I was at Navy Pier with some friends when the Andi discussion started again. “I’d be happy to invite anyone here to spend time with us - except Andi,” one person said. Another laughed. I was seeing red when they did impressions of her voice, high-pitched and repetitive.
I tried to stay quiet. I knew, from years of experience, that it was better for my own sake, especially when the person in question wasn’t even there. Andi would never know what people were saying about her in this particular instance. It wasn’t hurting her to hold my tongue and keep my friends happy.
But I just couldn’t, and I blurted out something I wondered weeks ago, but never quite had the courage to ask.
“What’s the difference between Andi and me?”
I hoped, somehow, this question would cow them into silence and maybe even make them think. Instead, I got a very quick answer: “You’re self-aware.”
My friend (I think) went on to say that I knew, when I got too excited about something, that it was too much. I knew how to stop and I knew how to give other people what they needed. “If you’re worried about being like her, you could think up some new topics to talk about,” he told me, trying to be helpful. His tone wasn’t mean, not like when he was talking about Andi. But it hurt all the same.
I know all too well how to stop. As an adult, I’m extremely aware of the fact that I can be excitable and repetitive just like Andi, and the only time I let myself enjoy conversations without thinking is when I’m with my friends.
I know how to stop because I used to not know.
I know now because, when I was a kid invited to a class party and asked the birthday kid’s parents to put the dog in another room due to my phobia, my former best friend asked, “Why did we have to invite her? I’d rather have the dog.”
I know because of the time I went to a bar mitzvah with my classmates and was told there was no room for me on a crowded bench, but there was room for the popular girl who came in later.
I know because of the time that girl asked me to go out for ice cream, and I was so thrilled someone had invited me to do something, only for her to sit with another kid and ignore me completely as my mom paid for her ice cream and drove her home.
I know because of the time my middle school principal yelled at my mom in front of the carpool line when I’d broken a minor rule - I’d played a computer game in class - that “I want this thing out of my school.”
And when my child psychologist tried to intervene, the principal excused her behavior by saying that I was “psychotic” and she was worried about my long-term survival as a person.
I survived, I learned, but this is one lesson I wish I didn’t have to follow.
I wish I could be freer with what I say, share memes like my friends do, make jokes about the things I enjoy. But I’ve learned too well how that behavior makes me a “freak” according to too many people, and the only way to survive was to hide in plain sight.
Even now, I wish I could let a remark like my friend’s go by, laugh it off, and go on with my day. Instead, I watched what I said. I got quiet even when chatter resumed. I realized I’d said a few times that I was really eager to catch a certain pokemon in Pokemon Go, and was calling out when I’d see one on the screen. I not only stopped talking about that, but I also barely responded to another person in the group who started calling them out for me.
Each time something like this happens, I feel a small chip in a budding friendship, creating cracks in what, I assume, for neurotypical people, is a strong foundation. But I always feel like I’m on thin ice, like one glimpse too deep into my true self and I’ll lose everything I’ve built so far. Even now, after years of trying to build my confidence of not only being a person with OCD but also being a person, I still feel the need to hide.
It’s why, even though I’m desperate to get a picture of myself in my new cosplay, I asked a stranger in the elevator who told me I looked pretty. It was easy to fall into the girlish conversations of beauty without going into the real reason I was wearing an elf dress.
It’s why I watched myself so carefully at my Pokemon trading meetup the next day, even though nearly everyone in the room has - and was eagerly talking about - a hyper-specific list of pokemon they want to fit their very rigid goals. I caught myself getting excited once and quickly plopped myself down in a chair. I made sure to only talk about normal things. I blushed deeply when I realized I let my guard down and was talking about my new cosplay to someone who I’d never even mentioned it to before.
As I hurriedly swiped past the photo, I could feel the stare of the friend who told me to find new topics as I quickly asked this girl what she did last weekend, how work was going, and other mundane things.
I was self-aware, and it may have saved me from more heartache like I experienced for years in school and beyond.
It’s sad that I have to be aware that, although I don’t see myself as a freak, other people can (and will) if I don’t keep my thoughts to myself. It’s sad to be aware that if I don’t, every one of my friendships could be in jeopardy.
When I heard that self-awareness was what distinguished me from Andi, I couldn’t help but think that I paid a heavy price to know that I was too much, and I never want to pay that price again. It also made me sad to think of someone else first learning how painful it is to be hated for who you are.
Sometimes, I wish I didn’t have to be so self-aware, that I could just interact with people without worrying about if I’m being normal enough. I hope that, as more time goes on and I make friends with kinder people, that I can also learn when it’s okay to let go, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Until then, I’ll live in the middle, navigating how and when I can show myself, and hoping this lesson will be less painful than the ones before.
Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.