Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Nice People

Dave Barry famously said, "A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person." I'm not usually one for platitudes or banal one-liners, but that one sticks with me because it calls attention to a phenomenon that, for most of my life, I was blind to.

People who say nice things to you are not always nice. It doesn't stop at the idea that they are mean to those they consider to be "beneath" them or in a subservient position, either. There are a lot of people who will literally say, "I'm your friend" and then they will do everything they can to silence you, shut you down, or 'splain to you why you're wrong when you try to talk.

For years before my diagnosis, I attracted these people like flies. The worst part of it is, the people who would shut me down and talk down to me would throw our friendship in my face whenever I got mad. If I showed anger, accused them of lying, or interrupted them to insist they let me finish talking, I was sneering, being spiteful, long-winded, dominating the conversation, or (a favorite of a particularly narcissistic asshat that I had a hard time shaking) small. If I cried, threw a tantrum, or tried to break off the friendship, I was thin-skinned, and in the case of the person who liked to call me small, that accusation always came with the reminder that thin-skinned people don't get far in creative businesses.

I spent my teen years and most of my twenties accepting these judgments without question. These were my friends, after all. They were more comfortable in social situations than I was. Some of them were family. Of course they were only trying to help me, trying to get me to a place where I had the social skills to land a full-time job or an agent.

Around the time of my diagnosis, I started to wake up. When I realized that I was afraid of revealing I was autistic to certain people, I started to interrogate why that was. When I saw friends and family who claimed to share my values supporting things like slashing social safety nets, making higher education more expensive, and tax cuts for themselves (even as they saw elderly family members struggle to cover rising Medicare premiums), I started to realize that there were very good reasons why I would not want to expose myself to their scrutiny.

At the age of 28, I decided that nearly three decades of being lectured at was enough. I blocked, ignored, or cussed out each and every person who refused me help in my time of need, who minimized my distress as being thin-skinned, or who tried to 'splain to me why my not compromising on my own values was a stupid, immature thing to do (in the case of one pro-Obama-even-when-he-uses-drones-to-kill-kids acquaintance of mine).

I found my voice that year. Make no mistake--the fact that I started writing and producing finished novels for the first time, after a decade of trying, was directly tied to my willingness to cut these ties. I learned, then, that nice people don't pick fights with you over every thing you say that they disagree with. Nice people let the things that don't matter slide. If they have to disagree with you, they don't say things like "that shows you're just spiteful", they discuss the idea. It might hurt sometimes, especially when they show you that you never had a good reason to believe certain things, but they make it about the belief, not you.

The reason they do this is because they know you're a good person, and they're trying to help you live up to it.

I'm fortunate enough to have attracted a large group of people like this to my work and my personal life over the course of the last year or so. Along the way, I've started participating in causes that I always felt were important but never knew how to talk about. I've been able to come out of each of my closets in quick succession, and to speak openly about things that used to be a source of deep shame for me.

I've also learned that Mr. Barry's quote has a corollary: Someone who wants to support families, but only families that don't have problems, doesn't really support families.

This is important to realize, because the kind of people I'm describing are everywhere. It's easy to see their propaganda when they are far-right theocrats who want everyone's family to look like theirs, like the pro-patriarchy, pro-corporal punishment, anti-same-sex marriage Christian fundamentalists. It's harder when it's autism parents who regard autistic traits as "misbehavior" and parents who don't suppress them as failures.

It's hardest when your uncle tells his daughters "I don't want you to see this because you'll learn bad habits" as an autistic child melts down in front of them. Or when your father tells you "don't bother to call me until you've gotten mental help" because you're screaming into the phone and crying uncontrollably.

Or when someone you know, someone whose family you have been part of for over a decade, blames a teenager for being bratty when that person knows full well that the teenager's alcoholic mother just doesn't do anything, and that the kid has never had anyone demonstrate what's right.

Or when someone calls a seven year old an asshole, then splits hairs by pointing out that ze said "behaving like an asshole", which must only be about the kids behaviors and you're stupid and wrong and projecting if you think it could be taken otherwise. Someone who claims to be all about helping kids and not judging them for being kids because they're still developing has no business using that language even when it's only directed at the behavior, because it's negative labeling, not problem solving. That person is not supporting families. That person is supporting families they approve of that don't need help. And that's easy, because families that don't need help don't take any work to support.

A person who tries to understand your autistic child, but writes off your allistic one, is not an understanding person. And vice versa.