The mask keeps slipping...
This week saw the start of #TakeTheMaskOff, an online campaign for autistic people led by The Autistic Advocate and Do I Look Autistic Yet?, which encourages everyone on the Spectrum to stop masking their differences. Here are my thoughts on it.
The alarm goes off. It's Tuesday. Time to get up. WhatsApp your girlfriend a good morning. Tell her you love her and wish her well for the day. Get dressed, eat breakfast, then wash. Bag packed? Now go to the office. Hope that the train arrives on time. Don't be surprised when it doesn't. Stop off at the coffee shop to reward yourself for your efforts. Watch Trainspotting. Not now, maybe later. Say hello to your colleagues. Answer their questions about your weekend. Not too much detail - they aren't autistic. Be polite - reciprocate. You have tasks to do. That's good. Focus on them in the hope that the noise and the light will fade with perseverance. Lunchtime is only 3 hours away. Don't make a fool of yourself. You can do this...
The Art of Masking
That's a standard Tuesday morning for me, pretty much. It's bearable (some parts enjoyable), but not sustainable for much longer than five hours at a time (the longer the day goes, the more autistic I become). I'm not designed for small-talk. I'm not comfortable wearing clothes (especially in this infernal heat wave). I'm wary of being too nosy; I'm mindful that others are different. As a consequence, I try to mask my differences.
What is masking? As far as I can tell, it's something done to "fit in" which involves putting up a façade in order to hide one's true character and/or feelings. To make matters more interesting, there are different masks needed for each role one plays in life; the mask one wears for work is but one of many. Most people are adept at wearing these masks interchangeably to a certain extent (psychopaths are experts at doing this), but it comes at a cost:
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” - Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
For those of us #ActuallyAutistic people (and non-autistic people, let's not be biased) who struggle to mask their differences, who aspire to being the esoteric "normal" for fear of being bullied and or ridiculed by those "in the know", masking is nothing but hard work. It's a prerequisite in life, unfortunately, but it's still hard work. Those who can "fake it 'til they make it" to a certain extent will do so at a cost. Tiredness and a need for some downtime is common. In extreme circumstances, masking can lead to burnout, resulting in meltdowns and/or shutdowns, which in turn can lead to self-loathing and further recriminations when one has to revisit the place where it happened (either in real life, or, just as bad, reliving it in the mind). It may also mean that the person in question no longer has the energy to function, so as a consequence their live starts to deteriorate. So what's the alternative?
The C Words
Ok, keep your mind out of the gutter, I'm talking about compassion and compromise (naughty reader). The chances are that some of us who are able to mask at all (myself included) will come to question their identity as a result of their efforts. I think it's important to recognise that it's ok to do that, and just as importantly, realise that there are others out there who are in a similar situation to yourself. The #TakeTheMaskOff hashtag on Twitter is a good place to look if you're seeking solace whilst you do this. Set aside half an hour a day to think about your existential woes (or lack thereof) and remember to be kind to yourself; do something which you enjoy to unwind.
The next part, the compromise, is harder. I'm doing my best to accept my differences and learn how to use them to help myself and others. Making people aware of my difficulties in a way which doesn't alienate or accuse them of ignorance is also part of this. Once this is accomplished (whenever that may be), I shouldn't need to mask as much. That said, I think that masking is a good skill to learn; wearing one's heart on one's sleeve leaves one vulnerable, after all, which isn't ideal, since there are some who will seek to take advantage of that.
Congratulations, you've made it through another Tuesday. Do something for you. Eat pizza. Strip off your top and pace the garden like the tiger in your mind's eye. Talk to your girlfriend. Share your experiences. Watch Trainspotting. Or not, you might lack the energy. Don't forget to sleep. It's leg day tomorrow, you lucky boy.