Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Last night I watched a movie called Adam, about a man who has aspergers syndrome and his relationship with a woman who learns more about Adam and more about herself. At one point in the film, she feels overwhelmed and says,

"Adam, can you give me a hug?"

"Yes." He stands still.

She adjusts. "Adam, I'd like you to give me a hug."

"Oh, okay." Then he walks over and embraces her.

(Check out the trailer HERE)

Aspergers syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. In other words, the social cues that many of us pick up on such as fear, joy, anger, or annoyance, someone with aspergers may totally miss. They don't have the natural ability to sense social norms and learning every possible scenario is nearly impossible.

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My friend Mike has aspergers. I met him this semester as we had two classes together. I liked Mike from the first moment I met him. He's friendly, smiley, funny, and sincere. A few months ago I shared the story of a recent hard time in my life with Mike. That afternoon, I walked into class a few minutes late and Mike sat in the front row. We could've been the only two people in the room because without concern for the other twelve, Mike said, "You know Heather, I've been thinking. And it makes me sad what happened to you. I'm . . . so . . . sorry." He then stood up and gave me a hug.

Sometimes I'll be doing homework in the student center and Mike will strut up to me just looking for a good chat. Some days we'll talk for awhile, but other days I really need to get things done. As most of us do, I will continue looking at my book, only glance up periodically, and answer with "Uh huh"s and "Yeah"s. All the messages that say: "I'm busy."

I learned after awhile that Mike wasn't getting that message. When I don't have time to talk I need to say, "Mike, I am in the middle of my homework. I would like to finish it now. Can we talk later?"

He always says, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Thank you for just telling me. See ya later."

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I think we would all be better communicators if we assumed everyone had aspergers.

Instead of relying so heavily on social cues and hidden messages, we would just ask for what we need. Most of the pain in our lives is caused by the simple fact that we want something we aren't getting, but we don't ask for it directly. When we don't get it we get frustrated and angry.

I see this a lot in my relationship with Jeremy.

When I expect him to "just get it," know how I'm feeling, read my mind, and say the right things, I'm always disappointed. Some might think that means we aren't a good fit. But those people will look their ENTIRE lives for the "perfect" fit and never find it (well, not outside of fairy tales).

Relationships take work.

When I see the perfect opportunity for a romantic moment and he misses it, I could either get mad and stomp out of the room, or I could say, "Jeremy, I really need you to hug me right now."

In a recent interview with Oprah, Ali MacGraw said it has taken her sixty years to learn to ask for what she needs. We're not always good at it. Life isn't like the movies.
We don't always reconcile our differences.
We don't always feel understood.
We don't always kiss in the rain.

Sometimes we stay angry and bitter for a long, long time.
Sometimes we fumble through tears and hurt feelings.
Sometimes we knock teeth in our aim for lips and the rain just makes it sloppier.

Asking for what you need may not sound romantic, or at least romantic by Hollywood's standards. But this is what it is. Sometimes we have to say,
"I don't need you to fix it, I just need you to listen."
Or "I need some time alone."
Or "What you said hurt my feelings."
Or to a partner, "If you find me attractive, I need to know it."

I expected that people would dislike my boldness in asking for what I needed, but instead I've found people are relieved. Like when my parents were trying (with good intentions) to help me through eating disorder recovery, they were actually making it worse. I got frustrated. I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want them to make me feel like a problem. But they didn't know I was feeling this way until I told them. And when I did I offered suggestions as to what would help. They've been an excellent support ever since.

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In our culture, asking for what we need sounds selfish or needy or bitchy. But I'm not telling you to demand what you need or whine about what you need. Some of the wisest words my Dad has ever said--and have always stuck with me--are, "Go ahead and ask. All they can is say 'no'."

And when/if someone says "no," then you need to ask yourself:

"Is this negotiable?"
"Will I be truly happy/fulfilled/balanced/complete without this?"

If the answer is "no" and you realize they will never change their mind, then you may need to re-evaluate your relationship with that person. Which is hard, but completely necessary.

* * * * * * * * * *

Some of the most powerful words I've encountered in twenty-three years are:

"How can I help?"

Yup, that's it.

"How can I help?"

This doesn't mean I want to fix you.
This doesn't mean I always know what's best.
This doesn't mean I know what you need better than you do.

It means, "I respect you. I care about you. Let's work for a solution, together."

It may seem terrifying, but it changes lives. I'm telling ya'.


Hannah said...

lovelovelove. I wish I had words right now to really articulate how much I appreciate this post/sharing of a realization (I just woke up and am all blurrybrained).

I don't often comment, but I read all of your blogs. I always find something applicable, moving--something positive to take with me into the day. And today it is especially so. Thank you for letting your fingers and thoughts dance like mad! :-)

Briana said...

I love this and completely agree. You speak the truth!