Looking In The Mirror

It didn’t take me long to learn there were two people named Andi (pseudonym for privacy) in my Pokemon Go group. It also didn’t take me long to hear the two referred to as “the Andi people like” and “the Andi people don’t like.”

When I asked about “Andi people don’t like,” I was greeted with eye rolls, fallen faces, and sighs. People couldn’t describe what they didn’t like about her in specifics, only that she was annoying. The topic of conversation changed.

I soon learned that people would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid her. One week, after a Community Day event, she asked if people would be trading pokemon at a certain location. Responses poured in that everyone was busy. Literally everyone, even the people I knew were looking forward to trading. Then, I heard about another meeting going on in another location, from a private chat, kept from her so she wouldn’t show up.

I’d never seen anything like that from my group that I generally consider nice. When I moved to Chicago, they were quick to welcome me in, and I’ve made most of my local friends from this crowd. I talk daily with many of the people, and didn’t know what in the world could make such nice people turn against someone so strongly.

I imagined different scenarios. There are certain faux pas in the game that she might have committed. Maybe she bragged too much or was obnoxious in some other way. But it took me almost nine months of living in Chicago to meet her for the first time and assess her for myself.

She ventured out to a meeting we had on Sunday, one of our weekly trade nights. Since this was the one right after Go Fest, I was thrilled to come and trade pokemon with a lot of people. After trading once each with everyone I knew to build friendship in the game, I found myself sitting next to a girl who I didn’t know, who loved my cosplaying pikachu plushie I bought at Go Fest and eagerly asked me what I had to trade. I didn’t have her information in the game - we weren’t friends yet - but when she gave me her username, I immediately recognized her.

It surprised me that this girl, who was so nice and welcoming to me even when I wasn’t in a great mood, was “Andi people don’t like.” Sure, she was eager to ask about what I had for trade, and happily chattered away as we swapped pokemon with each other. She often repeated herself when asking for certain pokemon and expressing her likes and dislikes. When we achieved our goals - twice - she was thrilled to talk about it.

It didn’t take me long to notice that people were treating her differently. When she got up to move to a different chair, and forgot her drink - something many people had done over the course of the night - she was publicly scolded. No one thanked her for the special lures she put up to attract pokemon, which cost real money and would usually lead to a good deal of gratitude. Many people talked over her like she wasn’t even there. And as far as I could see, no one but me took the time to help her meet her goals in the game.

Long story short, I didn’t see anything in her that would cause such a visceral reaction. I didn’t understand why people would go so far to avoid her and exclude her. It reminded me of all the years I spent desperate for a single friend - and then it came to me.

I recognized a lot of her behaviors - repetitive speech, overexcitement, fixation on one thing above all others - in how I play Pokemon Go. I screamed when I found a special pokemon only the day before, but my friends - these same people - were amused rather than turned off. Maybe it’s because I spend a good deal of time trying to act “normal” no matter what’s going on on the inside, or maybe it’s because my first impression was “normal” and I only reveal my true self in bits and pieces as time goes on.

I spent years in therapy trying to be “normal,” to hide the things I was obsessing about, whether positive or negative. Some people are even surprised when I admit to being phobic about things, because I can keep even my most visceral reactions on the inside for months. Even with close friends, it takes me a while to be annoying, to squeal with joy and reveal exactly how deep my hobbies go. Few people know I have the Lord of the Rings movies memorized. Few people have the link to the archive where I post my fanfiction for LotR and other franchises. Few people are treated to my thought process when I try to figure out which pokemon to evolve or what I should name it.

As I sat and traded with Andi, I felt like I was looking in a mirror and seeing my younger self. Not to imply that I’ve advanced or grown in some way to the point where I don’t act like this anymore, but I have had enough experiences like Andi’s to be cynical of new friends. I take a very long time to trust people enough to show my real self out of fear that I’ll be seen as annoying or “too much,” out of fear that it’ll be me asking when we’re meeting and everyone else says they’re busy to avoid me.

I think Andi was incredibly brave to come to the gathering on Sunday, where she probably knew people wouldn’t treat her well. She was still optimistic and genuinely happy, especially while she was trading with people. It was truly nice to meet her. She wasn’t repulsive in any way I could see. She was just someone being herself and trying to make friends in her own way, trusting in a way I learned not to after I was on the receiving end of cruelty so many times beginning in my childhood.

I withdrew after years of bullying, not trusting even my closest friends to know everything in my head that I’d love to share. I hide in plain sight, using all the techniques my therapist gave me to not become the annoying one. I shower my friends with gifts and care and love, even if I don’t get those things in return. I do whatever I can to balance on that precarious wire of being normal and being myself.

I’m sure that, out of the two Ellies in my grade, I was the “Ellie people don’t like.” I know there were plenty of parties, events, lunches, and more that I’ve been excluded from since grade school. I know that a lot of it likely comes from the fact that I had very visible compulsions back then, and people were scared or disgusted by that. It also probably had to do with my very visible passions that didn’t match what the other kids were interested in, from fantasy novels to video games.

Now, I was on the other side of the mirror, the side I always wanted to be, but it was impossible to enjoy it knowing that someone else had taken my place at the bottom - and that the people who had put her there were my friends who treated me so kindly when I didn’t act like that.

I don’t blame Andi for not coming to many of our meetings, if she even knows they exist, but I do hope she comes to more. Whether or not we end up being the best of friends, I firmly believe she deserves to have a chance to experience friendship and kindness like anyone else. In the meantime, I’ll send her gifts in Pokemon Go, where I’ve labeled her as simply “Andi.” As a human being, it’s the respect she deserves, and I can only hope the rest of the group will see that one day. 

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.