Tuesday, August 7, 2018

A Sad and Cautionary Tale that Makes Too Much Sense

Note: All names have been changed to protect individuals' privacy.

I've often written about Melanie, my ex-best friend who cut me off ten years ago when she didn't invite me to her wedding and stopped talking to me completely, all without explanation. If you're late to the party, you can find the first post about it here and the most recent post about it-- which also addresses its long-term effects on me-- here

In the second of those links, I tell the story about how an advertisement for a "Family Movie Night" featuring Moana was the catalyst for an elaborate and embittered fantasy that I concocted in my head: one of parents cheerfully taking their kids to a Disney movie, all the while having forgotten their identities and having excised their childfree friends. 

Indeed, this is the image I had harbored of Melanie and her husband and kids for the past ten years-- well, sort of. I had already known that Melanie's living situation was bizarre; I heard down the grapevine that she and her husband and kids were still living with her parents in their small northeast Philadelphia home. But aside from that, the otherwise pristine image of Melanie and her family remained in my mind... really, because of the way my mother initially reacted in 2008 when it had become clear that Melanie was no longer talking to me. My mother, who has since apologized profusely, had said these exact words: "Melanie is in a stage of her life where you're not invited." Mom went on about how this is what usually happens when people get married (years later I learned that she had told me that obvious lie because for some reason she thought it would make me feel better...uhhh??) and that I needed to learn to take hints. "She's trying to tell you something," my mother muttered (I could practically hear her facepalming at the other end of the line). "What?"  grunted. "She's not interested," my mother grunted back."

This conversation had made me feel inadequate-- even though I had known about Melanie's living situation and even that her mother was controlling (more on that later), I continued to imagine her in this mostly blissful, idyllic life: going to see a Disney movie in a public park on a warm summer night with her husband and kids; sitting on a bench at the playground with other mothers and talking about their kids' achievements while the kids played on the swings; having neighborhood potlucks with families that her family is close with... all the while having cast me off because I had been holding her down.

But I learned something interesting down the grapevine a couple weeks ago: Melanie has fibromyalgia. It isn't this information that shattered the "idyllic" image of Melanie's life (though it certainly didn't help). Instead, it was something else that I found out from an old mutual friend, Jenna, who I'd lost contact with around 2004 or 2005 and later reconnected with in 2015. Jenna hadn't been in contact with Melanie since about 2002 or so, and they (Jenna's preferred pronoun) also have fibromyalgia. I thought this was an interesting-- if sad-- coincidence. I told Jenna what I had found out, and they told me that they weren't interested in hearing about someone who had cut them off without explanation...

Wait, what?

Jenna said that they had thought they'd told me this a while ago. But they hadn't. Jenna then explained that around 2002 Melanie stopped returning Jenna's phone calls and emails and wouldn't even take their phone calls. What makes this even more interesting is that around 2002 or 2003 I had asked Melanie, "Do you still talk to Jenna?" I don't remember Melanie's exact words, but she said something that made it sound like she and Jenna had simply fallen out of contact. 

The fact that this has happened with at least two people who had once been close with Melanie is revealing. Why Melanie stayed in contact with me for a few years after severing contact with Jenna, I couldn't tell you. But I strongly suspect that this wasn't entirely Melanie's decision, and maybe not even hers at all. While I still think she's a jerk for doing what she did, I think her mother put her up to it, but perhaps not in an overt way. I think Melanie's mother gradually poisoned Melanie's mind against Jenna and me, and Melanie told herself that she simply "lost contact" with Jenna and possibly with me. But how would Melanie "not know" what really happened? Because, if my hypothesis is true, Melanie is also a victim in this-- a victim of her controlling mother. 

In other posts I've alluded to Melanie's mother being a control freak. She wasn't someone who I would call abusive, not by a long shot. However, she did shelter Melanie in bizarre ways, squashed her individuality, and did not give her any tools to function as an adult. Growing up, both of us complained about our mothers for similar reasons, often to the tune of, "I'm unconventional and my mom is trying to change that." In the case of my mother, she was trying to help me be happy but did it in a tragically misguided and ultimately hurtful way, which she now realizes and regrets. In Melanie's case, her happiness was not part of the equation: Her mother had an image in her mind of what Melanie should be like and was determined to realize it at all costs. How do I know that her motives were different? Well, technically I don't know that, but I look back at a lot of incidents from when we were kids that support this theory:

1. When Melanie was a teenager, she told me that she had recently been at a gathering in which she had been playing basketball with a group of boys. Her mother called out to Melanie and said, "Come sit with the women." Yes, Melanie. Stop getting exercise with kids your age and come over and sit with middle-aged people whose genitals look like yours (sorry, but that's what it comes down to). My mother would never have done that! In fact, she would have been happy that there were finally other kids who wanted to hang out with me -- regardless of what was in their pants -- and that I was getting exercise.

2. One time when I was seventeen and Melanie was eighteen, I said something about someone being a nutcase. Melanie told me, "Oh, I'm not allowed to say 'nutcase'. My mom says it's too sexual. She tells me to say 'nutball' instead." No, this absurdity was not a line out of Ralph Wiggum on The Simpsons

3. I wanted combat boots, and so my parents got them for me for my eighteenth birthday. Melanie wanted a pair too but her mother wouldn't get them for her because they were deemed too masculine. Never mind that plenty of teen girls in the '90s wore combat boots. 

4. When Melanie finally met the guy she ended up marrying, at age twenty-one, she had to sneak him up to her room to fool around because she wasn't allowed to have boys upstairs. That's right-- she was in her twenties and this rule was still there.

5. The very last time I saw Melanie was in the summer of 2005, when I was twenty-four and Melanie was twenty-five. We met at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in New Jersey. Melanie had originally planned to come back to New York City with me (where I'd been living at the time), but her mother had already planned a "girls' day out" for the next day-- and told Melanie about it at the last minute. Additionally, her mother said she wanted Melanie home at 8:00. Yes, a twenty-five-year-old had a curfew

6. After Melanie had gotten engaged, her mother had started bugging her about grandchildren. I don't mean the typical, "Oh, are you going to have kids?" or even "When do you think you'll have kids?" It was relentless pressure to the tune of, "I wanna be a grandma!" Melanie's comments that she had wanted to wait a couple years after marriage before having kids apparently fell on deaf ears. 

You get the idea. Melanie remained under her mother's roof into adulthood. Even when she went to college, she commuted (I realize this could be a financial issue, but I'm not convinced of that in this case). She met a man, married him, and gave her mother the grandchildren that she'd demanded. Oh, sure, she and her family live with her parents, but otherwise she has found true happiness, right? And because she's married and has children, she must be a true adult, right?

No. I doubt that "true happiness" is the term to describe Melanie's adult life, and not because of the compromising condition of fibromyalgia either. The above examples strongly suggest that Melanie's mother not only groomed Melanie to grow up to be like her, but also that she probably expected Melanie to continue living in her childhood home through adulthood: At the time that Melanie's mother pressured Melanie about wanting grandchildren yesterday, Melanie had been working at Macy's for a mere $8 an hour.  

Melanie had complained about her mother trying to squash her unconventional personality over the years, but she stopped in her early twenties. In fact, when she first started dating the guy she ended up marrying, I saw a radical transformation: This rambunctious tomboy who'd been my best friend for years turned into a demure, 1950s woman who even said, "Oh, my sweetie knows about that" when I asked her what kind of computer she had. And no, I don't think this change was for her husband-to-be; I met the guy and I liked him, and I find it difficult to imagine him trying to make a woman into someone passive. Rather, I think Melanie did this for her mother. I think the message Melanie's mother had given Melanie was subtle but clear: She could either conform to her mother's expectations and they could have a good relationship, or she could tell her mother to fuck off and they'd have no relationship. One or the other. No compromise. Melanie did not want to lose her relationship with her mother, so the choice was very clear. Part of the choice involved cutting off any friends that her mother deemed "weird". I personally think her mother's issue with me was that she thought I was going to do something inappropriate at the wedding and also be a bad influence on the eventual grandchildren. She couldn't have me ruining the 1950s-white-picket-fence-wholesome image she was trying to create. She probably would have seen Jenna as a similar threat to that image.

Maybe you believe I'm overthinking this. I realize I very well might be. I could be wrong about a few things; I could be wrong about everything. I get that this is all speculation But despite my mother's initial comments ten years ago, you cannot seriously tell me that Melanie is an adult just because she is married and she has children. She has never left her parents' house, and I don't think it's for financial considerations either; her husband is a computer programmer. She is probably still under her mother's control and likely has adopted her mother's sociopolitical views simply because she hasn't had much exposure to anything else. She lives in Philadelphia, but it might as well be rural Kansas.

What makes my hypothesis, if true, even sadder is this: My mom believes that Melanie is on the autism spectrum. I'm not convinced that she is, but I think it's possible. I initially rejected that suggestion for a couple reasons: 1) People on the autism spectrum don't tend to be swayed by peer pressure, and 2) Melanie called me out on inappropriate behaviors a number of times when we were teenagers, and 3) Melanie had a lot of friends in high school.

My mother, who is a retired teacher, made me reconsider. She pointed out that while a number of her autistic students are very independent, there are many others who are just like their parents, but in a very superficial way that doesn't seem to reflect the child's true self. In fact, Tony Attwood, the kingpin of Asperger's experts, has pointed out that many autistic girls in particular mimic their peers or parents. They see that these people are socially successful and believe that in order to have friends and a happy life that they have to imitate them. The sad thing is that many of them, when they do this, end up repressing their true selves. In adulthood this catches up to them and leads to a major identity crisis. 

If this profile of autism does indeed describe Melanie, then it could be that she learned how to superficially mimic her peers in order to make a lot of friends in high school. It could be that she also commented on my behaviors simply because she saw that I didn't act like her peers, and yet her comments may have lacked any real insight. Or it could be simply that her mother told her to call me out on these things. It wouldn't surprise me at all. In fact, if I remember correctly, when Melanie related the story about her mother telling her to say "nutball" instead of "nutcase" because the latter was "too sexual", there wasn't a hint of irony in her voice. She said it matter-of-factly and with a straight face. It also makes me wonder: Did Melanie have kids because she honestly and sincerely wanted to, or did she just think she wanted to because it was what her mother and society at large expected of her? 

Melanie was a talented visual artist and singer. Even though the arts are not usually marketable skills, Melanie could perhaps pursued freelance work (at least prior to the fibromyalgia diagnosis, which I understand was very recent). At the very least, she and her husband could have moved out; her husband is a computer programmer and there are many affordable, nice apartments in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She could have found some other type of work and done her art on the side. But the last time I saw her, she was no longer drawing and I don't think she was singing either. Melanie had so much potential, but I think her mother crushed her.

Ultimately, I have a very different perception of what exactly happened between Melanie and me. While I do believe Melanie needs to take responsibility for what she did to Jenna and me-- she is an adult, after all-- I realize that it's likely that she is also a victim. It is indeed sad.

Parents of Asperger's girls, I'm watching you.

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