Guest blogger: Nathan Mann
So the beginning of my last year of Uni is already here. In some ways because of the madness of the last 18 months it only feels like yesterday that I began, but in others, it’s like a lifetime ago. Certainly because of the pandemic, Freshers 2021 for all students was never going to be like any other, and for this gay aspie, boy has that been the case.
Even just waiting outside the door at the opening welcome drinks was eye-opening. After all the progress and confidence I think I’ve gained socially since the initial lockdown, this was my first chance to put it into practice in person.
However, the first five minutes felt painfully familiar - Watching other people talk in what looked like familiar friendship groups, laughing and joking at ease with each other, and me not feeling like I had the courage or knowhow to join in. But then speaking with someone I knew from year 3 put me somewhat more at ease, and another initial conversation with someone I had never met before gave me the belief and determination I needed.
Inside the bar that night was lovely. Reuniting with fellow course mates and other year three’s that I hadn’t seen since March 2020 gave me hugs and genuine warmth, and meeting the newbies in year one and even those in year 2 that I hadn’t seen and known since they started was exciting. Lots of very nice people that I exchanged smiles, laughter and Instagram handles with. While my number one personal dream is to find romance with my very own prince charming, because of my past experiences of isolation as a teenager, I will never take for granted people giving me friendship and acceptance. If I ask you out romantically but say it’s fine if you want to stay friends, I really do mean it!
Something even more exciting was to come. The SU hold an annual Queer Cabaret performance night in the bar. I was tempted to perform Somebody to Love in Year 1, but I didn’t do it because of a fear that I wasn’t good enough, and because of my difficult past at secondary school I was scared that as I didn’t know anyone else at Uni there was every chance I could be laughed at. After watching the performances however, I regretted it. I felt like I could’ve done a decent job, and the crowd sounded very warm and accepting. I vowed the next time it came around I would do it. The next opportunity was in 2020, but because it was online I again didn’t do it, though this time through a determination to take the ultimate next step - to do it in person whenever that chance would come.
That chance arrived last week. As soon as the email asking for performers was sent, I instantly put my name down and said I wanted to sing Somebody to Love. There were three big risks associated with doing this - One was just performing here at all (I hadn’t sang to an audience live since I was a child in the noughties!), another was the song choice. For a first go this was a hard one with plenty of jumps and high notes. I had recorded another Queen song (These are the Days of Our Lives) during college work experience in a recording studio back in 2019. It’s not too high and stays in relatively safe vocal territory for me, so I was tempted to perform that instead. However, Somebody to Love was and is the song that relates to my situation best - I want a boyfriend, but also a feeling of as much genuine friendship and acceptance from those my age as I can get (more on that later!). I always wanted to sing a song I connected to as I love telling a story and opening up through every creative thing that I do.
Wearing my new crop top (which I adore and has given me slightly more body confidence), I went into the bar apprehensively. I was opening the show, and as the audience arrived I almost wanted the queue to stop. I saw the microphone and the lights, and felt very overwhelmed. The host introduced me, and I started by briefly opening up about what Aspergers means to me then lightly asking for ‘Somebody to Love’. I may have appeared relaxed and confident interacting with the audience, but believe me I wasn’t! That was why during the middle guitar solo I got the audience to clap and thanked them for helping me as I had no idea what to say for what felt like a long time and certainly couldn’t dance my way out of any awkwardness! But I embraced my awkwardness, and I could see that the crowd were embracing me too. So far, so good.
But then that third risk came about. Due to a sore throat brought about by a cold that I’m sure the whole non-Covid population has had for weeks, I had not been able to rehearse. As I got to the end money-note of the song, I had no idea how I was going to sing it. Initially I totally dismissed the idea that I could even attempt to reach it, but as the night got closer and I was listening to Freddie, Adam Lambert and George Michael I considered it, though how seriously I don’t know. As I got to the end I felt my vocal chords opening up, and in that split second I sensed an opportunity and thought why not?! As that final “Somebody to…” line came out of my mouth, I was astonished. I never realized I could sing that high, and as the audience cheered me on, a wave of optimism and adrenaline rushed right through me.
Come the interval, I was getting so many compliments. People coming up to me saying how brilliant I sang, how brave it was to go first, how surprised they were when I told them singing live is something I have seldom done in my life. From Monday’s welcome drinks and now this, getting hugs, cheers and compliments for being unashamedly and unapologetically myself throughout was like medicine for me. So important and so meaningful, thank you everyone who did that. It was more than just a general chat or a compliment for a performance. In the words of Freddie himself, don’t take it away from me because you don’t know what it means to me.
Those lyrics were to become particularly poignant for me subsequently as despite all of that, I hit a low point after all these good things. In truth, I had still felt some lowness that I had been able to put to the back of my mind during all these highs, but that would prove harder to do. I almost feel embarrassed to write the next bit, but in a way that’s the point. I believe the feelings I’m going to talk about are very common and should be spoken about a lot more. In a way, that’s the point of writing this.
The downward spiral started when I posted the recording of my performance on my social media. A few weeks beforehand (when my crop top was first delivered), I had taken some pictures of myself wearing it in my local park, and also a video of me singing the first verse of Somebody to Love. I wanted to feel more body confident and prove to myself as much as anything else that I was good enough to sing at the cabaret. A record 100+ likes was just the boost that I needed, and I really hoped that the post of my actual performance at Cabaret could get something around that again, or at least a decent amount of traction. As I saw views not pile up into likes, I suddenly hit the panic button. Irrational things like ‘what if no-one likes it/thinks it’s not very good’ came to me, to which I always tried to reply by saying that the love and compliments I received in person should always be treated as more important.
However, that also exposed something else that I had blocked out days before. I can still feel lonely, and I was afraid that the dust would settle, that people would forget about the performance and therefore about me, and I would go back to having to start from scratch again, feeling lonely like I didn’t quite fit in and have the friendship groups that I want.
As I thought about it, I realized that this had been a near-constant throughout the high-points of my recent life. I first started writing seriously about a BGT singer that had inspired me. When I look back on him tweeting me with compliments about my writing, I only think about the sheer adrenaline and goosebumps that it gave me, not the fact that I panicked for the next 24-hours worried that it might be over, and what I would do now I may not have any other highs to look forward to. When I was at college and a friend offered to help me with my Aspergers-themed musical, I only think about how much I felt accepted by a peer to that extent for the first time, not the illogical waves of anxiety that I suddenly felt every time he spoke to me for the rest of the day and I worried that he was being angry or short with me, and that would soon be over before it had begun. I blocked all of that out, but I couldn’t block this one.
I thought I was on my own with experiencing this. I believed it was just one of the things that always and only happened to me. But then I started reading Marcus Rashford’s book You are a Champion. In one of the chapters he talked about how when good moments happen, rather than enjoy it, your brain can spend too long worrying about the good thing ending (Rashford, et al., 2021). It spoke to those moments in the past, and definitely reflected what has happened since the performance. And I think it’s something that we all either have done or will do.
During this time, I also remembered some of the other things that I had blocked out from freshers. I have to admit that I still feel loneliness. A few times in the bar when I was on my own at a point and saw people engaging in conversations and laughing with each other, I still felt lonely, like I don’t fit in, and like what it looks like these people in conversations have I don’t have and never will. I know writing this now that that’s not true. But when you have a history of a lack of social life and people not accepting you for who you are (and want to go out with people socially on a more regular basis), these kinds of catastrophic thoughts are quite common for me as I imagine they are for lots of autistic people.
And to other aspies - You might not feel that sense of acceptance straight away. However, there will always be good times around the corner. When they come, you also might not be able to recognize or savor them instantly either.
But you’re not the only one.
Now though I’m pleased to say that because of this Freshers that has been like no other, I’ve got good relationship prospects. Whether or not that’s potential friendships or romance, it has opened doors.
And all of this while never being anything but myself.
Rashford, M., Anka, C. & Grover, T., 2021. You Are a Champion: Unlock Your Potential, Find Your Voice and Be the BEST You Can Be. In: London: Macmillan Children's Books, p. 87.
About Nathan Mann:
Nathan is currently studying Writing for Performance at the Central School of Speech and Drama and has written articles, plays, a musical and a book. He has been published on Wired4Music.
He writes mainly about Aspergers, Mental Health and LGBTQ+ issues.
Nathan was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome aged 7, and came out as gay in the summer of 2015.
If you wish to connect with Nathan, you can follow him @nathanmann5 on Instagram