Joshua Friedberg went through many years alone, bullied, and unable to read social cues. But things changed, and at last he was able to see it.
I’ve sometimes said I wouldn’t wish the first 18 years of my life on anybody. It took a tremendously gratifying response to my work to convince me that my childhood was worth it.
I grew up feeling really alone. While I have tremendous privilege as a white, middle-class male, I am gay and I have Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that often involves difficulty interacting with peers, as well as exceptional capacities for memorization and developing individual interests. I grew up with no friends my age, and I spent most of my time listening to music alone and learning about music history.
At school I excelled academically and practically drowned socially. My Asperger’s involved trouble reading social cues, including what people thought of me and my actions, unless they expressed their thoughts in words. The trouble was, when they did, what I heard was cruel, and I realized later I was misunderstood. I can’t count the number of terms I heard terms like “retard,” “faggot,” and “prick” thrown my way.
And beyond that, others suffered because of how I was treated at school and elsewhere. I found out after high school that people close to me were binging on food because they couldn’t take watching me suffer.
By the time I graduated high school, as a result of years of dealing with various kinds of bullies, I didn’t think I was creative, I didn’t think I was funny, I didn’t think things I said were worth saying, I didn’t think I was intelligent. I thought I was arrogant, I thought I was incompetent, I thought I was worthless. It turns out that none of those thoughts was true.
So I internalized a lot of self-hate because most of the messages I was getting about me were so negative. Discovering my gifts came with college and people expressing such foreign concepts as appreciation of me and gratitude for my contributions to classes and activities.
How did this happen? I attended a small liberal arts college called Earlham that, while not for everyone, was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got involved on campus and met people who cared about how they treated each other. I also got a lot of chances to express myself and my talents for singing and songwriting, and I was rewarded like I couldn’t believe. And while the atmosphere could be cliquish, I reached out to a lot of people across different social groups and gained real friends my age for the first time in my life.
Still, with my having trouble reading social cues, I had no idea just how appreciated I was. The big lightbulb moment came on May 8, 2010, at my college graduation ceremony, and when my name was called, a whole lot of people–over 200–stood up and cheered for me. I was told I stopped like a deer in headlights when I saw people standing up for me, looking stunned, and then that gave way to a huge smile like none I’ve had before or since.
That day taught me at least two things: that I make a difference, and that all the social struggling I went through was worth it just to live to see that moment. That moment confirmed that I was not wrong all along, for being sensitive or anything else for which kids used to treat me like treat crap.
After that day, I spent the summer back in my hometown haunted by memories of childhood, but as I wrote in a facebook post almost three months after graduation day, they didn’t feel as bad knowing I was so loved:
On May 8, 2010, I received a standing ovation at my college graduation. I’ve been reflecting on that incredible moment since it happened, but especially because this summer I’ve been without my friends here in Wilmette, IL–yep, that place in suburban Chicago I always sigh about when I mention where I’m from–and I’ve used that memory to sustain me during some lonely days. I always have a rough time when I’m back home for any extended period of time: the place brings to mind many years living without friends my age, finding solace in music nobody else seemed to care about, and often being criticized at school and elsewhere for being different. And of course, in many ways I am incredibly privileged and lucky, but I also know what it’s like to feel like I have a broken heart and just about nobody to understand me. So it’s always been a little strange to hear the kinds of genuine compliments people have given me for being different and some of the very things for which people used to put me down: my love and knowledge of music and detailed analysis of it, my sense of humor, my commitment to sobriety, my sensitivity, and other things about me that I deserve to be proud of. But the last four years have been full of more affirmation and love that I could have ever imagined. And for it all to culminate with those cheers… I’m still getting over it. So, as I turn 22 in a week, and three months will have passed since May 8, I say to Earlham’s class of 2010 and other members of the Earlham community: you have blessed my life with your genuine kindness and love; it means the world to me, and it means that my broken heart is healing, so thank you.
Photo: bigmikeyeah / flickr