“They’re just doing it for the attention!”
It’s a fast way to shut someone down.
It is very difficult to be a person with an exceptionally high need for attention. I’m thirty-six right now, and I’m only barely beginning to forgive myself for my innate nature. Learning to deal with my need for attention in healthy and constructive ways has been one of the most difficult parts of learning to function in day-to-day life, and it’s only in facing myself that I can face the world.
Lessons on this are some of the worst kinds of painful. People like me can use others right the fuck up. It sounds horrible, and many of the people who I have inadvertently “used up” would deny it. Others would nod and agree. Maybe “used up” isn’t as accurate as “exhausted,” or even “drained.” It takes a lot more effort just to hang out with a person like me, even for people who enjoy it. I know this. I exhaust myself at times.
I’ve been told my whole life by many people that I’m “too much.” Too broad, to crass, too wordy, too pushy, too loud, too dramatic, too involved. My mother used to say she had one daughter but counted her twice. I try too hard and feel too strongly. It used to drive me crazy how people would tell me to calm down when I wasn’t upset at all. There was just too much me. As if I take more air from a room as I enter it. And it would hurt, still hurts at times. But it’s a truth, and as with all truths, knowing it is the only way to move forward. It’s something that doesn’t have a diagnosis or a support group (shit, can you imagine?) or a wristband or an advocacy group.
From the inside, it feels like I am too much. I fidget because I cannot contain my energy completely. I speak fast, sometimes become breathless, because there is so much to get out. Sometimes my skin itself feels tight. It’s so damn painful, when you need attention and are unable to get it. Because for people like me, it is a very real need. Not necessarily to be the center of attention, just to have a connection with another person, saying you exist and I hear you.
It’s a common misconception that negative and positive attention are of equal value to people like me. I think it’s pretty rare that attention-seekers actually see them that way. It’s the more subtle variation that negative attention is better than none at all. And often, I think, the negative attention just makes the problem worse, because it can create an even greater need for positive attention to recover from it.
There’s a whole lot less negative attention in my life as I’ve gotten better at gauging my actions. Am I being too loud? Does anyone actually care what I’m saying? Is this topic appropriate for this audience? Have they already gotten the point, but I am still talking? Learning the more intricate layers of “laughing with” vs. “laughing at.” Learning how to gauge people’s responses and recognize when a smile was too forced.
The hardest times were when I was falling into depression, way back before the crazy train. As my energy and will slowly drained, my need for attention soared. I was spending most of my time alone, so the computer was my lifeline. And Andy grabbed the other end of that lifeline. He lavished attention on me, and I drank it in like water in the desert. It was easy to pull me in when just ignoring me for a few hours was enough to make me push aside my uncertainty. So great was my need that, for a while, the best option seemed to be Andy’s intense, extravagant fixation.
This is why I think it’s understandable that my closest friends were unable to help me out. I am sure that I was already hitting the red zone on how much energy it took to deal with me before I started telling them I was talking to hobbits from another dimension through my internet friend. When you aren’t under Andy’s spell, he sets off some visceral alarm bells. I know my friends didn’t like him from the beginning, so once I was wrapped up in him I’m sure it wasn’t too hard for them to let go.
Oddly enough, telling all my friends (in detail!) about the increasingly bizarre and fantastical things Andy was showing me may have made them less inclined to help. Instead of seeing my slow descent into insanity, they saw over-the-top attention getting displays. It’s easier, and far less stressful, to just cut ties from the attention whore. I don’t blame them. It’s hard to know, and long ago stopped mattering.
The thing is, needing attention – even huge amounts of it – is okay. What I had to do was learn to channel it rather than deny it. To meter myself instead of cutting pieces off. To keep a mental tally of how much energy I have asked friends to extend, and to be careful not to just overwhelm them with me. To find outlets – like this one – where I can express that excess. How to sit with the dearth of attention and get through it if those needs just can’t be met. Maybe most important, I had to stop being afraid to just say what I wanted – if I want someone to pay attention to me, I tell them. Hey, I miss you, can you spare a couple hours? Or even, I just need to talk to another adult for a few. It doesn’t have to be much.
This post got a lot more personal than I originally intended. I’d planned to just talk about why needing attention isn’t a bad thing, and even had a few jokes about how people with ADHD maybe literally have a deficit of attention – from others. But it is what it is, just as I am what I am. I can’t change me, but I can change my choices.