A complicated relationship with love

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Love has always been a struggle for me. Well, that’s not entirely true. My life is rich with the joys of both familial and platonic love. Both are valuable, and undoubtedly necessary to almost anyone’s happiness.

But when it comes to romantic love? Sexual love? Those have often felt out of my reach. Even when they aren’t, the reality of them remains complicated and incomplete compared to what I want them to be.

Those who know me could tell you I am somewhat in love with the very concept of love itself. I adore romance novels, devouring their words endlessly, and I hope to write my own someday. I frequently throw myself into that fandom-related pastime of “shipping”; speculating on and imagining romantic relationships between fictional characters in any given piece of media. I often joke that I am unironically the number 1 fan of pointless romantic subplots despised by many who consider themselves to have good taste.

Maybe this is part of why my own life has been so devoid of romance. Those who put something on a pedestal are often dooming themselves to the pursuit of an overblown ideal, a journey that can only end in failure. I don’t think that can be the whole story for me though. In truth, I often worry that I am so starved and desperate for romance that I might accept a relationship with anyone who claims to love me. I want to believe the kind of love some people talk about can exist for me, yet I also fear that if I refuse to settle for less, I will never find any kind of love.

I occasionally tell people the story of the first (and only) time I ever went nonverbal. The first time I even learned it was possible for me to go nonverbal. I often recount just the basics, painting the scene only in the abstract. I was on a birthright trip surrounded by other college-aged peers, on a tour bus heading through the Israeli desert to take us on a promised night out. Much pre-game drinking had already been done (though not by me) and a near club-like atmosphere had been created within the bus itself via flashing lights and music cranked to top volume. Usually, the way I tell it, it is sheer sensory overwhelm that renders me nonverbal. That’s mostly the truth, I think. But there is a moment I never tell anyone, yet I remember it clearer than any lights or music. My seatmate remarked she had never kissed another woman before, leading the already hyped-up girl she was talking with to lean over and plant one right on her. That is the moment when I realized I couldn’t speak. Later, when I was curled up and sobbing my eyes out as the woefully unprepared woman sent to chaperone me tried to calm me, I kept thinking of this. And thinking of it only made me sob harder. I had felt a yearning, a desire at that moment. Contrasted with the mess I was, breaking down over light and sound, it made me want to cringe away from myself. I felt ridiculous, laughable. That I desired others and wanted to be desired seemed absurd when I felt as if I was behaving more like a child than an adult.

I still haven’t had my first kiss. I’ll be 27 years old when this is published.

I think when you have a disability, any disability, it can become harder to see yourself as a sexual being because you are aware that many others don’t see you as one. In the media we are exposed to, it is still so rare to see portrayals of disabled people as sexual beings with sexual desires. In the past, when a disabled character’s sexuality was acknowledged it was often to the discomfort of the (usually non-disabled) object of their desire. Even now, the portrayal of disabled characters in relationships is complicated. Often there is still the tendency for any romance they find to be framed as being achieved

despite their disability, or at least that their love interest is truly admirable for being able to find it within themselves to desire this person. Even when that isn’t the case, the fact that these characters may often be portrayed by attractive actors can still make it hard to see my own love life reflected in theirs. Even the written word isn’t exempt from this. The autistic leads occasionally finding their way into the pages of the romance novels I read are still all breathtakingly attractive. This is only to be expected when it comes to romance novels, but it does still lessen the amount of hope such representation can give me. Can I find love as an autistic person even if I don’t look like a movie star?

I sometimes feel infantilized by people around me. I know that due to my autism, some of my behavior or mannerisms could come off as juvenile, not helped by my natural baby face and aversion to makeup. I live with my parents, I don’t have a “real” job, I still can’t eat many vegetables, I can freak out at even minor frustrations, and I’m uncomfortable driving in a car by myself. All strikes against the idea that I am an independent adult worthy of respect and desire. People would call me a “man-child” if I wasn’t a woman. And we all know the last thing anyone would want to date is a man-child.

Even with my obsession with all things romance, I have never been exposed to a blueprint of what it would look like for someone to love me. Trying to insert me into the role of traditional romantic lead feels ridiculous, not when the mold is so at odds with who I really am. I become a square peg trying to imagine fitting into a round hole.

Maybe this is part of why my love life has always felt so incomplete.

I’ve had one official boyfriend. We were in high school. He was long distance. I met him at a Jewish summer camp for kids with greater support needs. Like me he was autistic. He was also everything I would have wanted in a boyfriend at that age. He was tall and good-looking in a very nerdy and very teenage way. He was Jewish (many nice Jewish boy jokes were had) and he liked all the things I did. Most importantly, he liked me. Maybe even then I was partially just in love with being loved, but that love was real. As real as any teenage love is. I even visited him where he lived in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Yet somehow, we faded from each other’s lives far too easily. This was back before we were all quite so uber-connected as we are now, so likely our juvenile attempt at long distance was always doomed. We never did more than hug and hold hands, but it was a real relationship to me. And it always will be.

Other than him, I went through life burning through a series of one-sided crushes that were met with mockery in my teenage years and then later simply ignored once my peers matured past blunt cruelty. I tried online dating. It never worked out. Though I had the hunger to know a person intimately, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of a casual hookup for my first time. I was out of my depth in the dating game and usually unable to keep a guy interested when sex was off the table. When I headed to Israel for an internship I thought this would give me an excuse to loosen up and try to be casual. But the dating pool I found was even more aggressively sexual, something a part of me wanted yet could not bring myself to dive headfirst into. Burned into my mind is the memory of a man in a bar on New Year’s Eve, holding me by the hips as we both awkwardly swayed to the music on a floor too crowded for proper dancing. I wanted him, I couldn’t see his face but I wanted him just because being touched like that felt so good. I still took another woman’s covert offer of rescue when it appeared, reaching out my hand to take hers and be pulled to safety, because even then I didn’t know that I could give him what he wanted. I still think about his touch sometimes.

Today, I wish I could call the woman I love my girlfriend. There was a time when we both wanted to believe that could happen.

We met online and fell in love online. We had no choice. To this day we have never even been in the same country. If it was just that though, it wouldn’t have mattered. We love each other. Simple long distance would have been an obstacle, but a surmountable one.

We didn’t put a label on our relationship because it was so hard to say where it would go. We’re still so young, and it’s hard to build a life together if you can’t see where your lifepaths could intersect. We told ourselves that if we still felt the same years down the line, then maybe we could make it official. If our love proved it could last, maybe it would be worth it to drastically reshape our lives in ways that let us be together.

I don’t know if either of us believes long-lasting love is enough anymore.

Over time, we’ve only seen our lives head down increasingly divergent paths. To be together, one of us would have to give up so much more than the other. Both of us rightfully fear the consequences of that. We haven’t broken up, because we made sure there was nothing binding between us to break. But we have, quietly, admitted defeat. We still love each other. We both believe that we’ll probably always love each other. It would be easier if that wasn’t true, but I think it is.

Sometimes, I feel resentment that she loves the life she’s building enough to leave me out of it. Yet I could never ask her to make a choice that would leave her less than at her happiest. I know that. That doesn’t mean the selfish part of me doesn’t wish she valued me more than anything else.

She said she feels guilty, knowing how hard relationships are for me. I told her I didn’t confide that to her so she would feel guilty, and that I don’t want her to pity me. Of course, I’m sure she already knew. That doesn’t mean she can help it.

I’ll be visiting her this year. We’re both so excited about it, and so happy planning it. I don’t know if meeting in person for the first time will bring the closure I want it to, or if it will just make everything feel worse. I still want to see her no matter what. I guess that’s what love is.

Rachel

Rachel is a Jewish bisexual autistic woman (she/her) with ADHD in her twenties. She loves writing and can always be found with her nose in a book! Her plan for the future is to earn her Psy. D. in clinical psychology. This interested in psychology started as a way to help her understand people better and to figure out what it was about others I kept not getting. It is also something deeply linked with her self-advocacy. There is a gap in communication between the autistic community and providers, and she want to help bridge it and challenge others to see things from different perspectives.

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