I know I’m socially inept. I know I am because my mum used to tell me all the time, when she’d pick me up from school or some club or a party. She was constantly disappointed that I wasn’t interacting with the other children “properly” or “normally”. She was concerned about me.
At the time it never occurred to me that socially inept children don’t generally have to be physically ripped from the clutches of their friends to be taken home. They don’t have their friends turning up outside their window every afternoon to see if they can come out to play. They don’t get invited to a bunch of parties. They don’t get invited to impromptu sleepovers after those parties. They don’t make friends (few, but good) wherever they go. They don’t spend every moment they can roaming their neighbourhood as happy members of a horde of other kids. They don’t have random adults striking up conversations with them and complimenting them on their manners. They don’t have their classmate’s parents thanking them for volunteering to help their kids in school. They don’t have small kids latching onto them like limpets and demanding their parents to have them babysit them. Generally speaking, socially inept children don’t tend to have perfectly satisfactory social lives.
None of that occurred to me. Mum said I was bad at people, so clearly I was, people’s reactions notwithstanding. I had a problem, and I needed to work at it.
That proved difficult. The “wrong” things I did uniformly came under two headings. Some were things that were perfectly acceptable for all the other kids my age – laughing, being silly, moving a lot, being spontaneous, and so on. When I was young it was largely a matter of volume or speed, so I could just turn those down. I could play the same as the other kids, but more slowly and quietly, at least when I was being watched. As I got older, though, most of the things everyone was doing were suddenly just plain wrong, so I suddenly was cut off from most activities.
The other wrong things I did were things that were perfectly acceptable when my mum did them – being quiet, keeping still, being restrained, etc. I was at my very worst when I was a pale imitation of her – creeping into a room with the widened eyes of a mouse who is not sure she’s not going to get stepped on, staying close to the walls, never voluntarily approaching anyone, or doing so with so much trepidation as to make the approach immediately offputting.
I was doing it wrong when I acted like her and I was doing it wrong when I acted like them. It didn’t give me much hope of finding a way to do it right. I definitely didn’t think there was an option to just act like me. I didn’t even get a chance to know what that may be like. So I worried about my problem, and the more I worried the more of a problem I had.
In all of this, facts never managed to dent my faith in the nature of my issue.
While I was busy worrying how I should be behaving with my friends, my mum never had to concern herself with such issues by the simple means of hardly having any friends to speak of. Not one of my friends’ parents befriended her. I’d be invited to their houses and my mum would drop me and run off, never even going indoors for a cup of coffee. (It’s way too late to found out now, but I wonder if she never got invited, or she never accepted. Either way, it’s a fairly poor sign.). I never even saw her chatting with any of the other parents during a club, even though she would be spending three hours a week stuck in a waiting room with them for months or years. Yet it was me who was the socially inept one, and she who could provide me with pointers as to everything I was doing wrong, which was basically everything.
This nonsense went down so long ago it’s practically ancient history, yet it came back to me again last week. I was sitting in a coffee house discussing how easily people can end up so entrenched in a narrative and so vitriolic in how they push it that they end up antagonising everyone who’s not already in their camp. The words that left my mouth were “there ain’t nobody in my camp,” and as I said them I absolutely believed them. At that precise moment I was sitting at a table with one of my favourite non-fiction writers and the event organiser who had invited my sorry ass up there in the first place. They’re two of the coolest people I know, and most people I know are ridiculously cool. They were spending time with me of their own free will. Aside from the fact that I wasn’t particularly winning prizes for factual accuracy, if they had been lesser people they would have been perfectly entitled to take my statement as a huge personal insult. They’re cool, though, so instead they proceeded to mock me, which is what I needed.
I have no idea what it’ll take to disentangle reality from fiction in my internal narrative. Worse, I have no idea what it’ll take to disentangle cause and effect within that reality. I do know that as narratives go, this one may be traditional, but it kinda sucks ass. It’s a damn stupid game and I’m not playing anymore.