Dungeons and Dragons and Not Hating Myself for Five Freaking Minutes.

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

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 Melee.

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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20 Responses

  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!

  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. 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. 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. 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.)

  7. It’s a while since you wrote this, but thank you for putting yourself out there so others can relate ❤
    I only started learning to play d&d two years ago, but it didn’t last long because my friend (the DM) had a burnout.
    But end of last year, he invited me to play with another group of friends and it was great! Due to covid we had to put it on halt again, but knowing we’ll be playing again in the future keeps me going (because just like you described, I completely obsess over nerdy things).

    Got my diagnosis a couple of months back at age 39, so readings like these make me so happy and validated. Thanks again!

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