I have ADHD. I also have an anxiety disorder. My psychiatrist says it’s not uncommon to have both at once, which makes me feel less like a special snowflake and more like a common weirdo, because unfortunately, both of these diseases tend to come with a hefty dose of social awkwardness.
You know that kid who was always blurting out answers that didn’t have much to do with the question? That was me. That is me. In grad school, my husband compared me to Luna Lovegood, and while he meant it in a good way, it’s still true that I drift through life oblivious to important social cues. It’s annoying. It’s frustrating. But mostly, it’s just totally freaking awkward.
1. Truth: I don’t always know I’m acting weird.
In the show Sherlock, Holmes is supposed to ignore or not care about most social cues. When he’s being particularly obnoxious, he gets a jab in the ribs and a “Bit not good,” from BFF John Watson. Where the fuck can I find a John Watson? Because half the time I’m acting weird, I don’t notice. I’ll be staring off into space, perfectly happy, and perfectly oblivious that someone’s trying to have a conversation with me. Or I have what I think is a perfectly lovely conversation with someone new, only to find out halfway through that I’ve met them before and said the exact same things.
2. Truth: But I always worry that I’m acting weird.
I’ve been stung enough times to know that I don’t always know the rules, and I’m terrified of breaking them. Imagine I run into my favorite waitress at the mall. Am I allowed to say hello to her? Am I supposed to say hello to her? And if I do, where does the conversation go after that? How long does politeness dictate that we talk? Most people would negotiate this interaction without a hitch. I pray my kids suddenly develop a desperate need to poop — in the restroom far across the mall.
3. Truth: I’m not ignoring you.
I have a number of social tics that make me look like I’m totally bored. For example, I check my phone all the damn time. I can’t stop. No, literally: It’s an ADHD thing. The reward centers in my brain light up like I’ve snorted coke when I check my Facebook updates. So I’m still listening to you while I’m tapping away. I also tend to stare into space. Then I’m always looking around to see where my kids are and yelling at them to stop beating each other. In the moment, I do not realize I am doing any of these things. No, keep talking. I’m listening.
4. Truth: My friends tend to be as awkward as me.
This happened in grade school, where I always hung out with the weird kids. It happened in high school, where I always hung out with — you guessed it — the weird kids. Now I’m a mom, and I tend to hang out with the weird moms. You know, the ones who own guns but still brew their own kombucha. Our houses are messy, and we all have weird habits, like selling Tupperware, kayaking obsessively, or watching fringe sci-fi series (see Fringe). None of us listen to Top 40 radio or watch popular TV. We also have a tendency to zone out mid-conversation and compare real-world experiences to Harry Potter.
5. Truth: I’m worried my kids will be as awkward as me.
Luckily, my husband is certified grade-A normal, or my kids would be 12a kinds of screwed. I worry they’ll pick up the same little tics that shift me from normal to awkward. For example, they’ll have trouble relating to the interests of other kids. This is not an idle fear when your 7-year-old is obsessed with the Revolutionary War in general, and Alexander Hamilton specifically. Will they have friends? Will their friends be kind to them, even when they sing Hamilton in a weird, nasal drone?
6. Truth: I will forget things.
When I say I will forget things, I don’t mean my purse. I mean I will forget that we’ve ever met before. That waitress I ran into at the mall? It’s a miracle I remembered her. I will also forget how many children you have, what their names are, any and all of your hobbies, and basically all the things needed to make civilized small talk. This will terrify me. I will begin picking at my cuticles/checking my phone/looking everywhere but at you. Normal society finds this a turn-off. I will not realize I am doing anything other than panicking.
7. Truth: I will interrupt you with a non sequitur.
Most people’s minds work linearly. Mine functions at a skew. So, suddenly, I will blurt out something about my husband forgetting garbage day when we’re talking about co-sleeping. This is part of my ADHD. It’s also part of just plain being awkward. Hopefully, you’ll take the turn gracefully, respond, then go back to where you were. At least, that’s what I tend to assume people will do because I maintain multiple conversational threads at once. Friends know how to deal. Other people tend to think I’m crazy.
8. Truth: I mean it as a compliment.
When I see something cool, I tend to say so. That might mean telling complete strangers that I like their hair. I will do this then immediately worry I’ve overstepped the bounds of polite society and either insulted someone or painted myself as an awkward freak.
9. Truth: I obsessively retrace social interactions.
If I talked to you today, chances are I replayed our conversation several times. I worried over every single thing I said that could be construed as offbeat, weird, or strange. I have probably missed the actual social cues that made you think I was weird and fixated on something else entirely. I am now convinced you hate me.
10. Truth: But I can’t tell if you hate me.
As much as I have trouble with social cues, I have trouble reading them in return. For example, there’s a woman I know who tends to be very gruff, but who’s actually super-sweet. Every time I talk to her, I become convinced anew that she thinks I’m stupid and hates me. Interactions with her lead to fear, personal loathing, second-guessing, and projection until I remember: Oh yeah. That’s just how she is. Or is it?
11. Truth: I don’t know when to stop.
Talking, that is. So it means that first, I have a tendency to monologue, or worry I’m monologuing, and second, I will tell you way too much about my life. Casual friends, for example, do not need to know I breastfeed until my kids are 4, but I live in my own little bubble and forget that’s weird. They also do not need to know I solve all my earworms with Antoine Dodson’s “Bed Intruder” song, the details of my medical history, the minutia of my vast pharmacopoeia, or my obsessive crush on Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. These things are weird. I forget that.
Basically, being socially awkward sucks. It’s hard to make new friends. It’s hard to get along with strangers. Chance social encounters become minefields. You’re always fixated on some social minutiae, but it’s usually the wrong thing entirely. Plus then you’re worried about your kids turning weird, your friends hating you, and random strangers thinking you need a personality adjustment. It’s difficult. It’s isolating. But at least you know you aren’t alone. Or are you?