I’ve referred to the term “masking” on a few occasions on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve yet really discussed it. One day, when I’ve really become knowledgeable about autism, and have actually had time to process all this properly and let it sink in, I really hope to be able to write some sort of proper guide to all the terminology and to be able to explain things in a logical way, but for the time being, I’m writing mainly from my own experience and the knowledge that I’ve been able to acquire from books, blogs, and discussions during only a few months. If it’s a bit jumbled or incomplete, then please forgive me, because I’m still trying to make sense of most of it myself.
I was prompted to write this post after making a couple of phone calls, one to renew the car breakdown cover (there wasn’t an online option) and the other to order a repeat prescription (I’m trying to work out how to access the online system, but it requires codes and so on, so haven’t been able to do it yet). I was struggling to understand the person on the end of the phone in the first call, and by half way through the second one my word order had completely disintegrated. I was able to sort what I needed, not particularly linguistically elegantly, and it didn’t massively matter that I was somewhat disjointed, but it got me to wondering how on Earth I’ve managed telephone calls (way more complex ones than I’d just made) previously.
And the answer is, of course, that they had been made by the Strong Woman, to whom I said farewell in that earlier blog post. They were made as part of the act, the act that has now collapsed, and has left me in this state of autistic burnout, which I discussed in the post about Different Language. This burnout, which I’ve also seen called “autistic regression” can result in loss of functionality, which might even, to an extent, be permanent. It can also mean that autistic characteristics become very pronounced, as mine currently are. I don’t know exactly how functional I will be in what ways once I’m recovered from this burnout (I know I was never the same again after the 2001 burnout), but I already know that my mask is gone and I am now autistic to my core. It’s a huge part of my identity, the only thing that makes sense of my life, and, like I said right back at the start of this whole process of discovery, it finally means I can be myself. If I mask at all in future it will be only in circumstances where it really is essential for my safety and will only be on a very temporary basis.
So, masking is the term used to describe what is happening when an autistic person hides their autistic traits from the world and doesn’t let other people see the difficulties they are having. Literally putting on a mask, and acting. This masking (as far as I can tell) doesn’t have to be a conscious process, and certainly wasn’t in my case, because I spent 40 years masking without having the faintest clue that I was autistic – I just knew that life was very very hard work and I spent a lot of time getting much more tired than other people my age doing similar things. I also became very mentally ill, failed at many things that my peers seemed to accomplish with relative ease, and, it seems, have also internalised quite a lot of trauma concerning my life.
From the reading I have done, all this seems to be pretty much normal for people who reach middle age unaware that they are autistic. While, obviously, everything is not true for everyone, it appears that there are several commonalities among those of us who have survived this far but been clueless about our neurology all our lives. We are often unemployed, in debt, estranged from families, mentally ill, suffering from trauma, living alone in unstable situations, and have several failed relationships behind us. This is what happens when autistic traits are suppressed, when we sit still, and socialise more than we can cope with, and look at people’s eyes, and deal with too much sensory input, and try to organize ourselves as well as our peers, and attempt to be flexible and accommodating, and try to survive in the workplace, and so on in order to “fit in” with people around us, and when we don’t have adequate downtime alone to recover or to be absorbed in our own interests.
I have many of those difficulties, though not all, and the 4 decades of masking have certainly taken a massive toll on my health. I believe it is likely I started masking when I started school, by copying other girls in my class. I can’t remember what happened prior to that time. However, masking really isn’t a healthy thing to do, and I suspect that the enormous effort I have been making throughout my life to behave in the way that most people behave has played a huge part in the crippling mental illness I’ve suffered for the last 20 years or so of my life. Even in my teens I remember being stressed. As I revised for my O-Levels I wondered if it was worth the bother because I might be dead by the time the results came out. But the message I received from those around me was that this was exam stress and therefore normal. Oddly, I didn’t feel particularly stressed about the exams, but that was what it supposedly was, so I didn’t question further.
I maintained that mask, more or less, for 4 decades, pouring massive amounts of energy into it, coping with the anxiety by shutting myself away, using alcohol, and I eventually succumbed to mental illness. I learnt a set of social skills that were pretty good, given how many autistic traits I now know I have, and any holes in the mask were attributed to my being a bit “brusque” or “stroppy” or “direct”, though as I’m talking to people, it turns out there were things there all the time that people noticed that weren’t quite as they might have expected. I really hope to ask people who’ve known me over the years what they observed, and see how well these observations tally with the new found knowledge. As far as I knew I was just your average person and actually rather sociable, but it now seems that wasn’t quite the case. Maybe my inability to survive for any length of time in the workplace should have been an indication of just how much work I had to do just to manage to live in the world at all.
However, in August 2016 I went into autistic burnout. I was exhausted after a busy year, and after just 3 days away from home without time alone behind a locked door, which I’ve always needed to recharge my batteries, the mask started to disintegrate. The energy to maintain the act was gone. The small holes in my mask became large cracks. The cracks joined up. And the autistic me beneath became obvious. Once that happened, there was no going back.
Once I had recognised that I was autistic, my ability to mask convincingly for anything longer than an hour or so fell apart. People with whom I interacted in person were gradually told, and I had to tell some people on a sort of “need to know” basis. Now the very last piece of my old mask has gone. I first started trying to write about masking the day before I published the blog post that announced my autistic identity to anyone who cared to read it and to my friends on facebook (which has, for many years, been my main social world). And as I wrote, I counted down the hours to the moment I was fully “out” as an autistic person, completely disclosed to anyone who cared to know.
So masking has ended. There will be no more acting beyond that required for survival in the outside world. I am already wearing dark sunglasses in supermarkets, twirling my hands while out in the world, taking my tea to a quiet corner by myself during rehearsal breaks, and making decisions about how much social contact I can manage. I’ve also turned the ringer off on the phone!
Exactly where I’ll end up when things settle and I have recovered from the burnout is still unknown. Part of me feels extremely nervous about it all – my whole identity is in a state of confusion and chaos. But part of me is so very very relieved that the mask has gone and I’m actually quite content to accept my new self, because it is so much more comfortable than the old one was. For over 40 years I’ve hidden so many stresses and difficulties because I thought that everyone else was hiding similar difficulties. Now I know that isn’t the case and I need to adapt life a little because my perception of the world is a bit different from most people’s.