New Old Friend

I’ve started walking with a new old friend. I’m not sure if that’s the proper terminology for someone you used to know from childhood and then get back in touch with 15 years later, but that’s how I’d describe it. Anika and I grew up in the same town and knew each other through Girl Scouts because she was in the same troop as my older sisters through much of high school. She and I were not close friends back then as she was a couple grades above me, but I always liked her and distinctly remember being drawn to her magnetic personality, infectious laugh, and upbeat personality. She was always super nice to me too and seemingly cognizant of the fact that I wanted to be included in their activities as a peer, rather than seen as the annoying kid sister.

Recently, Anika and I reconnected when I invited her to be on The Chin-Up Podcast to talk about her triumph over PCOS and her determination to live life as an athlete, despite the challenges and limitations of the condition. I’ve followed her journey as presented on social media in awe and mostly silent support for the past several years, and have continued to be impressed and inspired by her goal-chasing aspirations, disciplined training, balancing motherhood and life obligations, and positivity even in the face of setbacks. We both had similar foot injuries in the winter, and through our minimal messaging back and forth, I felt comforted that she understood my frustration.

As expected, I was nervous for our scheduled interview conversations because it was one of my first and I get the sense with my personality and social challenges that some degree of pre-conversation anxiety will always be present. I think I was actually more nervous to talk to her than some of my other guests since I didn’t want her to compare her old memories of me and feel I’ve come up short in what she’s expected in my personal and professional growth based on my adolescent trajectory. In truth, that’s often how I feel: like I failed by a long shot in achieving the promising levels predicted by my childhood abilities and altitudes. I’m self-conscious and disappointed in myself and feel that much of my low self-esteem is attributable to this awareness. As a child and teenager, I was extremely bright, a Straight-A student, a highly decorated athlete, a talented oboist, and although I prefer to be overly modest, quite frankly, I excelled at basically everything I tried. It seemed that the worlds was my playground and anything I wanted to pursue would be a viable path. My intellect was particularly accelerated and I seemed able to comprehend any topic I focused on, even at considerably younger ages than “normal.”

My teachers, parents of my friends, and even my own parents were always commenting on how smart I was and forecasted “a very bright future.” I think things started to break down a little at the peak of my anorexia in high school, as much of my energy and focus was funneled into the eating disorder and my running performance. The rapidity of my “potential success in life” curve growth started to slow and then flatline. The college admissions process was quite favorable for me, as I rode the coattails of my athletic achievements and near perfect GPA. I opted for Duke University, a decision I’d like to elaborate on in a future post. Ultimately, that’s where everything started to become engulfed in a downward spiral.

Anyway, all this is to say I feel ashamed of my perceived lack of achievement, particularly career-wise, but also somewhat socially, as I not only imagined I’d be a mom by now, but also surrounded by several meaningful, close friends. I’m pleased with my relationship with Ben and our ability to weather the myriad of difficult challenges together is a testament to the work we’ve put in, our commitment to one another, and our love. However, except for the handful of friends I’ve maintained contact with from previous chapters of my life, I have no local friends with whom I meet up and spend time with.

At the risk of jinxing anything or making prematurely assumptions, I think I’ve made a friend in Anika, and I couldn’t feel luckier or happier that it’s her. We’ve started spending some mornings together taking a walk and talking, and I’m loving getting to know the caring, smart, courageous, motivated, and generous person she is. Anika bends where I can’t, accommodating my needs (especially in terms of driving and sensory problems) and allowing breathing space and grace for my challenges. She never makes me feel embarrassed or inept and I feel honored and valued when she talks openly about personal matters and shares her thoughts and feelings. I’m always interested in what she has to say and eager to learn more about her, which I look forward to as we spend more time together and build our friendship. I genuinely care about her already. I find myself researching things about PCOS or compiling running tips or products to suggest (she’s becoming an avid distance runner) so that I can be a helpful friend and an asset in her life, worth the time and effort. Anika is funny and warm; she sort of radiates kindness and enthusiasm for life. While she pushes her daughter, I walk Comet, who is also becoming increasingly excited when we see Anika in the distance at the designated spot. I hope that we continue to meet up for our walks each week through the fall, and watch the changing seasons as we grow closer.

It’s exciting and also nerve-wracking to be making a new friend. I don’t want to “mess up” or commit some sort of social faux pas or otherwise discourage or ruin her interest in spending time with me. One of the unfortunate and sad truths about being an adult on the spectrum instead of a kid is that I’ve amassed so many friendship failures and losses by my age that I have virtually no confidence or self-efficacy in my ability to make and maintain a close friendship. There’s a saying “once bitten, twice shy,” which only begins to hint at the extent of my learned cautiousness about putting myself out there to make friends. In full transparency, it nearly breaks my heart how shell-shocked and incompetent and unworthy I’ve grown to feel in the friendship-making realm. It’s no mystery why I constantly battle depression; friendship and connection is integral to the human experience and if a human feels as undeserving and incapable as I do, this need remains a painfully unsatisfied void. Because we live in a social society, I’m not only aware of my personal void, but I am also bombarded with reminders (through social media and simple observation while out in the world) that everyone else has fun friends around them to enjoy things together.

I believe a common misconception about autistic people is that they don’t really want or need friends; they are loners who prefer solitude and their neurology is such that they lack the desire to form social bonds with others. While we are almost all introverted and I imagine that some autistic people are perfectly happy without relationships with others (as probably are some neurotypicals), I think most people on the spectrum are like all humans in our drive to forge friendships. In some ways, this desire is even more desperate because it’s not as easy or natural, given the types and abundance of our social challenges (again, not for all autistic adults, but for many).

We will see what evolves in this friendship. I will remain hopeful that things grow organically and that Anika continues to see something in me intriguing, worthy, and useful that encourages her want to maintain our walks. Even if not, it’s already been valuable and enjoyable for me and I am really happy to have had her on the podcast.

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