He and his brother had to help their mom deliver a Relief Society newsletter each Sunday to women in the ward. The worst house on the route had a big, black dog that barked and strained at its chain every time they approached. Finally, one day they went to deliver the newsletter… and the dog wasn’t chained. It pounced, and they never helped deliver again.
His takeaway was that each of us has things that keep us from getting close to others – big, black dogs, if you would – that we need to tame or keep chained, or maybe find a new home for in order to develop close personal relationships. He encouraged us to find them and determine what we could do to help people navigate their way.
I turned to the girl sitting next to me and asked, “Do I have any big, black dogs?” Her response struck me. “Tons.”
Now don’t get me wrong. Most big, black dogs can be really cute when you get to know them… and so can things that present differences in relationships. Take being gay. Some guys have awesome fashion sense. Many of us have extraordinary musical talents. Gay guys are often really nice (the joke: Why are all the nice guys gay… or Mormon… or both?). And our values for family and love are unparalleled.
But with the territory also come some major drawbacks.
I could pretend to speak for gay men at large, but I’m pretty sure that I’d make a mess of context. And I’m absolutely sure that I’d be inaccurate. So instead of talking about generalities and hoping for universal application, I’ll just write about the issues I have in my own relationships. And since I’m not just attracted to men, but also autistic and bipolar, this will try to address all the big, black dogs on my doorstep. There are a lot of them. Most people don’t get anywhere near the gate, let alone the front door… but I’m hoping that with time I can figure out how to help people learn to tame them.
If you want to be my friend (boy or girl, long- or short-term), here are some of the things you’ll want to understand.
Homosexuality and Relationships
There’s a firestorm around this topic. But, simply, I think that it’s really important that guys and girls realize that trying to be in a relationship with me is going to be significantly harder than just finding a nice straight guy to be friends/lovers with. Which means that there needs to be a real, honest, compelling reason to pursue it from both sides.
As far as dating goes, I think it even goes so far as to say that, if a good Mormon girl simply married me – a good gay Mormon boy… to paraphrase a prophet… I’m not totally sure that we could always make it work out. Maybe. I’m not sure. But I don’t think anyone should take that chance, and I’ve seen how incredibly painful that can be.
A part of the issue is that, even if I do eventually see a miracle and fall in love with a girl, that will probably not change the need I have for male interaction and intimacy. I need guy time.
Which moves into the issue of being my friend as a guy. From what I’ve been able to observe, most normal guys (normal is defined solely for the purposes of this post as people who do not have, individually or severally, autism/bipolar/ssa) don’t have really deep needs for intimacy with other guys. They don’t ponder on the meaning of their relationships or usually spend hours talking about the things that sit deepest in their hearts. And with the modern sexualization of touch, guys who are “professional” – and those in the MBA and my other courses of study definitely match well here – avoid touch completely except for the rare, formal handshake.
If you want to be my friend, you’ll have to break out of that. Open up to me. Talk to me. My love languages (if you’re familiar with the 5 love languages) are quality time and touch – so use them abundantly.
And as far as creating arbitrary boundaries or feeling awkward or wondering if I’m hitting on you to seduce you, get over it. I’m not interested in anyone that way, and that includes you. Do I want you to spend time with me? Yeah. Talk with me? Yeah. Touch me? Yeah. Never break your word to me? Yeah. Help me feel loved and befriended? Yeah. Have sex with me? No.
Autism and Relationships
So, if you’re ready to navigate the awkward world of same-sex attraction, then we go on to the next dog that will keep you from getting close. Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a developmental brain disorder that shifts an individual’s focus on the importance of information, as well as shifting the brain’s ability to process that information.
A positive and negative example: People with autism have significantly higher portions of their IQ reserved for problem solving. That means that we can store more variables and see problems from more angles than normal people – making us extremely competitive along the problem solving front. On the downside, the higher fluid IQ comes with different perceptions of what information is important. Most teenagers figure out what they should wear to school by watching their peers. They’re susceptible to intense peer pressure without anyone ever telling them what to do – because their brains focus so intensely on that information. As an adolescent, I honestly had no idea what my peers wore to school. I never thought to look or remember. I’ve never felt peer pressure. If that sounds foreign to you, then we’re getting someplace. It wasn’t until one day, just a few months ago, when I sat down in the hallway and began writing down exactly what people were wearing that I realized that everyone didn’t wear what I wore. I had no idea.
The biggest issue in autism, though, as it affects relationships, is that the social norms that clued my classmates into following the latest styles are also opaque to me, and there’s no way to sit down and watch social norms. And so I’m a walking social misstep… like a blind elephant trying to make my way through a china shop without breaking anything.
2 of the many social cues I’ve finally learned:
Look at people when you’re talking to them, and them to you. But not always, because looking more than 85% of the time makes most people uncomfortable for some reason, and even less than that depending on other issues. Sometimes they don’t want you to look at them, and sometimes they have low self-esteem, and sometimes they’re uncomfortable for some random reason that you don’t know, in which case most of the time you’ll see them looking away from you a lot. In those cases, try to match your eye contact with theirs.
When someone asks you a question like, “How was your day?” always ask them the same question back. And even if they are a close friend, always give the shortest possible explanation of what happened in the day and try to figure out if they are interested – if they are, let them ask questions and you can tell more. But always make sure to ask them the same question back.
Among the intractable issues in relationships are nonverbal communication and sarcasm. Which means that anything you would normally communicate using roundabout language, that the other person would pick up on his own, or that you could learn in another way than saying it straight out, you will now have to say straight out. Even if I know that you are being sarcastic, that is not enough. You need to be completely sincere with me. (side note: Never use sarcasm. For anything. Ever. It is never funny. It never lightens my mood. It never helps me understand or get close to you. Even if I think I get it, it makes me feel isolated, alone, and definitely not part of the group.)
That means that when I call you too many times in a day, or I let too long pass between when I called you last, you need to tell me how you feel and what I can do better.
What’s crazy, I’ve learned, is that most normal people feel really awkward doing this. When people correct them, they are often deeply offended that someone would have the gall to tell them what to do in social situations. So people are polite, and kind, and never tell others the things they do that bother them or how they could improve their personality or relationships.
That makes no sense.
If you do not tell me, I will never learn. Ever. I won’t pick up on hints, and when the relationship finally sours because you can’t take it anymore, I will be left frustrated and confused because you blew up on me for something you never told me about and that I honestly had no idea was an issue one way or another.
If you do tell me, I will love you forever. Correct my posture. Tell me not to put my feet on the table. That food, when it hits the ground, is off limits for social, and not just sanitary, reasons. Tell me how often you expect me to call, and when you want to end a conversation, and when you don’t want me to hang up. Tell me to text you, or not to text you, to touch you or not to touch you. Help me understand the nuances that guide your own interactions with the world, and help me see the rules of the game that everyone else plays. Be “brutally honest” if that helps you be honest instead of “polite” – just tell me everything in the most clear and candid way possible. That’s the only way I learn.
And I will be grateful, and do whatever I can to change.
Then, because I lack parts of a fully developed Theory of Mind, I’ll have no idea what stage our relationship is at unless you tell me. Every time I call you or text you, I’ll wonder if you love me or hate me… if the text message I’m about to send will get to you and make you feel loved, or if it will make you think, “Wow. Again? When will he get a clue?” And if you keep getting closer, and I start to really care, I’ll constantly ask you if I’m bothering you, if you love me, and want to know the status of the relationship almost every day that passes. That means that I’ll be wary about everything – from asking you to be a friend in the first place (does this person like me or hate me?) to anything else that follows. (another side: You may get the temptation to tell me to chill out or stop overthinking my life. If I were normal, like you, that would be perfectly fine. Chilling out would allow me to naturally learn all the things I’m missing. But I’m not. My brain does not allow for that possibility, and “chilling out” is usually literally impossible, especially since I have no idea what it means. Instead of giving me vague feedback like this, give me something clear that I can apply.)
Oh. And because I don’t know the level of our relationship and have a hard time feeling loved (which is bleeding into the next section), I almost always feel intensely and completely alone, even when surrounded by people who I know love and care about me. I always feel like an outsider. You’ll need to be able to love me even when you can see that it’s not getting to my side.
Bipolar Depression and Relationships
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve come closer to me than 99.93% of the people in my life. You’ve learned how to patiently navigate the pains of autism, are committed to trying to understand SSA… and then I go into a bipolar mood swing.
And I try to cut all ties with you because my world has changed.
I’m a rapid cycle bipolar. When I’m not on medication or a crazy diet, I cycle into depression up to 4x each month, with each swing lasting a few days. You’ll need to know that, in those moments, I want nothing else than to be loved… but that I also don’t believe that anyone in the world could love me or is worth my time. I believe that the only reason that people spend time with me is that they are obligated somehow – whether by God or by societal norms I don’t understand. I’m not worthy of their love, so I push them away as hard as I can, even as far as trying to convince them that I’m really okay, and go curl up in a corner and cry.
The only way you can show me that you care is never letting me push you away and physically coming into my life. Driving to wherever I am, pulling me from whatever I am doing, and taking me somewhere outside myself. Forcing me to come with you, or at least giving me a hug and not letting go. I may not show any signs that it has helped. It will probably be a miserable experience for you. But when I’ve come out from the low, probably faster because you’ve helped, I will appreciate your love and know that you really care – and that it’s not just a show.
If you don’t keep me from cutting ties with you, I’ll feel the same trepidation about the relationship as I did before, realize that I’ve done something to hurt it from wherever it was before, and probably try to just give up and move on. If you find yourself in this place, you’ll have to decide whether you think I’m worth it.
Recently I’ve tried to open up to people about my depression. To share when it’s happening and to ask for help. It’s interesting, because I can still process information using my brain that knows everything I knew before – I’m just in an overwhelming emotional state at the same time. So I could tell a joke, and honestly laugh because it’s funny, and cry at the same time because I am so incredibly sad.
So… yeah. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and probably a good reason why navigating the process to become a really close friend isn’t something that a peer has ever done. Some people have tried, a few have gotten close, but I don’t think a peer has really made it yet. I know people 15+ years older or younger who have seemed to navigate the issues more easily, but I don’t know why… and I love those relationships. Maybe it’s because non-peer relationships themselves can only go so far.
Either way, those are some of the issues at hand in my life. And since I’m getting to the end of this post, I’ll invite you to think about the things that you face – the big, black dogs that make it hard for you to begin and develop meaningful relationships with others – whether they’re in your control or not. Learning about them is always good, whether it enables you to change yourself, or help someone who cares know what to expect as they walk towards the front door.