Drawing of a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet. Name: Ra Alignment: CG Drawing of "tattooed, pierced Adult me." Character Sheet: Strength 7, Constitution 6, Dexterity 9, Intelligence 16, Wisdom 9, Charisma 17. Skills: Perform (jokes), Craft (art things), Knowledge (crap), handle animal

Dungeons and Dragons and Not Hating Myself for Five Freaking Minutes.8 min read

I wasn’t all that much of a nerd growing up. It wasn’t because I lacked the interest and nat­ural pro­cliv­i­ties of being one. Instead, it was because I grew up in the cul­tural waste­land of rural Oklahoma. This was the barren land of get­ting pos­sessed if you so much as perused a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Pokémon sent you to hell for neb­u­lous rea­sons I still don’t have a firm grasp of.

Luckily for me, I started playing Pokémon before my par­ents were told it was a one way ticket to damna­tion stored in a Gameboy Color car­tridge, and when they looked over the books and games I had, they were as baf­fled as I was about which con­tent specif­i­cally was sup­posed to make me the star of the next Exorcist.

Cartoon of author, arrow with gameboy that says Level up holding, pokemon yellow pointing to picture of author with horns, no eyes, sharp teeth hovering above a ring of fire.

I was home schooled until 9th grade due to my sen­sory issues and bor­der­line ago­ra­phobia, but when I hit high school, the geeky side of heaven finally opened up to me.

I made some nerdy friends the first couple of years, our friend­ships held mostly together by my new­found obses­sion with every Legend of Zelda game I could get from the local Game X‑Change. Three of us became wielders of the Triforce (I was Link, even though I strongly iden­tify as Ganondorf, now.) and I was the maker of comics based around Super Smash Brothers Mêlée.

Three people with text pointing to their heads. White girl dressed as zelda: Unfortunately, went on to bully me. White boy dressed as link: Now an insufferable emo kid. Person of color in armor and cape: asked me out. I didn't realize they (or I) were queer, so I mistook it for a joke. Oof.

I was really starting to find myself as a bud­ding geek, but it was when I was 16 that I had my epiphany. It was 2009, American Idol was in full swing, and smart phones were in their infancy. I decided to go to that same the­ater that had caused me many sen­sory melt­downs in my younger years to see the new Star Trek movie.

It was there, in that grimy, faded-red seat that I knew. I knew I was a nerd. I saw that movie in that the­ater at least three times, and con­sid­ering it usu­ally takes a force of nature to get me to a the­ater, it was quite an accom­plish­ment.

Drawing of author gazing up at space with planets and stars instead of eyes, crying.

I became obsessed with Zachary Quinto as Spock, and the next few years saw me making cringe-worthy YouTube videos ded­i­cated to the topic, bingeing the entire orig­inal series, writing fan-fiction, going to a Las Vegas con­ven­tion to meet Leonard Nimoy (may he rest in peace,) making cos­plays, and gen­er­ally losing myself to this obses­sion.

With the door open to The Way of The Nerd, I found so much more that I was in love with. But I’m get­ting a little ahead of myself here.

See, high school, for all the great new things it brought me, was a very dif­fi­cult time for me. Remember I said I lived in a cul­tural waste­land? You can imagine then, what the mental health care was like.

As a kid I had a lot of sen­sory issues, I learned and social­ized dif­fer­ently, I was delayed with my motor skills– All the things that in the right time and place would have quickly gotten me diag­nosed with ASD and (hope­fully) gotten me some decent care.

Unfortunately, no one even really knew what autism was where I grew up. By the time I started seeking mental health care for crip­pling depres­sion and anx­iety at age 16, I had learned to cover most of the markers that would have gotten me a diag­nosis, and I wasn’t prop­erly diag­nosed until age 25.

While I was home schooled, I knew I was the “problem child,” between myself and my sister, and I always assumed I was pretty dumb too. But when I got to high school, well, things got a whole lot worse.

Drawing of author as a kid with earmuffs and a headband on. Pointing to kid: dad's lawnmowing mufflers, headband, balled up socks. Sometimes, my parents rigged this up to try to get me to loud places. When I told my psychiatrist this, she said: "...And no one thought maybe you were autistic?"

As soon as I showed up in high school, I was dif­ferent. Initially, I was made fun of and bul­lied for my gender pre­sen­ta­tion (another story entirely,) but it kind of just devolved from there. I had no idea how to socialize, and the only pos­i­tive rein­force­ment I could get was making a fool of myself to get laughs at my expense.

It got people to think of me as funny, but it all felt fake con­sid­ering how alone and depressed I felt just below the sur­face. However, one of the biggest points of inse­cu­rity for me def­i­nitely came from my abysmal exec­u­tive func­tioning. It’s some­thing that I still struggle with a lot, and back then it made me feel like an absolute idiot.

I could intel­lec­tu­ally do all my work so well that teachers wanted me in advanced classes, and I was a National Merit Scholars semi finalist. I got a 32 on my ACT on my first try. I was smart. I finally knew that.

Why then, was it that I came home crying every after­noon and needed my mom to tell me what home­work to do in what order? Why had I needed her to sit by my side when she taught me math as a kid, cov­ering every problem but the one I was working on until I fin­ished the whole work sheet?

Why could everyone be in band, clubs, stu­dent gov­ern­ment, have friends, AND do their home­work, when doing just one thing over­whelmed me so much? I was bul­lied out of the robotics club because I was quickly labeled “lazy,” even though really, I was just too over­whelmed to show up much.

It was some­thing I didn’t have lan­guage for until my adult life. It was also a feeling of inad­e­quacy and bro­ken­ness I car­ried with me for years. In fact, it’s some­thing I struggle with to this day.

anxious cartoon author kid with notebooks, worksheets, and tests above their head.

Fast for­ward again. I was in col­lege when I met my now spouse, a fan­tastic person who has sup­ported me through all the ups and downs. He’s also a huge nerd, and he was the one who got me started on another obses­sion of mine, Dungeons & Dragons.

It was the ulti­mate for­bidden fruit where I was from, some­thing people were totally sure that if you tried just once, well, you might as well just hand your soul to the devil on a poly­he­dral platter.

As it turned out, it was basi­cally a hybrid between a board game and an improv group. While it was anti­cli­mac­ti­cally mun­dane, being the nat­u­rally cre­ative and per­for­ma­tive person that I am, I took to it like a fish takes to its first swim in a won­der­fully geeky ocean.

For the unini­ti­ated, Dungeons & Dragons is a role-playing game where you create a char­acter from a list of “classes,” (i.e. war­rior, wizard, rogue, ranger, etc.) and races such as an elves, dwarves, gnomes, and the like.

You select skills for your char­acter, which dif­ferent classes and races have advan­tages to learn, and once you’ve filled out a sheet with the num­bers that quan­tify what your char­acter can (and can’t) do, you get to pre­tend to be that char­acter on an adven­ture with the char­ac­ters the other players have cre­ated. It’s fan­tastic.

As a person who thinks in for­mulas and algo­rithms, it was easy to pick up, and unex­pect­edly, really helped me figure out a lot about myself. See, war­riors are good at some things, like smashing things with an axe and using all kinds of weapons, and wiz­ards are good at others, like casting spells and knowing a lot about things you may come across.

Every class has its own spe­cial­ties and affini­ties, and a group needs a diverse set of char­ac­ters to be able to tackle the chal­lenges ahead. As I play­fully filled out char­acter sheets with what I imag­ined my own stats would be, it made me realize– “I’ve been playing the game of life all wrong.”

Drawing of a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet. Name: Ra Alignment: CG Drawing of "tattooed, pierced Adult me." Character Sheet: Strength 7, Constitution 6, Dexterity 9, Intelligence 16, Wisdom 9, Charisma 17. Skills: Perform (jokes), Craft (art things), Knowledge (crap), handle animal

When I got into this world, every­body expected me to be a cer­tain “class.” They wanted me to have a cer­tain set of skills, cer­tain abil­i­ties, and learn those things at the expected rate. But those weren’t the things I was good at! I had dif­ferent skills, and while it has taken me years to remember that I need to eat lunch every day, I can pick up any­thing cre­ative (despite what these inten­tion­ally bad illus­tra­tions may sug­gest) and build that skill really quickly.

I am quite charis­matic and nat­u­rally funny, even though maybe I don’t always under­stand other peo­ple’s tones of voice or facial expres­sions. I’m pas­sionate, I’m driven, I’m WORTHWHILE – I’m just not good at the prac­tical things that most people are. I’m not stupid. I was just trying to play the game of life as the wrong class.

I was a sor­cerer stuck trying to swing an axe to break down the door, when really, I could have just cast fire­ball and burned that son of a bitch down.

Author's DnD character with armor holding an axe that says neurotypical skills. They are trying to lift the axe to swing at a door that says "doing a single goddamn thing."

I often joke, “Whoever up there built my char­acter sheet def­i­nitely min-maxed me. They had a very spe­cific build in mind.” I feel like I’m prob­ably a sor­cerer with high intel­lect an charisma, but low wisdom (often the “common sense”) and phys­ical stats. I am bright and flashy, charis­matic and adept at my inborn abil­i­ties, but per­haps a bit lacking in the prac­tical.

Luckily, I mar­ried a tank. The party still needs me. We can’t all be the war­riors. Hell, we can’t all be the wiz­ards either. But without spreading out what we can do we won’t make it to the end of this dun­geon.

I’ve learned to work with my strengths instead of fighting like mad against my weak­nesses. I’ve worked on accepting that my char­acter sheet is just built a little dif­fer­ently. I remind myself as much as I can that my char­acter class just wasn’t built for some things.

It’s still really hard. I still have pretty low self-esteem left over from the years of trying to func­tion using another class’s skills.

But thinking of life like Dungeons and Dragons actu­ally helps me out pretty fre­quently. It helps me realize that people are all built a little dif­ferent and learn skills at dif­ferent paces. It helps me think about where I want to put my “expe­ri­ence points” to improve myself, allowing for that fact that my class learns some things fast, and some things slow. I’m still a part of the “team.”

I still have some­thing to bring to the table. I’m get­ting there and feeling better about myself every day. Because you know what? It’s actu­ally pretty cool to be the sor­cerer of the party.

author's DnD character with a sorcerer's robe and fire coming out of their hands, 100% raw nerdy autistic power.

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18 Comments

  1. This is just an amazing read– beau­ti­fully written and inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your expe­ri­ences and your insights. I can’t wait to share this with my son. Rock on, Ra. You are awe­some.

  2. Very good read and I expe­ri­enced some of the same things you have. I started playing D&D when I was in the ser­vice and though there were no reli­gious fanatics denouncing the game, a narrow minded, hill­billy red­neck used it as an excuse to bully me. However, when I was deployed on sea duty, it was a great way to pass the time. I too, often think about what char­acter class I would be. I think my best class would be a cleric.

  3. Great read! I got lucky with a parent who gave the impres­sion school was a game along with being intel­li­gent, I played it like a puzzle. D&D I want to do so bad but my exec­u­tive func­tioning gets over­whelmed trying to create a char­acter. But I cos­play, video games, and we may get a game going soon. Beautiful read!

    1. Author

      That’s awe­some! Glad to hear from a fellow nerd. And thank you!

  4. I love this so much! In fact, I may build my own char­acter sheet just to remind myself of where my skills lie (in most games, I tend to play a rogue, might be inter­esting to see if my per­sonal stats line up with that). And I feel you so much on the exec­u­tive func­tion prob­lems. I’m still trying to work out the right way to get my brain on track to remember things. So far, the to-do list app Habitica has been most useful (and it’s RPG based!), but I still lose track of stuff.
    Thanks so much for sharing your insight!

    1. Author

      I use that app too! I think it’s great (even if I slack on using it a lot of the time.) I usu­ally stack it with a sticky note app where what I need to do and all my thoughts are just written across the screen every time I open the phone. I’m con­stantly trying to come up with ways to opti­mize what func­tion I do have. Thanks for the com­ment! Always glad to have a rogue in the party!

  5. I fell madly in love with your post!! I am not a D&D nerd, but I am nerdy, and was also diag­nosed late in life, which means that I unfor­tu­nately can relate to a lot of the strug­gles you men­tion.. but I love the whole char­acter sheet thought, the idea that you can’t be every­thing… I get the feeling some­times, that it must have been a noob that filled out my char sheet… or someone in a hurry. But.. just had to com­ment.. because this is very relate­able to me. Also, it gave me me the idea that one cannot be every­thing, one must choose where to focus.. an idea I tend to.. go against often, due to… life and unlearning bad habits

    1. Author

      Yes! I def­i­nitely feel like I “should” be good at every­thing too. But we just don’t have the points for it! I’m glad you enjoyed reading this. Thanks for the com­ment!

  6. Just one minor cor­rec­tion: Fireball wouldn’t burn down a door. In the players hand­book (3.5), it says it scorches the sur­face of objects but doesn’t ignite them. Use Flaming Sphere instead.

    Other than that I love the shit out of your analogy.

    1. Author

      That’s true! Good catch! I fig­ured “fire­ball” would cap­ture the spirit of it for the unini­ti­ated, and get my point across well enough. But I do always keep flaming sphere handy after an undead encounter I had that was quickly resolved with it (despite sig­nif­i­cant col­lat­eral damage to the sur­rounding wood­lands.)

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