#TakeTheMaskOff (But What if I Don’t Know How?)

This afternoon I was describing the concept of Autistic masking to a close friend, who is not directly a part of the Autistic community. I explained that currently there is a robust campaign for Autistics to take their masks off, and to be who they are, authentically and genuinely, without censure, guilt, discrimination or repercussions.

I told my friend about the way in which, as an Autistic woman, I use masks to camouflage my less socially accepted traits and behaviours. Masking helps me to behave or perform in a way that is congenial and expected for the neurotypical majority, a way to let others experience my Autism more comfortably for them… although not necessarily for me. Masking allows me to compensate for my perceived deficits by constructing identities that are more conventionally satisfactory to those I am around.

Masking certainly isn’t solely an Autistic attribute: I think most people mask in different social contexts. I know my neurotypical husband demonstrates different qualities when he goes to work, or when he returns to his home town to visit his college mates, and undoubtedly this adaptation is a type of masking. But for me, I’m pretty sure the intensity and focus of my masking is different. It is the comprehensive and elaborate nature of my Autistic masking that makes it distinctive.

It should have been easy, then, to provide my friend with a kind of ‘compare and contrast’ between my masked self and my real self. But when I tried to use examples from my own life, I just couldn’t manage it.

It’s not that I don’t mask. On the contrary, I am an expert masker. But I am such an expert masker, and I have developed my masks to be disguises of such nuanced, subtle, finessed complexity, that I struggle to find myself… And as I contemplated writing this blog, it occurred to me: I don’t know who I am.

So many of the other Autists I have read during #TakeTheMaskOff campaign have some sense of who they are when their masks are laid aside and they present as their natural, authentic selves without affectation or artifice. But I don’t. I don’t know who I am. And despite my best efforts, I can’t identify where my masks stop and my ‘me’ begins. So, on the cusp of turning forty, I now realise that masking is so habituated for me that I have no sense of myself without them, no access to a ‘me’ sans masks.

I have spent so many years refining my masks, observing how others behave and speak and perform, and shading my masks into accurate and intricate devices for mimicry: the trappings of my social acceptance, disguising the quirks that might exclude me. I have spent so many years arranging my face, my responses, my outward emotions to fit the patterns I’ve observed in others, to present myself as the type of person I perceive others want me to be.

And now, now that I have a moment to strip that scaffolding away and show me as me, I can’t find her. She’s buried beneath the weight of expectations and artificial, learned pretension.

But then a part of me thinks that that’s reductive, and not a little unfair. Because some of my masks are comforting. They are reliable. They make me like myself. They let me be the sort of person I want to be for the people I love. I am a pleaser, a rule follower, someone who spends considerable time and energy making sure that I am making others happy. The ultimate good girl. And masks have  — absolutely and undoubtedly — let me be that person. So, I think that I have to recognise that some masks I wear for me, because I like to please.

Maybe that misses the point of the call to #TakeTheMaskOff. But some of my masks serve a distinct purpose that is not only useful, but essentially enriching, helping me to manage parts of me that might otherwise be debilitating and incapacitating (like my anxiety).

For example: I am an excellent public speaker. I enjoy speaking to a crowd. And I have spent years perfecting my public speaking mask to cover the queasiness in my stomach and the bile that sits in my throat. My mask translates all the energy that amasses in my anxious, flappy hands into animated gesticulating which people read as passion and charisma. I tweak my mask to fit my script, smoothing a furrow here, deepening my tone there, projecting empathy, channeling outrage… I put on my public speaking mask and I feel confident, articulate, insightful, valuable. I have something to contribute. I speak and people listen.

But then again, when I take that mask off, I feel relief. It is me in high performance mode, and I have no stamina for perpetuating that performance over extended periods. It is simply too exhausting. But even as the bile recedes and the nausea subsides, I swap one mask for another, more comfortable version. Less energy and maintenance required. But nevertheless, another mask.

In the past, when I visualised my brain, I used to see a complicated filing room, with scripts for every scenario I’d ever encountered, reworked for success. Now, alongside the rows of filing cabinets, all carefully categorised, I see a Game of Thrones-esque Hall of Faces – the bodiless skinned faces of my various masks that camouflage and disguise me. They are all me, ostensibly, but they are all subtly distinct, representing the shades and tones of my different personas. It isn’t scary, until I wonder which one is the real ‘me’. Until I realise I may have lost her in the rows of faces that are me, but not me.

Last night, as I lay awake, I could hear and feel my husband breathing on one side of me, my little boy on the other. They weren’t breathing in sync. There were snorts, and gushes of breath, murmurs and rumbles. Each exhale grated against my senses. I could hear the excess saliva in the slight gurgle, the minor nasal blockage in the undercurrent of a whistle.  It felt like every breath was a cattle prod to my ear drums, sending unpleasant jolts through my brain. I wanted to wrench off both my ears so great was the internal pressure I felt from those seemingly insignificant noises. I wanted to strike out, flee, break free from the suffocation of hearing that breathing. But I didn’t. I buried my needs, suppressed my desires, pushed them down to the remotest part of my being, smothered by my Hall of Faces.

It is similar at the dinner table. The noises of slurping, chewing, swallowing, the tinkle of fork against teeth, the gulp of water, the sloppy sounds of mastication… In those moments, if I visualise myself, I am a small child, curled defensively in foetal position, rocking, cupping my ears, waiting for the pain of the noise to subside. Pain perhaps isn’t the right word: it is an unbearable pressure that pushes to explode outwards. And through my masks I have taught myself to push that pressure down into an internal implosion, unnoticed by those around me, unremarked upon as I continue to present a façade of serene apathy.

Is that who I am? The trapped girl inside my mind, weighed down by an inescapable need to please, to bury herself in layers of acceptability and neutrality? Repressed. Suppressed. Inhibited. Intimidated by the need to be something other than myself, to stifle and internalise the inherent Otherness inside. I don’t know.

A few weeks ago, my Mum was watching old videos of me as a little girl of maybe eight or nine. It was my birthday party. I was happily playing party games with my friends, laughing, blithe and relaxed in the social context. My Mum noted how profoundly ‘typical’ I appear. Not Autistic. Not Other. Not isolated. And I wonder: was I masking then? Was I already developing this complex tapestry woven from threads I adopted from observing others upon which I now rely so heavily? Was I already binding myself to their comforting familiarity, living my life essentially vicariously? Having no sense of self, have I always just adopted the characteristics of those around me to ‘fit’ into the contexts I find myself?

I don’t know what it is to feel myself, but I know what I like – what I am like – when I am alone. And I really like to be alone, although I have rare opportunity for that. I like to listen to the same song on repeat for hours. I like to dance and move to that song, choreographing the perfect response to the music. I like to pace and speak aloud to myself to process what I’ve done, what I’m doing, what I want to do. Actually, I love talking to myself, and together with me, I have protracted and involved conversations aloud, debating, listing, planning, organising. I like my house to be just so, the cushions on the couch on the right angle, with the zipper facing down, beds made and wrinkle-free, towels hung up with the folds on the right, the bask facing out, tags facing in. I like to eat often and small, without reference to set breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I like to have a hot tea constantly in my hand. And I like to have the fans on, no matter the weather.

Are those preferences ‘me’? Is that ‘me’? If I gave myself more of an opportunity to explore that woman, would I find myself amongst the masks? I don’t know. I hope so.

Since we met, my now husband has told me that I am more tired than I should be. That probably sounds patronising, but it is more of a clinical observation of my state of being. I am constantly wearied, exhausted, chronically and acutely fatigued. Even when I am well rested, even when I have little happening, I come to the end of each and every day with a heavy sense of being utterly drained, shattered, spent. And as I have thought more and more about masking, I think I finally understand why I am always, permanently tired. The effort I expend to internalise and quell myself, and the commensurate effort I expend to don and maintain my masks, is immense. And that massive effort is exhausting, a gargantuan undertaking that depletes my vitality and undermines my energy. And how can I find the strength to find ‘me’, when I have spent all that strength on preserving my masks instead?

Ultimately, masking for me is liberating and debilitating in equal measure. I don’t know how to take my masks off. I don’t know how to live without masks. And they provide me with opportunities to be what I need to be for the people I love. But living a masked existence has robbed me of me. And I owe it to myself to try and find me. I owe it to the people I love to trust them enough to get to know me too. Even if I don’t  feel ready to #TakeMyMasksOff completely. Yet.

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