My children know one of my old classmates by name. Not that they have ever met her. And it’s not even because I have told them stories about her. I have told them stories about lots of people I have known without bothering to add in their name. No, I’m kind of ashamed to admit that they know her name because when I was a kid, her name became a byword to me. Her name stood in for a set of behaviors which I associated with her and wanted desperately to avoid myself. I called it “Sally Ruthersbrodt* Syndrome” (*Not her real name!) My kids and other people who were very unlikely to ever meet her know her name and what it meant to me. In my mind her name meant thinking that people liked you when they didn’t.
I’m not even sure how that became such a big fear for me, but it was. I got that not everyone was going to like me and I was cool with that (eventually). But what if the people who seemed to like me didn’t really? That was an intolerable thought to me. The idea of thinking that you were safe with people who weren’t really safe freaked me out. And like any good geek, I believed that gathering as much information as possible was the solution. Because then I could figure out how to avoid this perceived threat. So, to that end, I applied my powers of observation to watching the people around me looking for signs that I might be turning into a Sally Ruthersbrodt.
Unfortunately for me, if there is a disorder which is the opposite of Asperger’s that makes you inappropriately hyper-sensitive to non-verbal social cues, I have that. It was quite obvious to me that everyone around me was hiding irritation, anger, annoyance and any number of other negative emotions. And because I was a kid, I also believed that whatever I observed was somehow related to me. Every time someone around me gave off a negative vibe, I assumed I was doing something wrong. But I didn’t know what it was or how to fix it. So I’d have to guess and I’ve always been terrible at guessing (or I might have realized it wasn’t always about me sooner) so mostly I’d just make it worse. Even if someone were nice enough to realize that I was trying to make them happy, I would pick up on all their little non-verbal signs of irritation and know that I had failed. I spent a lot of time hiding behind my mom’s legs as a child.
And then there was Sally. Sally lived in the small town I grew up in and attended first the local public schools and then the same Catholic high school as me. People were not nice to Sally. The most notable thing about her were her glasses. As an adult I learned that she had a problem with her eyes which had required multiple surgeries to address. But all we kids ever saw was that she wore glasses which made her eyes look enormous. And they were green which is a lovely eye color, but when your eyes look that big, it gives “bug eyed” an even more unpleasant connotation. But it wasn’t just that; Sally was one of those people who just seemed to bring out the worst in others. One of the reasons certain kids are plagued by bullying is almost demonic. John Eldredge is talking about just this thing here:
As we began to help Stephen, there was a strong pull on me to drop him altogether, a vague but strong sense that felt like, C’mon, John. This isn’t worth it. You can’t help him. Back off. In other words, betray and abandon him. The enemy will always try to get you to do to someone what he is doing to that person. I’ve seen it so many times. A woman came into my office and immediately I felt this pull toward lust and Use her – she’s available. Her story centered around the wounds of sexual abuse. That’s where the Enemy had a stronghold. . . There is a gravitational field the Enemy creates around a person that pulls everyone in their life to do to her what he is doing to her. – Waking the Dead
Even I, who was far too nice and far too low down on the social totem pole to deign to look down on someone, wasn’t immune to the pull of the “reject me” vibe surrounding Sally. I hung out with her – even saw my first semi-pornographic show on cable in her basement at a sleepover. But I never really opened up to her. In high school I would catch rides home with her so I didn’t have to take the bus, but otherwise I didn’t talk to her. My mom told me that after high school someone sent a notice to the alumni office announcing her marriage. Except it wasn’t her and she wasn’t getting married.
It was so unusual for me to treat someone as poorly as I treated Sally, but Sally never seemed to notice. Yes, her feelings would be hurt by kids doing truly cruel things. But, not being cursed with my hyper-sensitivity, she seemed to be pretty immune to subtle signs that she could be a bit like a bull in a china shop socially. She would say something and not seem to notice the slight smirk that crossed someone’s face before they responded nicely. If one of the popular kids spoke to her with a slightly condescending air, she just seemed happy that they had talked to her. And really, now I know that while I may have been seeing more clearly, that was not to my advantage.
Thanks to the wonder that is facebook, I have been back in contact with Sally for the last couple of years. Now, I am hardly one to hold a grudge, but there are people I would not even consider friending because they were so unpleasant for me to deal with as a kid. I just don’t need a daily reminder. Not Sally. She’s friends with everyone she can find – even the people who were so awful to her way back when. Good for her.
Today Sally is a mother to two really pretty little girls. They have her eyes which turned out to be quite lovely without the glasses. From what I can tell she is living a good life and loves a man who works hard for their family. She’s still really different than me, but she’s down to earth and funny and has friends who obviously genuinely like her. Now that I think about it, perhaps I should start using her name as a byword again; it could be short hand for “someone whose imperfections give her more innate wisdom than all of my neurosis”. Or something. (That’s a little fussy, isn’t it?)