Confronting My Neurotypical Privilege
Recently I was in my room with someone who I’ve been seeing casually and he paused our conversation to respond to a text from someone else he had recently been out with.
“Sorry,” he said, “She’s sort of freaking out.” He explained that they had been out only once several weeks prior and that her tone had gone from flirty to panicked because he hadn’t been responsive that day.
Initially, I bristled at the interaction—not because I minded that he was openly addressing another date (it was well-established that we were not exclusive and should be open about other people we were seeing) but because he had routinely waited several hours, if not days, to respond to my own texts. Until that point, I assumed this was just because he didn’t like to get into a back-and-forth unless we were making a plan, and I had decided not to take it personally. At that moment it suddenly felt VERY personal.
When I mentioned this he wilted, apologized, and explained that his work made it hard to respond in real time and he had a habit of forgetting, but given his own past with substance abuse and both his own wavering mental health and that of his peers he couldn’t ignore the kind of language she was using.
To paraphrase, he said “She sent me a string of manic sounding messages about how she misses me, so I asked her if she’s OK and she responded with ‘maybe I’m not.’ I know it’s probably nothing but I wouldn’t forgive myself if it wasn’t. I didn’t realize that it bothered you when I don’t respond as long as we eventually make a plan.”
So because I’m sane it’s OK to ignore me? That kind of sucks. I thought ruefully. Luckily I stopped myself from saying that out loud, because I realized how childish it sounds, and because he was right. I happen to like chit-chat, but I don’t think people should get into a long texting back and forth unless both people actually have something to say, so I’m glad he doesn’t respond until there’s a reason. Otherwise, it sets a precedent that you have to constantly be in touch and if you’re not there’s a problem. Feelings wind up getting hurt for no reason.
I am not prone to outbursts or breakdowns or anything else that would signal to another person that I am in need of extraordinary support. I don’t suffer from any namable mental health challenges other than some light social anxiety and possibly some unaddressed ADD (which is very common in women and honestly only affected me in school). I am not at risk, and he knew that.
I was raised in a loving, stable home in the fresh air with plenty of self-esteem bolstering activities to keep me busy. I learned early that bullies are to be pitied and not feared, so even run-of-the-mill adolescent hostility never really bothered me. I can’t take credit for my mental health—it is a pre-ordained part of me just like my skeletal structure or the shape of my nose.
I know that at the end of the day I will always be fine, and my attitude reflects that, so sometimes people— even very well-meaning people like the person mentioned above, will treat my feelings with less care.
In the past, I would have scoffed at the kind of behavior his other date displayed as desperate and manipulative. “I do not tolerate people who use their emotions as weapons. You shouldn’t encourage that kind of behavior.” I remember saying to a friend of mine when I was 26 and his girlfriend was sobbing over something seemingly insignificant while trying to get him to change his mind about coming over.
What I have learned since is that most people are not diabolically manipulative—they just feel things in such a visceral way that they cannot regulate their actions once they’ve reached an emotional breaking point. Not everyone can afford therapy so even if medication were appropriate it is not my place to decree from my seat of stability how anyone should handle their feelings. All I can do is try to keep myself out of harm's way if they are self-destructing and offer a lifeline if I have one to offer.
I found myself wanting to judge the woman on the other end of my date’s phone, but I don’t know her. I don’t have enough information to determine if she is a good person who is struggling or a selfish person who is willing to lie to get what she wants. Even within those options there is ambiguity. Can someone be pathologically selfish in a way that could be fixed if they had the right resources? Absolutely.
No amount of empathy can give me insight into someone else’s emotional intensity, so I am better off exercising compassion as a default. There is danger in this process because people who don’t want help can be toxic and destructive and continue to take everything you have until there’s nothing left.
If there someone in my life who hasn’t mentioned a certain diagnosis and doesn’t seem to want to talk about it then I have to know when it’s time to walk away and trust that the person will seek their other support systems.
If it is someone in my life that has been open with me about being neurodivergent then I absolutely have to exercise patience, and communicate with them about what I can do to help in the event that they head down a dark path.
If it’s an outside force indirectly impacting me, even if in a very low-stakes kind of way such as the situation above, all I can do is detach myself from judgment, remember that there is always a reason why someone is lashing out, and let their actions speak for themselves. I know what loneliness feels like. I know what it is to feel helpless and sad. I can only imagine if I felt it three times as strong with no internal tools to help me stabilize.
The rule that I strive to follow is that I should always try to understand first and then only react if I determine an unfair attack has been launched against me with no path to diplomatic resolution. It much less simple than it sounds, but I believe that it is worth the effort. This doesn’t mean that I have to love and understand every single person who is neurodivergent—that would be unrealistic. It just means that I have be mindful and kind when it comes to evaluating how I am going to respond to the behavior of others.