I had originally wanted to describe this story after I came back from my speed dating outing not too long ago. Yet, I found it was far more productive to let it sit for a while so that the emotional tinge would fade and cooler heads would prevail.
It was a good move, as the draft contained a load of things that I am glad I didn’t act upon. But as I have given it further thought I believe it is time to put this on the table. It is a story that reveals a little bit of my vulnerability, one that exposes a bit of my own humanity.
One of the aspects that I find surprising is that my Best Blogging Buddies are more often than not women. Since my initial outings in Eyes Through the Glass, it has been women that have been the biggest contributors to the conversations I was having. So perhaps it’s a bit of an oddity that my biggest struggle is dealing with relationships with the opposite sex. Or maybe it’s completely expected, I can’t tell. Yet, there it is, and what exactly does this mean?
In order to understand my current predicament, I have to provide some context. This past spring was spent recovering from a state of depression. This was a successful recovery, I had a renewed sense of purpose that I found through my discovery of journalism. My grades were astounding, I had rediscovered Dungeons & Dragons and remained close friends with my group of players.
Not Mutually Beneficial
Yet, of course, my Achilles heel is the dreaded “r” word: relationship. I had been on a few dates, but nothing really stuck. As a result, I had been on hiatus for a while.
Near the end of spring, a woman whom I had previous interactions with approached me. We caught up over visits to Barnes & Noble and Starbucks and it was during that time when I noticed some pretty big social cues that she was sexually attracted to me.
Since it had been several years since my last encounter, I took the opportunity. We had established a friends-with-benefits relationship. It was my first and will likely be my last, judging by the outcome.
Truth be told, I had wanted more than a merely physical relationship. To me, I can’t remove that aspect. Some people can, but it is not something I can do.
I legitimately cared for her. I even went out and bought her a bottle of Malbec, since she loved wine. I still have it, actually. I also went to her house at her request when she felt scared because someone tried to break into her house.
But, after a few fleeting encounters she had completely distanced herself from me. Eventually, I went to a mutual friend’s house to meet up with her. I had hoped to give her the wine I had kept for so long. However, she never showed up and the next day cut off all contact with me. I have never heard from her since.
That’s when it hit me: I had been used. I wasn’t even a friend anymore. Perhaps it was because I misread the situation and bought into a setup that I was unfamiliar with. There were other red flags that I had ignored because I didn’t want to rock the boat.
There is a perception spread amongst men that being used for sex isn’t a problem. Allow me to dispel that myth. One’s gender is irrelevant to this equation. The reduction to being a tool used to facilitate sexual activity is degrading in every sense of the word, I asked myself “Is this all I’m good for?” Again, some people may be comfortable with that, but I am not.
Speeding and Crashing
However, despite this failed relationship, I remained in high spirits. I believed that if there was one woman out there who was attracted to me, then there would be another as well. I believed that I would find someone mature enough to appreciate me for who I was. I would find someone with whom I could discuss Dungeons & Dragons, journalism, Final Fantasy VII, and other nerdy stuff.
I did go on one string of dates after that, but I blew that one when I moved too fast. The rest of my time spent in the dating life was a mix between sending messages to women on dating services online and never hearing back from them. My first speed dating event was also a failure, having only one woman that I matched with, which was not returned. Although our conversation was good, it was not good enough.
Immediately after, many of the depressive thoughts that I had thought eradicated came rushing back.
Maybe the problem is you. Maybe the problem is that you’re not dateable. Maybe it’s the Asperger’s. Maybe there’s just something about you that women don’t like. Maybe it’s just that there’s something wrong with you as a person. Maybe you’re a monster. Maybe you’ll be single forever.
Logically, I could tell this wasn’t true. So could my friends. But, even someone like me who aspires to reason is prone to all-too-human bouts of irrationality. It may not be true, but it definitely felt true.
I Only Wish I Had Known
I wish that someone had guided me towards resources on dating. Usually, I would figure out “Oh you’re not supposed to do X at this time. You’re supposed to do it Y months down the line.”, but only after I had done X before Y months and screwed something up as a result. My conception of how relationships work was formed by cobbling together little nuggets of information from past relationships. For others with Asperger’s, it is common for them to base their views on relationships on either pornography or soap operas. It is not difficult to see that this is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, I was neutralized against when I was given “the talk” as a youth.
But even so, my previous relationships were engaged in when neither my partner nor I knew what we were doing. I take them as learning experiences, primarily in figuring out what I want and what I don’t want. But clearly, they were not good models for future relationships.
I also observed that I was good at online dating etiquette, but struggled to translate that into the real world. I would be mostly successful at getting phone numbers and keeping up communication online. I would get ghosted, but there were many more cases where I would go to a date and about halfway through I’d realize that it wasn’t working. This was usually mutual, and most women I talked to were open about it. I would thank them for their honesty and wish them luck in their future endeavors.
The Specter of Asperger’s
There’s an additional layer to this, though. Most people that I talk to have no idea I have Asperger’s and are surprised when I disclose that information. My case is so mild that I could probably go for the rest of my life without bringing it up and no one would ever know unless they were specifically trained to detect it.
Yet it hovers like a specter over me. I always ask myself if I am even capable of having a meaningful relationship. I took to the internet to find stories about people with Asperger’s who have had successful relationships but the results came back disappointing.
Many of the stories that I read were from others who were struggling along with me. While it gave me solidarity at the start, it had the unintentional consequence of reinforcing the idea that my singlehood was an inevitability.
The second type of story I heard was the “it’s not so bad to be single” argument. While it is intent on reframing the single experience as being a positive one, it really only did the same thing that those who were dealing with their own struggles did: It told me that I was going to be single forever, and I was going to have to deal with it.
The story I wanted to read was the one where someone said “I met my partner, who has Asperger’s. I love them very much and wouldn’t give them up because of having it.” This would be especially potent to me if it was a woman who was neurotypical and found a loving husband with Asperger’s. I never found a story like that.
Yet, I find it difficult to believe that they do not exist. I believe that they are either not reported or buried under the many expressions of woe and reframing attempts that I previously discussed.
Taking a Hero’s Journey
This whole ordeal, more so than anything, taught me that I am not as impervious as I thought was. All of what I had worked for many months to build could be undone in an instant. This fragility was frightening to me. I had contemplated what to do and then contacted my therapist.
When I spoke to my therapist about this issue and thought about how to combat the negative self-perception I had, she suggested to me something unusual. Under normal circumstances, she would have done deep emotional processing but since I had a very literal brain that wasn’t going to work. I was going to have to learn by doing.
I had no issue with this, but how was I going to do it? Well, I decided to remain connected to my dating accounts, including Coffee Meets Bagel and OkCupid. I was also going to attend more social events outside of my friend circle when I was able. I was going to get more comfortable with putting myself out there and divorcing myself from the expectation that it was going to go somewhere.
But I felt this was insufficient. I was going to need to deal with this on a psychological level. So I made the suggestion to my therapist, “Let’s make a D&D campaign out of it.”
While it may sound unusual, it’s not unheard of. Dungeons & Dragons has been used to teach social skills in a therapeutic context. I introduced my therapist to the game, which she thoroughly enjoyed. We even held a single session before dealing with a similar issue.
As it turns out, Dungeons & Dragons as a process of therapy can be very effective. Unlike most games, it occupies a unique space in between being a game, a simulation, and a narrative. So, it can offer a direct simulatory experience with mechanical underpinnings, a narrative to keep you emotionally invested, and all the while making it an engaging process through play.
I took to the process immediately, constructing my character in a very short period of time. I used my usual character, Halador Redbane, whom I have used as a character since the days of Final Fantasy XI.
As it turns out, with a little imagination creating an analog for Asperger’s within D&D’s rules is very easily accomplished. Halador is a paladin that follows a code of justice, similar to how the rules for people with Asperger’s are different than the ones that neurotypical people follow and can sometimes lead to alienation. Additionally, he comes from a noble background and was often kept away from the common folk, leading to him to misunderstandings in social norms among them despite his desire to connect with them.
I also gave him several magical curses that could be activated through specific environmental triggers. The first one is the Curse of the Lonely Heart, which inflicts psychic damage should he fail at dating or attracting a woman. However, it inflicts more damage should he decide to withdraw from courtship entirely. This is analogous to the times in which I bounced back and forth between wanting to give up on dating entirely.
The second one is the Curse of the Imagined Monster which makes Halador see himself as a hideous monster when viewed through a mirror, water, or another reflective surface. He believes that everyone else sees him this way.
This then raised the narrative question of where those curses came from. I was going to need a villain, a person who represented the ideals and values that I wanted to fight against.
In that effort, I created Omveus, an evil wizard who wants to manipulate Halador’s desire for love for his own malicious ends. Much like Halador, he also had a poor love life. However, while Halador continues to follow his paladin code and attempt to find an honest relationship, Omveus turned to arcane magic as a way of controlling women. This is cemented by the fact that the two were in training together, but the boy who became Omveus was so consumed by his failures that he wanted to inflict that suffering on those who he knew.
Omveus is defined by his misogyny, his desire for retribution on those whom he believe wronged him. Underneath it all, Omveus is revealed to be a man dominated by fear and his own emotional pain.
Ultimately, Omveus is the man that Halador could have become. By extension, Omveus represents the man I am afraid of becoming, but could very well have had I not had voices of reason to guide me through life. I know this because I have seen it, legitimate grievances go unaddressed and blossom into a twisted tree of loathing.
It was Omveus who placed the two curses on Halador, who now seeks to put Omveus to the sword.
But I went further as well. Not only did Omveus curse Halador directly, he also cursed several magical items. The first one is the Sphere of Shared Suffering. As I referenced earlier, this represents the many stories I found online of people undergoing similar struggles.
There was also the Locket of Lovers Lost, which is a locket featuring portraits of Halador’s previous love interests. They constantly talk to him, berating him for his failures in the relationships that he had. They are not the thoughts of these women, but a reflection of Halador’s own thoughts. What he is not aware of is that the locket is growing increasingly heavier, representing the burden of revisiting everything he has done in past relationships.
This is representative of my constant revisiting of old relationships, constantly asking myself “Where did I go wrong?”
There are plenty of other campaign notes that I have produced for this, which I will likely reveal in time. Since my therapist will be DM for me, this will be an interesting experiment.
Lost Without A Map
There is a certain frustration that I feel, though. I absolutely can’t stand ambiguity, and dating is full of it. You can’t “science” dating. There is no cheat code that you can deploy to get a desired response. Some things work for some people and don’t for others. There’s no consistency at all. I never get a real grasp on what I’m doing, if it’s effective or not, or what I could do to improve. I can make educated guesses and my therapist can offer suggestions, but nothing better than that. Since it takes two to tango in this case, I could feasibly do everything right and still end up failing. It also doesn’t help that I often hear “You’re doing this wrong.”, when I get advice. Though I would attribute that more to the fulfilling of my negative self-concept than what they actually said.
Yet, I would not desire the removal of that ambiguity. If indeed the world worked that way, it would likely to lead to significant harm. Someone who had the cheat code for getting their partners to like them would no doubt abuse it. Already, people are selling “solutions”. But I’m not stupid, I know that you can’t get easy answers to complex questions.
I know for a fact that I am not alone in this frustration. If I say “dating sucks” to one of my friends, the likeliest response is going to be “it really does”. The only difference between them and me is the fact that I never gave up. Some of them already have.
From the outside, I can observe the problem. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where their negative experiences have made them minimize or outright leave the dating scene. However, I know for a fact that the only way to guarantee one’s singlehood is to stop trying.
Nevertheless, I can understand their frustration. Dating is, by nature, a process of elimination. While it may be possible to get it right the first time around, it is improbable. The stories I get back are ones that echo my own, a constant cavalcade of failures. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get to me. Obviously, by the content I’ve produced above, it does.
But I don’t want to be that person who threw away the potential of future success because of the presence of past failures. I can’t imagine applying that kind of philosophy to my academics or even my journalistic endeavors.
I did indeed say at one point that I was going to stop, but I quickly reversed that position because I realized that I was giving power to my past experiences. I was letting it take control of what I did, and that was a process I was not comfortable with.
So, now I will be venturing forth once more. In time, I hope things will work out. I will also be seeing the results of my attempt to confront this in the D&D campaign. Halador would never give up, so I won’t either.