What makes me different, and why do you care?

“There are those whose own vulgar normality is so apparent and stultifying that they strive to escape it. They affect flamboyant behavior and claim originality according to the fashionable eccentricities of their time. They claim brains or talent or indifference to mores in desperate attempts to deny their own mediocrity. These are frequently artists and performers, adventurers and widelife devotees. Then there are those who feel their own strangeness and are terrified by it. They struggle toward normalcy. They suffer to exactly that degree that they are unable to appear normal to others, or to convince themselves that their aberration does not exist. These are true freaks, who appear, almost always, conventional and dull.”

This is an excerpt from the novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. It is a quote by Arturo, a charismatic and intelligent but manipulatively malevolent boy in a carnival freak show with various deformities who becomes the leader of a cult of people eager to mutilate themselves to be part of his posse. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it, but this passage, in particular, stood out to me as I read it when I was musing on exactly this topic. I recently wrote about whether nerds are born or made, and questioned if it was even valid for me to consider myself a nerd since I’m not really that far out of the ordinary. I often decry what I perceive as mainstream and basic, but in many ways, I conform to standard norms.

So am I a “normie” shouting into the wind, trying to convince others that I’m interesting, or am I a freak, painting on a happy face every day and pretending to blend in? I suspect that for me, and for most people, the answer is a bit of both.

So what makes me different from the norm, and why does society at large even have an opinion on those differences?

  • I’m a nerd
    • Or am I? I don’t know, but what I do know is that any stigma I’ve felt throughout my life for being nerdy has been self-imposed. Anytime anyone has tried to bully me I’ve shut that shit down quick, and even those few attempts had nothing to do with my geeky interests. I think I internalized the 80s and 90s pop-culture message that sci-fi was dorky and therefore I was a dork, even though no one in real life ever gave me a hard time for it. If anything, people have admired me for it, although in a rather patronizing “you like the Star Trak, how cute!” kind of way.
  • I’m an “artist”
    • I always feel like I have to apologize when I use the word artist, hence the quotation marks on the word above. Referring to myself as an artist makes me cringe because I find it pretentious and self-aggrandizing. And yet, I’m unfulfilled unless I’m creating. I’ve just written a huge essay exploring my so-called artistry, but I’ve now pasted it into a separate blog post for another day because I felt I was veering from the topic at hand. What is relevant for the moment is how our society seems to simultaneously admire and deride artists. We are celebrated for our innovation but also punished for colouring outside of the lines. Creatives are seen as bright and original, but also flighty and impractical. Again, I’ve been a victim of my own perceptions in this matter, as I quit art school because I found the environment too hippy-dippy for my taste. I also recently ran as far as I could from an employment opportunity at this same art school because I know that the art world is disturbingly political. As with every single other industry in the world, it’s not what you know, but who you know that matters, and for some reason, I can’t accept that when it comes to art. So I am constantly torn between wanting to be a part of that world, feeling unworthy of it, and feeling disdain for it.
  • I’m unmarried and I don’t have kids
    • I live in Quebec, where, perhaps due to the Quiet Revolution, there is very little stigma to being unmarried. There is still a stigma to being single, but living in a common-law relationship without being married isn’t really that big of a deal. I’ve had to deal with many questions about my marital status, but I’ve never felt harshly judged for being unmarried. Since I have access to the internet, I know that the pressure to be married is much higher in the rest of Canada, and certainly the rest of the world. Still, the wedding industrial complex is alive and well here, and I know I’m outside of the norm for being unmarried.
    • What I don’t know is why I’m so adamant about remaining unmarried. Is it because there’s no such thing as a feminist marriage, or because I simply like being different? I tend to assume that people who elope are getting married for the “right” reasons, while those who have massive, elaborate weddings are only doing it for status, and that’s an unfair assumption. It’s rather hypocritical of me to be annoyed by society’s judgments towards my marital status if I’m going to be so smug about those same choices.
    • As much as Quebec culture seems cool with me being unmarried, no one seems cool with me being childless. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t rehash it here, but the question remains: why do people care about other people’s procreative proclivities? I believe part of the answer is that having children is a natural instinct. We are biologically hardwired to spawn, so anyone who is able to overcome their programming is a threat to those who can’t. It’s the same reason people get so upset when you call them out on their ethically questionable behaviour. When people are behaving in ways that feel natural to them, they get offended when you point out the problematic nature of such behaviour, because it feels as though you are attacking them as a person, rather than the one act you had a problem with.
  • I’m an atheist
    • Again, living in Montreal, this isn’t that big of a deal. For a city renowned for it’s abundance of churches, we are pretty chill when it comes to religion, or lack thereof. I actually went to Catholic school as a kid for reasons of convenience so various people, from fellow students to staff nuns, have tried to convert me but they were never overly aggressive about it. In fact, I’ve found it more amusing than annoying, like the time a former boss forced us to pray in what was essentially a staff meeting – the sheer inappropriateness of this action was so unbelievable that I had to laugh. Yet even though I’ve never felt personally attacked for my atheism I know that in other parts of the world, even the developed world, like the States, atheism is not just taboo but even illegal, and this stuns me. Much like with spawners, I think this comes down to the fragile egos of the believers. If you feel secure in your own beliefs, why would you even care what others believe?
  • I avoid the sun
    • I have pale skin. Between my Scandinavian/Anglo-Saxon/Germanic heritage and my anemia I’m about two shades paler than transparent. So why is everyone always so shocked that I don’t sun-bathe? I cover-up in the summer as though I’m entering a situation where one might be exposed to cancer-causing radiation, which is EXACTLY what one is doing every time one goes out in the sun!!! Why don’t people get this? Not one single summer has gone by in my life where someone hasn’t felt the need to comment on my vampire gear. But at least once I explain the situation they seem to understand, if not agree.
  • I’m a teetotaler
    • The term teetotaler isn’t quite right to describe what I am, because teetotalism is abstinence from alcohol, while I abstain from all recreational drug use, even caffeine. In the past I’ve called myself straight-edge for lack of a better term but that one carries a lot of connotations I don’t jive with so I can’t really use that label either. No matter, the point is that I don’t do drugs.
    • Interestingly, of all my personality quirks, or personal life choices, the one to abstain from drugs and alcohol has caused me the most problems in my life. It really, REALLY seems to bother other people that I don’t get shit-faced every night. Every time I’ve gone out with friends or coworkers, they have asked why I’m not drinking, and when I say I don’t drink alcohol, they get very befuddled. I could now explain why I don’t drink but honestly, I don’t see why it matters. Why do people need a reason? Why can’t they just accept it? I think the answer is similar to why religious people want to convert non-believers, and why parents want the child-free to hurry up and spawn. Misery loves company. Whenever people feel somewhat uncomfortable with their own behaviours they work extremely hard to get others to jump on that bandwagon. Everyone who drinks, I’ve observed, feels slightly ashamed about it, so when they find out that I’ve managed to go my whole life without indulging, they feel like they have somehow failed, and they, in a projecting kind of way, feel as though I am judging them. Honestly, I am judging them, just as I, and everyone else, judges everyone for everything all the time, ’cause that’s what humans do. But I don’t have some sort of alcoholics burn book where I decry all drunks as baddies or something. I honestly don’t care that much about your habits, and you shouldn’t care that much about mine.
    • I will admit however, that peoples’ extreme reactions to my teetotalism have lessened over time, and this might be due to my age. As women age, we become increasingly invisible. Women are primarily valued for their sexual availability and submissiveness, so a sober young woman is a problem, whereas a middle-aged woman is of little interest regardless of her sobriety. But it could also be that society is chilling out on judging other’s proclivities. Apparently, according to some younglings I know, kids today don’t really judge each other based on what they’re into, or at least not the way they did back in my day, when we had to walk uphill to school in the snow and whatnot.
  • I’m fragile and sickly
    • I’ve talked before about my anemia, and my resulting inability to travel because of it, but aside from consistently being picked last in gym, it hasn’t caused me any social problems. My supposed mental illness however…
    • I’ve always sort of privately believed that anyone who claims to be mentally ill couldn’t possibly have a real problem, because people who are genuinely mentally ill seem to be unaware of it – aggressively unaware – in the sense that they deny, deny, deny because they are so desperately clinging to their perception of normalcy. It’s like the quote from Geek Love, which opened this blog post: those who are different just want to be normal, and those who are normal just want to be special. My point is that I’ve never fully allowed myself to acknowledge any mental illness on my part because I’m not that bad, which by my own logic means I am ill, except I feel like a poseur when I say I am. I’m not medicated, and compared to most people I know I’ve definitely got my shit together, so I’m fine, right? Yes, I get depressed on a regular basis, but it’s situational rather than clinical depression. I most certainly have social anxiety, and yes, this has caused me much strife in my life, but I don’t get panic attacks or anything so really, I just should shut up about it and move on. But this dismissiveness about my own issues is perhaps evidence that I remain a victim of my stoic upbringing which equated any emotional, mental, or physical vulnerability with weakness. My mother has role-modeled the belief that the best way to treat a broken bone is to put increased pressure on it, and my father seems to be incapable of understanding that it is normal for humans to express emotions, and that mental illness is even a thing. He doesn’t get that people who are not him have different capabilities from him, and that just because he can do something doesn’t mean other people necessarily can.

We are all familiar with the adage that recommends we walk a mile in another’s shoes to understand their experience, but most of us are unwilling or unable to do this because we literally cannot. Unless you’ve been through something it is absolutely impossible to truly understand what that experience feels like. And even two people who have been through the same thing have experienced it differently based on their previous life-experience and personality. In the end, we’re all unique, singular snowflakes, who are all exactly alike. We’re all human and humans are all basically the same, yet within that sameness is a world of difference. We’re all going through shit that makes us ponder our existence and drown our sorrows in our vice of choice. We all do things we feel ashamed of and think are weird, that are actually completely mundane, and then casually do other things that we don’t even realize are aberrant.

So, what about you? What’s your thing?

2 thoughts on “What makes me different, and why do you care?

  1. I always enjoy reading your musings. I can identify with much of what you say, but obviously not all (being a twice-married, drinking, dope-smoking parent). Plus I’ve never suffered from social anxiety with the exception of the usual hormonal teenaged awkwardness.

    I get the part about being an artistic and talented person who doesn’t feel comfortable proclaiming the fact. I, too, feel it’s incredibly vain to declare, “You know, I’m a good artist and an excellent writer.” I was taught that it was rude to self-aggrandize. The other side of the coin is that my husband chastises me for under-selling myself. I have a very good friend who’s forever telling anyone who’ll listen that she’s a great athlete, a wonderful (former) teacher, and an incredible business person. I’m always a bit embarrassed for her says shit like that, which is pointless as she’s not the least bit embarrassed.

    I worry that in some ways I’m like your dad in that I don’t understand Julia’s anxiety and mental health issues because I’ve never experienced them myself. The temptation for me (as for your dad) is to assume the remedy is a metaphorical slap in the face. If only it were so easy.

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