This time, I tell myself as I sign in to a dating app and set up my profile. This time, I say, as I connect with pretty and witty women. This time, I won’t be an asshole.
But then a woman asks for my phone number and for a drink. And the logical part of my brain goes black, covered in a wash of sheer panic.
I delete her. I delete my account. I delete the app. I disappear, a ghost fleeing the scene. I’m an asshole, leaving another confused and hurt person and a lost opportunity.
Sometimes, with others, the process goes further. We make a date, and I ghost. We go on a date, and afterwards I ghost. We have sex, and I ghost. Fuck and run. Delete, disappear.
For years, this has been my pattern. I’ve blamed it on any number of things from my past. I’ve blamed it on the times I’ve connected with someone from an app in real life, and they were an asshole. But ultimately I blamed it on me. Something was deeply wrong with me, something shameful.
Turns out, the truth is more complicated.
We all have histories. We all hurt from them, perhaps especially those of us singled out for our difference, our queerness.
I clung to that idea, as I tried, time and again, to figure out why I couldn’t just date like a normal person.
There was my ancestry. My parents married out of high school and proceeded to resent and hurt each other for the next twenty-five years. My aunt married five times, looking for the love that would support her instead of erase her; instead she got abusers and coke fiends and dirty lawyers and methhead survivalists. My grandmother was widowed young and never bothered again; my other grandmother married a brute who used fists and words to keep her small.
There was academics. I’m the only one in my family to graduate college. I defined myself by academic accolades, by degrees. But I never learned the real stuff in schools. No one taught me how to be an adult. At home and at school, I didn’t learn how to love or how to earn love or how to spot abuse masquerading as love. How to have sex and how to value bodies, ours and others. How to believe truths and spot lies. How not to hurt others.
There was my aberrance. From a young age, I knew I did not want kids. I knew I did not want to get married. I was deeply afraid of living with someone. For a cis woman, who often dated men, I was odd, strange. Even dangerous. And with those traditional end points of a relationship crossed out, the people I dated felt unmoored. So did I. What was the point?
There was abuse. I swore I would never be like the women in my family. But for ten years, I partnered with a man who stripped away all my pride and self, until I fled into the early morning light with only a backpack and shaking hands.
And there was always the abyss. Always the dark of depression, the loud static of anxiety, the blackout of panic attacks.
That could have been enough. Plenty to point to as an asshole excuse for asshole behavior. But there was more I could never explain.
Last year, at age 43, I read an article in Bust about an adult woman who discovered she was autistic. Something nagged at me about the way she described her lifelong difficulty in making and keeping friends and love/sex relationships. So I took an online questionnaire. And another, and another. Dozens of books later and a diagnostic session with a therapist, and I came away with a new title: Autistic.
I’d learn autism is characterized by many things. Prominent among them: a sustained, significant difficulty with creating and maintaining relationships with other people. The workings of typical people, the rules that govern interactions, the give and take of friendships and love relationships; all of it is utterly mystifying to us.
I also learned there are a lot of women like me. Women who found out later in life that they were autistic. Women who, as girls, were overlooked by the times we lived in, and the assumption that autism is a condition for young white boys. Women who learned how to hide, how to be social, how to live in the world, even as it ate away at us. Women who, frequently, identify as queer.
All of my past — the ancestry, the abuse, the aberrance, the abyss — it still pointed me to where I was. But with this new diagnosis, I saw that my behavior ran deeper, coded into my biology.
Autism meant I acted, all the time. In every friendship, in every romantic relationship, as far back as I can remember, I always felt a sense of playing a role. I’d argue most women feel this to an extent, balancing the messages our world gives us about how to behave, how to attract, how to blend in. I’d reasoned away my sense of acting as just part of being a woman.
But in my case, the acting was never ending. Engaging with people, even those with whom I’d gained a sense of hard-fought comfort, was exhausting. Meeting new people was heavy. And knowing that weight, my brain would work to protect me. Run, it’d say when I faced the prospect of a new date or a new person. Flee. It’s not worth the pain. No matter who gets hurt in the process.
Autism meant I spotted (and hated) artifice. As much as I could point to my past for some of my dating behavior, I could never fully explain how all the trappings of dating and sex were deeply difficult and painful for me. Until this new identity.
So much of dating revolves around subtle hints, unspoken feelings, signs and signals that have always eluded me. There are rules involved, some sort of code, for what you can and can’t talk about without dissipating the mood or ruining the romance. I’ve never understood any of it. I always joked I could never tell if someone was flirting until they had their tongue down my throat. Now I knew why.
So much of dating and sex can involve supposedly romantic things like spontaneity and surprises. I fear both. Routines and schedules are necessary to help me feel comfortable with social stuff, and just writing the word “surprise” makes my stomach churn.
So much of dating and sex demands standard signs of love. Gifts and gestures, which confuse and scare me. Or even the simple practice of sustained eye contact; to me, it’s physically painful.
Autism also meant my relationships turned into annihilation. In the relationships I did forge, I played my part so well I disappeared into it. People liked that part. I felt trapped by it.
I wanted to be loved, but more than that, I wanted to be understood. But following all these rules for relationships demanded I pretend; that prevented being truly seen and known. I couldn’t ever relax, couldn’t ever feel comfortable.
So when I grew exhausted from playing the role, panicky at the prospect of the energy needed to sustain it, I ran.
There’s something immensely powerful about naming. We queer folk understand that implicitly; by naming ourselves with a lesbian or bi or queer identity, we claim a space where we can be better understood. Trans folk perhaps understand this even more; by claiming the names meant for them, they find freedom.
For autistic people, finding a name for all the years of feeling strange and damaged and shameful is empowering. Understanding that, in many ways, my lifelong depression and anxiety were due to an undiagnosed disability, has helped me allow a little grace for myself.
For the time being, I’ve put a hold on dating. I’m allowing myself to be alone, my comfort place, my safety in the storm of the everyday. There’s a part of me that yearns for connection and love. That’s why I kept returning to those apps. Even knowing my patterns. I kept hoping I would change. But for now, I’ve paused. I’m deep in therapy, working through all the aspects of autism and my past.
Now that I know what was buried deep at the root of my behavior, I can better understand why I panic and run. I can look to the future, when I might be able to use this knowledge, talk myself down. I can see a potential place to rest and maybe even a person that will let me.
I can see that I won’t always be an asshole. Instead, maybe I can find other A-words for my love life.