The Inexplicable Joy and Agony of Having a Special Interest

Had I been in the US public school system ten years ago rather than in the 80s, I’m certain I would have been labeled with a whole host of “disabilities.” When I taught special education in an inner-city middle school, I would observe my Aspberger’s kids and my OCD kids and remember…

Only, I was diagnosed, sort of… In third grade, my teacher Ms. Powell, referred me for testing to determine if I qualified for special education services. The school psychologist reported that my IQ fell into the genius range, and that I would be fine. She believed that I was bored and unchallenged, but that gave Ms. Powell nothing in the way of tools to guide me. Her solution was to give me a stack of books and put me in the study carrel in the back of the room.

This treatment continued into the fourth grade. Our homeroom teacher, Ms. Johnson, was in a near-fatal car accident at the beginning of the year, and a long-term sub, Ms. Theriot, took over the class. I cannot tell you how devastated I felt over losing Ms. Johnson. She treated me like a smart and interesting kid. She listened to my stories. She smiled when she taught. Ms. Theriot was not in any way a demon or a troll, but she was a substitute and our class treated her as such.

I did not thrive in these conditions. I regressed to nonverbal status, retreating to my writing, drawings, and books as a coping strategy.

Ms. Theriot gave me a stack of books and put me in a study carrel in the back of the room.

Like Ms. Powell, she had no clue what to do with me. I didn’t misbehave. But I didn’t participate, either. When I had students who wouldn’t bother to do any of their work, I held my breath and remembered.

Back then, I was secretly into inventions. I invented a flying bicycle, a kind of umbrella parasail contraption, a wall-mounted pillow to cushion your back when you wanted to draw in bed. I imagined a mag-lev train. In 1983, I created a sentient laptop called SAMPSON (I don’t recall what that stands for, but it was my friend, and it was awesome). SAMPSON was a piece of white paper folded in half with a briefcase exterior and a smiling face and keyboard inside. In dozens of spiral notebooks, I drew schematics, labeled them, wrote detailed descriptions about function and design. I read encyclopedias and books about inventors. I studied everything from ships and castles to the space shuttle.

I don’t remember any of my classmates or teachers shaming me for these ideas; these are dark times in my memory for other reasons. However, I closely guarded these inventions of mine for fear that someone would ridicule me. I was already a peculiar kid. I read about Vikings discovering America. I became obsessed with Amelia Earhart. I vigorously questioned the Sunday school teacher about the implausibility of Adam and Eve. I wrote expansive fantasies featuring elves and wizards and unicorns. These were the treasures of my childhood, and I only shared them with my little brother because I knew he wouldn’t think they were stupid.

What I did not know then was that these inventions were a special interest. They were not the first (I detailed the lineages of our family cats before fixating on inventions; It’s no wonder I sat alone at the lunch table) nor would they be the last, but they were highly-focused, intense, and all-consuming.

Here is a list of special interests that have dominated my life through the years:

Ultima IV and roleplaying
Flags (and the Olympics)
Amelia Earhart
Ice skating
The Oregon Trail – not just a game, but a lifestyle
Nuclear War/Survivalism
The Cure (ongoing)
Voodoo (nested with the study of zombies)
Banned Books
Les Miserables
Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles
Collectible toys (Barbies, Lord of the Rings)
Vampires of all kinds
Zombies of all kinds
Sundown towns (an obsession that led to my novel Reprieve)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (It’s Buffy’s birthday today; I dressed like her to celebrate)
Doctor Who
Lord of the Rings
South Korea
BTS (this is my current special interest; I have over 12,000 images, files, and stories on my computer and phone right now)
Abandoned places
Running (related to fitness and eating)
Alexander Hamilton
Resurrection and past lives
Great Britain (nested with Doctor Who)
Stephen King books, characters and connectedness
Star Wars (lifelong and continual, including the old canon novels, extended universe, and new canon)
Movies and movie production
Mental illness/Mental health
Child Psychology
Role playing games
Digital painting
Adam Goldberg
James Durbin (American Idol, mental health)
French literature pertaining to food
Moulin Rouge

It is important to note that these are not hobbies. The distinction here rests in the fact that these obsessions consume me completely, to the point that it interrupts my ability to eat, sleep, and communicate with other people. It’s painful trying to restrain from sharing everything I’ve learned or thought about connected to the specialized interest. But it is equally painful to hold it all in. Because of the way my brain works, every thought links in some way to the object of my interest. Even if I’m not actively talking about it, I’m thinking about it, or writing about it, or blogging about it.

Many of my interests nest within others. They’re interconnected. Like my fixation with Korean culture, an interested that has spanned a decade and prompted a life-changing move to Seoul, and my current interest in the k-pop band BTS. I don’t just passively embrace this interest. I feed it with whatever new details I can glean from forums, books, articles, blogs… I watch videos over and over until I can play them back behind my eyes. Then I synthesize what I learn, creating new content surrounding the special interest.

As a high schooler, I studied voodoo and iconography, which interconnected with zombies (the real kind, created by the ingestion of tetradotoxin, a neural poison gleaned from a puffer fish… for really real) and the study of other religions. In college, I read every Star Wars novel I could get my hands on, learning every race and home world. I competed in trivia leagues and message board discussions. I transitioned into Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, for which I developed a scholarly knowledge of every member of the Ambe and Chaos court, as well as every branch of religion centering around the Pattern and the Logrus. This branched into serious Anglophilia, which led to a deep obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (because of Spike) and Doctor Who, and which resulted in two separate trips to the United Kingdom.

To further compound the pain of the special interest, I often feel guilty about dedicating so much time to something that cannot benefit me in any other way than what I think of as self-indulgence. But at the same time, nothing gives me so much pleasure as studying a new aspect of the special interest. While in the throes of this intense period of interest, I often feel trapped between resentment and joy. This leads me to further conceal the depths of my special interest. I feel embarrassed because I cannot seem to think or talk about anything else. Most of the people around me either don’t understand, or they are long over hearing about it.

So I wait while it burns through me like a fever. It causes me anxiety because I wonder what people would think if they knew how much time and energy I expend on these interests which seem trivial or age-inappropriate. I often feel out-of-sorts, because it’s all I ever want to talk about. The fear of being judged or teased for something I love so passionately often causes me physical pain.

Though that sounds bleak, I’m working on coming to terms with my special interests. They are deep-seeded obsessions, and sometimes they might be unhealthy in that I lose myself in them to the exclusion of basic necessities, like laundry and food. But I’ve been blessed to have a few key people in my life who support me and keep me balanced. Most importantly, they don’t judge me, and they listen to me, even if I have told them this seemingly insignificant detail about Kim Seokjin a thousand times.

That’s my advice, then, if you’ve been reading this and nodding along. Find people who support your interests and never shame them. Certain members of my family and men I’ve dated in the past have definitely ridiculed and called me selfish and childish for the things over which I obsess. My special interests give me unspeakable joy. They’re cherished treasures I protect and carefully guard. Find people who understand that, and who are willing be there beside you while you’re on your journey. They are hard to find, but they’re out there, so please… just keep looking.