Six: Learning how to be normal
Since my diagnosis, I have been having memories of different times in my life when I had realizations of how “normal” people behave.
I’m fine, thanks
I remember one day at lunch in high school, I was sitting on the wall by the drama building as usual, eating my peanut butter sandwich by myself (a single piece of bread, coated with an incredible amount of peanut butter, folded in half over itself). Groups of people would cluster on different parts of the wall, or on the pavement in small circles around the quad. A group of preppy girls was a few feet away, eating their lunch and talking, laughing, having a good time. Whenever I heard people laughing I got nervous, especially when it was young women. I assumed they were laughing at me, whispering observations that made them burst into giggles. One of them approached me. I knew her at the time but I can’t remember her name now, and her face is only vaguely familiar (freckles, dark brown long hair, very curley, bangs done up high in 1990s high school style). When something like this happened, I would get apprehensive. Did she want to talk? Did she want help with homework? Was she going to make fun of me? “Hi,” she said, sweetly, “how are you?”
I thought for a moment, never quite sure how to answer this question. “Well,” I began, “I’m a little tired today. And I’m kind of annoyed at my little brother. And on the bus this morning-”
“Fine,” she said, “I’m fine, and how are you?” She was looking at me with her eyes open expectantly. I stared at her blankly, confused. “That’s what you’re supposed to say, “ she explained, “When someone asks how you are doing, you can just say ‘I’m fine, how are you?’”
“Oh,” I said, absorbing this insight. She smiled.
“See you later,” she said, and then she turned and walked back to her group. A few moments later they all erupted into giggles. What had just happened? Was she trying to teach me how to be normal because she felt bad for me as she watched me awkwardly stumble my way through high school? Or, was I the butt of a joke to help keep her friends entertained while they waited for the lunch hour to pass? Or both, or something else? I don’t know if the question even occurred to me at the time — I was just happy to receive the advice.
From then on when anyone asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’m fine, how are you?” It was such a relief not to have to think about how I was actually doing, or what that even meant, or how to respond to that question in a way that was interesting, but not too detailed, but honest, but not too honest. I was grateful for her help. I felt like I finally understood the answer to a daily dilemma - and it was so simple! How had I never realized this before? How did everyone else know to ask each other how they were doing, and then to answer in such a concise and clear way? Who taught them?
One day I used my new line with one of the drama kids I hung around with. She was cool, and not at all concerned with social protocols. She asked me how I was and I said, “I’m fine, how are you?” And she said, “I’m OK.” She paused, looking at me skeptically, and then said, “Are you really ‘fine’? What does that mean, ‘fine’?” I didn’t really know what it meant, of course. I was saying it because I was taught that it is the appropriate thing to say. When I said I was fine, what was I describing? “I don’t know,” I said. We both laughed. From then on I would say, “I’m OK, how are you?” or “I’m fine, how are you?” depending on who was asking. I don’t think I understood the difference, but I would try to pick the one that felt less likely to be questioned.
Over the years I came to understand the code of how to answer “how are you?” a little bit better, I think it’s something like this:
Fine = I don’t really want to tell you and I don’t care how you are doing, either
OK = I’m actually not doing very well but I’m not going to elaborate
Good = things are actually OK
Great = I’m totally BSing but I want to say something that sounds a little surprising and lightens the mood, and I don’t think you are going to ask me why I’m so great, so I don’t have to worry about explaining.
Gradually I came to realize that this question isn’t really about how you are doing, and everyone else already knows that, too. It’s just a way to fill the silence, and also to make people feel like they are being polite. If you don’t ask, somehow people think that means you are rude, even though they don’t intend to answer the question honestly, and they don’t care how you are doing in anycase. I get it now, and I follow the protocol, but it still bothers me. Why can’t we just say, “hi” and exchange knowing glances?
Things not to say in small talk
I have a shadowy memory of a rare night out with my older brother some time in our young adulthood. We were at a party together, something that couldn’t have happened until after we left home for college, because we would never have spent time together before that. The party was at a big house in the hills, occupied by one of the many families that had a lot more money than we did. Everyone was hanging around outside. It was a typical summer night in our home town. Beautiful stars, chill in the air, and bonfires keeping people warm. My brother introduced me to a young woman who was in his class in high school. She was average height, had long curly blond hair, and looked vaguely familiar. She told me she was the older sister of a guy named Daniel, who had been in my class. Daniel’s face immediately flashed in my mind - it was the same as her face. “Oh,” I said, “I know your brother.”
My recollection is that Daniel and I were never friends or even in the same circles, but I had been around him in the way that you would inevitably be around people of your class from time to time. I think I found him vaguely annoying, perhaps because of the loudness or particular tone of his voice, or perhaps because he was talkative. I didn’t really like Daniel (there were very few people that I really liked), but I didn’t have any animosity toward him. I had no reason to think anything bad of him.
Not sure what else to say, I looked at his sister and the words that came out were just what had been going through my mind, “I never really liked your brother.” It seemed like an innocuous observation, the kind of thing someone might say in “small talk”, which, I think, is what we were engaging in. “Oh,” she said, seeming perhaps a bit surprised. And then she didn’t say anything else. My brother laughed a little awkwardly and the two of them walked off.
Later, on the way home, I mentioned to my brother that the young woman didn’t seem to like me. He laughed and said, “Dude, you told her you didn’t like her brother. That’s a weird thing to say to someone.” I laughed, not sure what to think, perhaps with some degree of pride in my weirdness, which at least made me unique. If someone told me they didn’t like my brother, I would probably have felt endeared to them, and say, “Yeah, me neither.” In my head, though, I made a mental note not to tell people you don’t like them, or their family members, even if it’s true. Like many realizations, perhaps it seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time it felt like a genuine insight - like I was learning some kind of secret that everyone else had been in on for a long time.
I never had any intention of going to my high school prom. I thought going by myself would be stupid (the word I used to describe many things in high school), and obviously nobody would go with me. It never occurred to me to ask anybody, because it was so clearly understood as an impossibility. Who could I ask to prom who wouldn’t respond by either laughing, or by saying something like “It’s so sad that you think you could even ask me that”? I could have found a group to “tag along” with, I suppose, but appending myself awkwardly to a group of friends is tiring, and something I’d been doing for my entire life. And besides, the whole concept of prom seemed weird to me.
I didn’t want to go to the prom. Why would people want to spend a bunch of money to dress up in ways that seemed fake and pretentious, just to listen to the same music they listen to all the time, and hang around with the people they normally hang around with anyway? And I didn’t hang around with those people. And I didn’t like that music. Going to prom would be an aberration for me, just as not going to prom would be an aberration for a popular kid. But still, something about it fascinated me. What did people see in it? Why were they so excited? Why did they think it was important? Where did people learn how to dress for such an occasion? Or how to ask someone to be their date? How did people know what to do when they got there? And where did everybody learn how to dance, anyway?
I convinced myself that what I wanted instead of going to prom was to make fun of those who did, and also to do a bit of investigating. The night of prom I walked down to the convention center where it was being held and sat on the short wall bordering the parking lot across the street. I watched from my perch as couples I didn’t recognize, and had never seen before, pulled up. Many looked happy, truly happy. Some drove their parents’ fancy cars. Many were dressed up in ways that I’d never seen and couldn’t have imagined (most of the time I wore ill fitting, mostly dirty, clearance rack pants, tee-shirts, and sweatshirts that had tears and holes from wear). I could see the feeling of specialness in the prom goers’ eyes as they held hands and walked into the venue. I didn’t understand it, or desire it, but it felt genuine to me. I had been expecting it to just be a pretentious show, to be somehow ridiculous, or cliche.
I was surprised to see genuine happiness and excitement in people’s eyes. Surprised and saddened, though I’m not sure I recognized those feelings at the time. Something was dawning on me as I watched these happy classmates of mine, whom I didn’t know, and didn’t hang out with, walk purposefully and expectantly into the convention center. I couldn’t then, and still can’t now, quite articulate what my realization was, but I felt like a window into “normal life” was briefly opening for me. Something about the ritual, the anticipation, the tradition, the sense of reaching a milestone, the idea of participating in something that everyone collectively looks forward to at this unique moment in their lives. Everyone but me. I didn’t live in that world where prom was a thing - something people talked about, something people looked forward to, something people knew was an important part of their “high school experience”. I was just counting the days for high school to be over with so I could move on to something else, there was no part of me that was looking forward to any aspect of the experience.
I wasn’t the only one watching. Matt, another boy who thought everyone was an idiot, had a similar idea. After twenty minutes or so we both realized that we had been wrong. “This is depressing,” Matt said. He left. After a few more minutes, I turned away, and walked home in the dark, having nowhere else to go.