at my shoes and mumble some stuff about aliens. I was too confused by people, and increasingly too shy, to make that connection happen.
The only good thing about the play-dates is that they never involved the kind of violent rejection I’d get at school. I guess since the whole thing was arranged…and the parents were nearby…the other kids never felt like they could get away with kicking me. That was a real plus.
Around 6th grade or so, I abandoned the “Let’s make a friend” project and switched to a new one called “Let’s hide from people”. That one worked out a lot better. I was pretty good at that one.
Away from the other kids, I would play. Characters, scenarios, adventures, all in my head. It was comfortable, enjoyable. Parallel to that, I struggled with an overwhelming sense of isolation.
These were not insurmountable challenges. I think I struggled to make progress for so long -I didn’t finally begin making friends until high school- due to a lack of understanding about the underlying neurological issues. I think an accurate diagnosis alone could have made a substantial difference.
It also helped to realize that my persistent need for solitary play and my persistent need for human connection are not contradictory facts. I ran into trouble any time I tried to “solve” these issues by emphasizing one need over the other. Trying to “fix” things created unrealistic expectations…led me down paths that always circled back around, left me in the exact same place, confused, frustrated, all because I was fighting against phantom contradictions.
It turns out, both needs are valid, just at different times. They’re not a contradiction, not a problem to be solved. The interplay between my mind and other people…the interplay between solitude and connection: these are not forces at odds with one another. They just are.
If that doesn’t make sense, that’s okay. I get that a lot.
This is just me talking at you. I do that sometimes.