I don’t drink or smoke, but a lot of my friends do, and I get irrationally anxious that something bad is gonna happen to them. I know my friends are smart with their choices, but I still can’t help but freak out a bit whenever I see them high or something. D.A.R.E might’ve scared me a little too much! My friends know I don’t do any of that stuff, and they respect my decision, but how do I tell them how worried I am without sounding like a giant dweeb, or like I’m judging them? —V.E, 15, San Jose

Teenage me could totally have written this question. D.A.R.E. scared the hell out of me, and I have always struggled with anxiety. One of the things that makes me most anxious is not having control over a situation, and the unpredictability of people’s responses to substances allows for very little control, if any at all. The thing I’ve had to teach myself to do is to let go, and to trust my friends with their decisions, just like I’d want them to trust me with mine. Sometimes, I need to mentally repeat, Look around—nothing terrible is happening, and it’s OK for you to stop imagining every worst-case scenario. I also tend to journal all of my anxious feelings before talking to my friends about them to get to the root of what’s bothering me the most. This way, I have a few key points to address with them instead of a huge, dark cloud filled with a million scattered thoughts. Having an outlet helps me feel better, focus, and facilitate productive conversation!

Maybe having an emergency plan would help you feel less anxious. This is something you can talk to your friends about: “Hey, as your sober friend, I would really like to be prepared just in case something goes wrong. If XYZ happens, whom should I contact?” Letting your friends know you are there for them, trusting that they know what’s best for them, and trusting yourself and your ability get through a potential situation is sometimes all you can do—and that’s OK. —Tyler

My 18-year-old brother is one of my best friends. He has Asperger’s, and I would do anything for him to never feel hurt, or that he is in any way “different.” I never know whether to tell people about his condition to give them a heads-up, OR if that will backfire, and they won’t respect him as a person. What do you think? —Pip, 15, Melbourne

Your brother is really lucky to have a sister who gets him the way you do. I have Asperger’s, and I also have a brother who is a pretty hardcore Aspie. Often, before I introduce him to new people, I do give them a heads-up. I do this principally because Drew has a very halting speech pattern that’s full…of…loooooong…pauses, which can be awkward for people. In misguided attempts to make the conversation easier, people will zip in and interrupt him or change the subject. This causes my brother to clam up and retreat into his brain, so you never find out what he was trying to say. To avoid this, I just tell people, “When you meet Drew, he seems really quiet, but he actually has a lot to say. Let him finish his sentence even if it feels like it’s taking a million years.”

I’ve found, overwhelmingly, that people are super cool and curious and accommodating. I think the trick is to be as straightforward and specific as possible. Don’t say, for instance, “My brother might seem odd to you. Please try to be cool.” That kind of vagueness will just put people on guard, wondering what kind of WEIRDO they are about to face. Describe exactly what they might expect. “If it seems like my brother is insulting you…” “If it seems like my brother is ignoring you…” “If it seems like he only wants to talk about prog rock…” et cetera. People will feel flattered to be “in” on this special person whom you are trusting them to interact with!

Sometimes, yes, people’s sensitivity can backfire. For instance, Drew and I were at a wedding recently, and a drunk bridesmaid grabbed Drew’s hand and put it on her boob. Drew was like, :0, but totally into it! Later, though, some aghast person scolded the bridesmaid, “You made Drew touch your boob?!? Drew has ASPERGER’S!!!” The suggestion being that Drew was so delicate and strange that momentary second base would traumatize him forever. NOT THE CASE.

Overall: I think awareness of people’s idiosyncrasies (whether they are related to Asperger’s Syndrome or not) is a good thing, so we can all give each other a break. —Maggie

I’m a student in a large city and I’m very, very lonely. I don’t think the issue is introversion or shyness—I just haven’t met people I “connect” with, and it’s been two years since I moved away. I feel like I should be having experiences in this energetic, complicated place! Instead, most of my time just seems to go towards surviving financially, psychologically, and academically. I have a lovely boyfriend, but I sometimes go all week having seen only him. My shifts at work feel like my only regular social occasion. Throughout my life, I’ve had a lot of friends to whom I’m deeply loyal. I’m a creative, sensitive person with a lot of energy. I love organizing/doing things. I want to be in the world! But I have few pre-existing networks, and I’m not into drinking alcohol as a social activity. Is my isolation just making me appear standoffish and arrogant? —E.M., Sydney

I hear you SO MUCH. This was exactly me when I was at university; I was lonely and constantly exhausted from studying and working, and it made me miserable. I think I felt so awful because I felt powerless: Like you, I had decided I wanted to finish the degree I was doing, but also earn enough money to look after myself, and that left very little time and energy for me to spend on doing other things, like trying to make friends. All of my study and work commitments felt like life’s sun beating relentlessly down on me, and I thought I was going to melt into a puddle.

But just hold up for a minute: You have made a couple of decisions that have affected your life in a big way. First, you are studying so you can complete your degree. Second, you are working so you can survive financially. Third, you have a boyfriend and you spend time with him. These are three big elements in your life, all of which require time and effort. It’s OK to look at these things and say to yourself: Hey, this is already a lot. Realistically speaking, and for better or worse, we as people have limited resources—whether financial, temporal, or, er, energy-ical—with which to do as we please. Once you have taken stock of the actual amount of juice you can devote to friendship and social funsies, try looking at your current commitments in a positive way, rather than as a drain on your time. I think it’s amazing that you work to support yourself while also getting a tertiary education! And the fact that you make time to see your dude among all that, too, means you care about him and that relationship—and you’re making an effort to ensure it’s going well. That is all very A+.

Now, to the actual feeling of loneliness. You mentioned that you haven’t met any people you connect with. I vibe with this, sometimes to the extent of just staring randomly at groups of humans palling about, and internally crying, AM I JUST TOO WEIRD AND BAD?????? The answer is: No! I am NOT too weird and bad to deserve chums, and neither are you. Your statement about connection leads me to think two things: that you have indeed tried and succeeded in meeting new people, and that you are aware that not everyone gets along because of differing values, interests, or whatever. What’s great about this is that you already have the skillz to attract buddies (whether that’s just saying hello to a coworker and asking them about their week, or inviting someone to have cake after class, or any other boss friendship moves you may choose to try out) and you have a sense of what you’re looking for in a friend. Have you already plied your friendship wares in all conceivable avenues, e.g. in class, at work, with your boyfriend’s friends, with your old friends, at the coffeehouse with your fave barista? Are you conspicuously bringing your Rookie Yearbook Three to class and putting it on your desk so that like-minded individuals can friend you up? (Just kidding…kind of.)

Talking to strangers can be pretty intimidating, so start small if you like. Even offering tidbits about yourself in casual conversation can help; I am not the biggest fan of talking about myself, but how will anyone ever know about my passionz—and connect with me about them—if I keep quiet? I can’t speak to whether you seem “standoffish and arrogant,” but in my experience, there are many, many people out there who are not jerks, and will not judge you for not having found the crew of your heart just yet.

Finally, I wanna talk about the most exciting bit of your letter, which is where you say you’re a creative person who loves to organize stuff. HI ARE YOU ME? I am the same way, and here’s the best news: Being creative and organize-y can really help you to meet people who are like you, and to make your own experiences, instead of waiting for them to happen to you. A couple of things that I did that helped me meet people were attending workshops, starting a book club, starting a podcast where I interviewed writers I loved, and volunteering for local organizations I was interested in. These might not all appeal to you, but it’s worth making a list of similar ways you could reach out to people.

Making friends might take a bit of time, so be kind to yourself. Big cities and universities can especially feel like giant clumps of people who don’t care about you. But in those giant clumps are littler clumps and clumplings, who may eventually become beloved companions. Be patient, open, active, and persistent, and you will be giving yourself the best opportunity to meet your future pals. —Estelle ♦

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