Sunday, February 15, 2015

"Why do You Keep Dredging this Stuff Up?"

I had a really hard time making friends when I was in high school. My only friends were the ones I went to Camp Negev with, except for my then-best friend, Melanie. But that was until I met Jenna. I met Jenna (not her real name) in the fall of 1997, age 17, at one of Melanie's parties. Jenna and I hit it off immediately. We quickly got into a discussion about the absurdity of enforced gender roles. I recall that she said, "If a guy came in here in a pretty dress my only reaction would be to ask him where he got it." We exchanged contact information. We called each other and chatted on the then-new AOL Instant Messenger all the time.

I couldn't see Jenna very much, however. She lived in Northeast Philadelphia and I lived about an hour away in the suburbs. I didn't have my driver's license (I didn't feel ready to drive yet) and neither did Jenna (I forget why she didn't). The friends she saw on a regular basis were the ones she went to school with and who could come to her house and pick her up. I only got to see her at parties or the occasional sleepover. It didn't help that her father was a control freak, just like Melanie's mother, albeit in a different way. Melanie's mother was a control freak in that she wouldn't let Melanie get combat boots because they were "too masculine" (my mother got me a pair for my 18th birthday!), told her she couldn't refer to a crazy person as a "nutcase" as it was "too sexual" (oddly enough, "nutball" was okay), and that she wouldn't let her date black people. Yes, you heard me correctly. Melanie's mother more or less groomed Melanie into becoming just like her. Today she is living with her husband, kids, and her parents in the small Northeast Philadelphia house that she grew up in. She also cut me off and didn't invite me to the wedding, and I'm sure her mother had a lot, if not everything, to do with that.

Jenna's father was different. He was an alcoholic who had a drug-addicted girlfriend. Jenna's parents were divorced, and she had to live with her father because he was paying the tuition for her private school. Jenna's father rarely let Jenna go anywhere or do anything. No, this was not a case of a concerned father trying to quash his daughter's teenage rebellion. This wasn't even a case of a father trying to guide his daughter. In fact, he didn't guide her at all, and Jenna wasn't rebelling any more than any other teenager. This was, I think, a case of a "do as I say, not as I do" mentality. Not that Jenna was drinking or doing drugs. She absolutely wasn't. Like me, she was completely anti-drugs, especially since she saw what alcoholism and drug abuse could do to people.

In early 1998, on one of the rare instances that Jenna was able to spend time with me, she spent the night at my house. We were up until 3:00 in the morning talking intensely about what I now know is called evolutionary psychology. That is, I had come to the conclusion that everything we do, directly or indirectly, is based upon the instinct to reproduce-- even if the person doesn't consciously want children. And as a teenager experiencing an existential crisis, I naively thought that this was a new, revolutionary theory. Someone should have gently guided me towards books like The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and, of course On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. I frantically paced my room, wildly gesticulating, and saying things like, "This is obviously why there are enforced gender roles! This is why bullying happens! It's all based on the ultimate goal-- to reproduce!" I began to realize that this was why I was paying the price for being different and having a hard time making friends. How about The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris and (the not-yet published) The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker?

I then confided in Jenna one of the things that led me to thinking about this sort of thing-- the previous summer on an Israel trip I had had an obsessive crush on one of my counselors, Charlie. I was embarrassed about how I'd handled it. I muttered something about how the instinct to reproduce had overtaken me even though I hadn't tried to be anything more than friends with Charlie. If I remember correctly, this was the first time I'd ever told anybody that story. For months I had kept it under wraps as I came to the realization that I'd handled this crush badly by following Charlie everywhere. It was a huge confession for me: "I, Julie, am obsessive when I get crushes on people."  I told Jenna this embarrassing story because I knew I could. I knew she'd listen. I knew she'd understand. And she did. In many ways, Jenna understood me better than many people I knew, including my friends from camp. And even though Melanie was my "official" best friend, I knew deep down Jenna and I had a lot more in common. Both of us had intellectual sides, both of us questioned reality. And Jenna affirmed me in a way that many other people didn't.

I lost touch with Jenna about ten years ago. We didn't have a fallout; life just happened. I think she was still living with her asshole father in Philadelphia the last time I talked to her, either in 2004 or 2005, and wasn't able to leave the city, let alone to go to New York, where I was then living. We did occasionally talk online at the time, however. On and off over the years since she stopped coming onto AOL Instant Messenger I tried to find her. I eventually came to the conclusion that if she was on Facebook it was under a pseudonym. So I did some heavy searching (and believe me, it wasn't easy, but I have my ways) and tracked down her snail-mail address. She lives on the other side of the country (I'm not going to mention where, to further protect her privacy). I sent her a postcard with my contact information on it. I had no doubt that if she got the postcard she would contact me. I didn't think for a second that she would pull the same elitist stunt that Melanie did.

And I was right. Within minutes of getting the postcard, Jenna friend requested me on Facebook and texted me on my cell phone. It turned out she was using a different name, but not as a pseudonym. She actually is in the process of getting a legal name change, partially because she doesn't want her father to find her. Jenna told me that she's seeing a therapist about her father, and has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It didn't surprise me in the slightest. What was also interesting is that Jenna had tried to find me a couple years ago on Facebook, but at the time I had my Facebook set so that nobody could look me up!

Reestablishing contact with Jenna brought back a few painful memories that involved my mother. This morning when my parents called me I mentioned that I had tracked down Jenna. Surprisingly, neither of them remembered who she was. I tried to remind them-- I'd met her through Melanie. That she was into bands like Pearl Jam. That she had wanted to play the guitar. Oh, and she had been interested in Wicca. And that's where the painful memory surfaced.

In the fall of 1998, after I'd known her for a year, Jenna was dabbling with Wicca. I had made the mistake of mentioning this to my mother, and while she was cooking breakfast. Mom slammed down the pan she was holding and said, "Well, then you'd better stay away from her!" Shocked and confused, I asked why. "Wicca is witchcraft!" Yes? And? Does anybody really believe in witches? I tried to deescalate the situation by joking, "Yeah, Jenna's going to cast a spell on me" and "Jenna's going to sell my soul to Satan." But that didn't work. Mom and I got into a huge fight. I remember trying harder than usual to stay calm but Mom kept cutting me off and telling me that I was wrong. Dad came in and diffused the situation. I think he was a little concerned, but I don't think he thought it was a huge deal like Mom did (and ultimately they didn't make me stay away from Jenna). Mom had also commented, "I hate to tell you, but Jenna lives on the fringe." And that really hurt. It really hurt because Mom had kept nagging me to find friends outside of camp, and when I did, she didn't approve of the one I had found, the one who really understood me. And I didn't think and still don't think Jenna lived "on the fringe". And actually, Dad had liked her. That meant a lot to me because Dad invariably saw right through the "friends" who ended up hurting and betraying me, long before they hurt and betrayed me. I recall that he had even commented that Melanie was a fair-weather friend (and it turns out he was right) but that Jenna was "genuine". I think Mom liked Jenna too, but for some reason she was wary of her from day one, and she often commented on it, not just during the Wicca episode. I also recall telling my parents about Jenna's father being a jerk and Mom kept thinking that Jenna's father was just trying to guide his daughter, quash teenage rebellion or something. She seemed skeptical when I told her about the kind of person her father was, including his alcoholism and his drug-addled girlfriend. It also hurt because when I had friends who didn't understand me and did hurt me, Mom often urged me to give them another chance.

I brought this up on the phone this morning. As I said, to my frustration, my parents don't remember Jenna, and Mom certainly doesn't remember the comments she made about her. But I mentioned the comments and Mom said, "You have to put yourself in my situation. You always seemed to be drawn to the bizarre and I was wary of everything." The word "bizarre" struck a chord with me, I guess because it sounds so loaded, so judgmental, so negative. Well, yeah, isn't it obvious that someone who's a little unusual would have more in common with someone else who's a little unusual? And Jenna was anything but bizarre. She had her head on straight, and she was very down to Earth. Dad said to me, "This was a long time ago. Why do you keep dredging these things up from so long ago and saying 'You did this to me' and 'You did that to me'?"

Why? Why do I bring these things up? Why indeed! Why is it that this past Christmas I brought up with my mother Melanie's little stunt where she cut me off and didn't invite me to the wedding and Sergio's little stunt where he ignored the package I sent him after telling me he looked forward to getting it? After all, both of these things happened in 2008, seven years ago. Why is it that I recently wrote a blog post about obsessive crushes that I had had almost two decades ago? And why did it take me about sixteen years to move past the way Mom continually screamed at me, at age 11, about the kinds of bizarre Addams Family cartoons I was drawing? And why did I bring up the way Mom talked about Jenna when I was a teenager?

Because I felt like I never got closure for these things. That's a large part of why I blog. It's the best way I can articulate and make people understand what it's like to be me. It's hard to get that across in a conversation. You have to write it out. You have to tell people and force them to read it. Mom didn't understand the obsessive crushes I went through because I didn't talk to her about them. "So much was kept from me", she said, after reading my latest blog post on the subject. I had kept these things from her because I knew they would freak her out. On the occasion when I did try to tell her, she just shut me down. It was a no-win situation. Now, here we are, almost two decades after this issue started, discussing the situation. It's long overdue. This is how I get closure. And I have to get closure. No matter how much time has passed since something emotionally painful has happened, I need to get closure in order to move past it. And I don't think this is nearly as uncommon as one would think-- sometimes people are in therapy trying to get closure on things that happened to them several decades ago. For me that closure involves confronting my parents with the way they inadvertently hurt me while thinking they were helping me. It involves informing them they were wrong about certain situations when I knew exactly what I was looking at. But sometimes I feel I can't even confront them about it as they just cut me off, saying, "We didn't know" or "We were trying to help" or "Kids don't come with instruction manuals." But the thing is, I really do need to talk about it. I wish they'd understand that.

And the other thing is that despite knowing logically that I was right about many of these things where my parents were wrong, I still find myself doubting my own perception, and a lot of it has to do with the intensity of the way Mom reacted to me over the years. When Dad was concerned about me, it was usually a discussion that ensued. With Mom, it was almost always a fight, with the implication being that I had no idea what I was talking about and she did because she was Older and Therefore Wiser and that I should just listen to her unquestioningly. Because of the intensity of the way Mom had reacted to me in the past, I found myself wondering what her reaction to my finding Jenna was going to be. And I found myself wondering if Mom had been right about Jenna while I had been wrong. Why, I wondered, did I still have the same perception of Jenna that I did seventeen-and-a-half years ago when we first met? Is this immaturity on my part? Naivety? My Asperger's blocking the correct view of reality?

Same deal with the other situations: I still feel the same way about how I handled my crush on Omri as I did seventeen years ago, that I handled it well until towards the end of the summer. I still don't think there was anything wrong with my sending a package to Sergio seven years ago. And I still think there was nothing wrong with me, twenty-three years ago, at age 11, drawing bizarre Addams Family cartoons as long as I didn't draw them in school (which I didn't). It's the idea that my perception on these issues hasn't changed much. Does that mean that I was right? Or does that mean I'm just some immature little twerp with Asperger's who "doesn't get it"? This is why I bring these things up. I admit that I do sound a bit confrontational and aggressive when I address these issues, and also sometimes like I'm making a joke out of it, but that's partially because finally being able to do so is awkward and new for me. It's awkward and new for me to finally be able to talk about these weighty issues with my parents after avoiding these subjects for decades, feeling that they were taboo on so many levels. It's been a few years since my parents really started "to get it" but a few years versus a few decades? Yes, it's still new. So yes, Dad, this is why I "keep dredging this stuff up". It's not fun for me, but I need some closure, and dredging these things up is how I'll get closure.

As for Jenna, I will say this: She and Melanie both came from controlling backgrounds, albeit controlling in different ways. The difference is that Jenna got out and Melanie didn't. What that tells me is that Jenna has a firmer sense of self than Melanie. And a neurotypical person having such a strong sense of self is a rare commodity these days. She should be commended for it.

Jenna is calling me in about an hour so we can finally talk on the phone for the first time in years. I still remember that long, intense conversation we had seventeen years ago until 3:00 AM. I have a feeling we're going to have a conversation of similar length and intensity. That's what good friends do.

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