When I was 11, I had a crush on a boy who was a year younger, a boy from my church, and we also went to school together. Liking a boy in a lower grade than oneself was a thing that was simply not done, and so I concealed our puppy love, until it came out, as such things always do. My friends at the time both teased me for going out with a fifth grader, and embarked on a mission to flirt and lure him away from me. They had me coming and going, mortified, jealous, and exposed.
But that’s only kid stuff. Not like the time in college when I broke out of my usual mode of strict privacy in an attempt to bond with some girlfriends, trying to copy the way they forged their social bonds, by participating in a frank sexual conversation. And then one of them later repeated something highly personal that I’d said. Loudly. To a large group of acquaintances. In front of me.
I don’t mean to be oversensitive, of course. Maybe I was being overly sensitive too when I started my first blog, pouring out my innermost thoughts, kind of like I do here, but anonymously. It was something only my fellow anonymous internet bloggers ever saw until I worked up the courage to send the link to a close friend, the closest friend I’d had in years (maybe ever), to see what she thought, and she flatly replied, “it’s not you at your best.”
I should say former friend, because later that person sent me a letter informing me that she no longer wanted to be my friend, because she wanted to move on from me. That was not the first time that happened to me, by the way. It also happened to me the summer before seventh grade, a similar letter in the mail telling me that my friends had decided to be my friends no longer.
But, hey, I misjudge people sometimes. Like that time in my early 20s when I quit my job, and attempted to retain a friendship with one of my coworkers, sending her an email after I’d left, and including (again, oops! I never learn) a link to my blog. In hindsight, of course, I can plainly see how profoundly NOT my friend that person was, but at the time it didn’t cross my mind that she might cross me. She never replied, but another former coworker did email me, to tell me my “friend” had forwarded my blog to every single person in the company and they’d all laughed at me together and joked that I was crazy and in need of psychiatric help.
That’s the first time I’ve ever told that story to anyone but my husband, by the way, because for several years I couldn’t even think of that episode without feeling humiliation and shame nearly as fresh as the day it happened. I had nightmares about having to return to the company to work there again, for years.
Still, you would think that by age 30 I would have developed a better radar for trustworthy people. Instead, at that stage of life I found myself being dumped by a close colleague I’d worked with intimately for a few years. We were partners in business and, I thought, friends outside of work, until the day – which seemed to me completely out of nowhere – she told me coldly that I was nothing without her and she didn’t need me anymore. Nothing. It might sound like a House of Cards parody now, but it didn’t feel funny as I stood in a parking lot and wept uncontrollably, feeling like the unprofessional child she’d told me I was, but unable to stop myself crying.
Humiliation and shame. Those are recurring themes in my social life over the years. The life lesson learned is to hide. Hide everything you care about, hide the things that matter, hide all of your feelings, hide your true self, because letting people see you is dangerous.
Hiding is an early instinct for autistic people, I think. Because it only takes a few rejections and betrayals for us to note the pattern: expose yourself and you may be hurt. Because we have an intense drive to protect ourselves from pain. Because we often can’t tell which people, places, and situations are safe, so it’s best to just avoid risking it, and to hide our most valued things, our most intimate selves, out of sight.
The trouble is, this is unsustainable. Because like any other human being we long for connection, and so eventually we’ll do it again and take a risk. Like Charlie Brown agreeing to kick the football (a thing I think Charles Schulz well understood – I suspect he was autistic too), we always will end up trying again, one more time yet again, to let ourselves be seen and hope that this time people won’t pull the football away, and let us fall flat on our backs, and laugh.
Sometimes it becomes a weird feedback loop where, because we are hiding, we find ourselves surrounded by people who only actually love the false fronts we put on. Like my former friend who told me my innermost feelings were not “me at my best,” to these people our “best” side is the side we show to please them. This is not a deception, however; we have fully internalized the belief that we must try to be this “best side” of ourselves, the one that earns the approval of our family, friends, teachers, colleagues. We want to be at our best, don’t we? And so we push those embarrassing other parts of us down, out of sight, and we hide.
I still hide, all the time. I hide the things I love, the things I’m passionate about, the things that delight me, the things that I enjoy just for fun’s sake. I hide the books I’m reading when they’re about social justice. I hide the video games I play on my phone because they are probably silly. I hide the guilty pleasure TV shows I watch late at night on Netflix.
I hide my blog in plain sight. That might sound baffling, because it’s a public blog that I write under my real name and I actively promote it on social media, but I also pretend to myself that my loved ones don’t read it. I just try not to think about them ever seeing my words. I never send them links to posts I write, I don’t talk about blogging, I cringe to mention the word “blog” in front of my own husband. It’s not that I don’t want them to know the real me, it’s that I’m embarrassed. I’m afraid. I can’t even let myself think about how exposed it makes me feel because if I think about it for too long I feel tempted to just delete the whole thing. Retreat. Hide.
I don’t have a solution for this; I expect that I never will. I’m just trying, now, to at least stop feeling ashamed for the times that I let myself come out of my hiding places.
When I was a kid I used to read Peanuts in the Sunday paper, and when I was very young I believed there was a chance that someday Charlie Brown was actually going to kick the football. Why not this time? It could happen, right? And then when I got a little older I just felt angry at Charlie Brown – why did he keep letting Lucy trick him, he knew she would pull it away, why did he even try?
But now as an adult I know that Charlie Brown would always try to kick the football one more time because that trying again was part of who he was, and that was one thing no one could never take away from him.