He was a non-traditional student, about 10 years older and I think pursuing an undergraduate degree. I had met him through PACT, but I believe the first real opportunity to talk happened on the statewide retreat. He wasn’t Catholic, but he was interested in learning about the faith.
I remember being with a small group of people at the retreat, and then slowly others broke off for other things. And it was just the two of us. I wasn’t super comfortable around him, but I couldn’t just leave him. He seemed so alone, and I felt bad for him.
He opened up to me, sharing something that I know must have been difficult to admit. He revealed that he had been diagnosed as bipolar and that he had experienced hallucinations. I didn’t know what to do with that information, or even what it meant. I knew it was a big deal that he was sharing, but I didn’t know why he was telling me.
From my journal: I’ve never known anyone that had a bipolar problem. I’m still trying to get a grip on that. He was willing and able to share that with me though. That’s not an easy topic to discuss. He has a lot of trust and faith in me that I won’t tell people.
After the retreat, we started spending more time together. He was the one who contacted me and asked if we could do something. I never initiated anything. While I was fairly comfortable in my solitude, I recognized that not everyone was.
I knew he needed time to talk and the company more than I did. Because he asked me specifically, I somehow felt responsible for his happiness. At times this resulted in a sense of guilt if I said I couldn’t hang out with him even though I wasn’t busy or there were no conflicting commitments. Like I was letting him down.
He was lonely. He didn’t have the most endearing personality, and I could relate to that. Not many people had patience for him.
From my journal: I can’t express my emotions properly. I have a hard time saying I don’t want to do something, speaking up. I just go along.
So he’d call and ask if I could join him for a walk around campus. I wouldn’t necessarily want to go but I agreed anyway, most of the time. While it was uncomfortable for a while, there was usually at least one point while hanging out when we’d share a laugh. Where I could be honest in saying I’m glad we could spend time together rather than saying it to make him feel better.
From my journal: He’s the most straightforward and blunt person I know. I don’t mind his questions. It shows that he’s really curious about whatever. It’s the way he behaves.
He says there is an attraction to me on his part. He’s often asked if it’s possible if we could ever be more than friends. Aside from the age difference, the fact that I have no physical attraction to him at all, his problems, he wants to be a priest. What would be the point in getting into a serious relationship?
He’d talk about feeling called to pursue the priesthood even though he wasn’t Catholic yet and then the next time we talked he’d express being physically attracted to me and the prospect of dating.
It didn’t make sense to me. If you felt certain about a call to the priesthood, why delay that? It didn’t occur to me that these drastic changes in interests could be a result of being bipolar.
I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. But how do you turn down someone without being mean and without lying? Because I think the easy reply is “I’m not ready for a relationship.” That was accurate enough, but it was only partially true. What that statement really meant was I don’t want anything serious with you, but I’d happily reconsider if a better offer came along.
I’m sure I took the easy way out because saying “I don’t think of you in that way” may be truthful but it seems harsh. I wasn’t ready to be that direct.
Why am I sharing this?
Because establishing friendships in general was a challenge for me, not to mention trying to learn how to navigate the complexities of dating.
Because it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one screwing things up and having trouble with relationships. Let’s burst that bubble: you aren’t the only one.
Because I’m assuming that others with trouble interpreting social cues and those with trouble communicating also have trouble in these situations and it’s important to acknowledge it.
Because I want to flag an important part of growing up and learning that needs to be talked about more. Parents, talk to your kids. Help them know it’s ok to voice contradictory opinions. It’s ok to decline a social invitation if you need personal space and to do so without feeling guilty. And most importantly: You are not responsible for another person’s happiness.
Because sharing this for myself and revisiting the circumstances in its proper context, I can allow myself a sense of closure. It shouldn’t be viewed as a failure but part of the learning process.
Because it’s helping me see that while I judged myself for lacking the “right words” to say in the moment, subconsciously, on some level, I recognized the value of being present and available, of listening. That the action of being present was more important than any words I could have offered. And we all need to remember that.