Taking or Leaving the Mask

I am a guilty masker. I’ve always masked. It’s a complex creation with different weights and different angles. Each occasion has a different variation of it, a different material, a different pattern.

I have my work mask; professional, straight-backed, walking tall. She has a specific amount of makeup and specific hair. She keeps her outlandish sense of humour to herself and laughs at all the right moments. She does polite small-talk even though it grinds her bones to dust. She is least me of all my masks.

I have my wider family mask; she allows her opinions to show, and a limited level of humour. Her language is contained and polite. Her muscles tense against each other, and she smiles and fakes when too many people are talking at once.

She is a contradiction. She wants to be the one holding court on subjects she loves, and she wants to be the person squashed in the corner with nothing to do. She always says yes when offered wine, and this can lead to social mistakes in an arena where people will tell her she’s made them. Part of her is always twelve and lost.

I have my wanting to be socially gregarious mask; she says yes to everything and pushes herself to go, even when the migraine auras are already hugging everything. She loves people and wants them to feel good about themselves. She is the last one on the dance floor. Dancing in her own way, laughing as she does. Tomorrow she will remember to judge herself for not doing “current trend” dancing. She’ll always be a little bit ironic-Jamiroquai.

There is my mother-and-baby group mask; she desperately wants to talk about anything but babies, but babies is the small talk of the moment. She looks around the room, smiling. Wondering why people don’t approach her. Wondering what she is still getting wrong. Most of her time is spent trying not to let the terror and tears out. She is immensely lonely and failing to reach out. She is a shadow of a mask and a far cry from a person. She’s given up on this mask, it hurt too much, but rather than put it down, she just doesn’t go. It’s too hard. Too painful. Too lonely watching other people smoothly interact, whilst she struggles not to melt.

And then there’s always the everyday mask; she has a perpetual half-smile, because she knows that her resting face looks angry. So her face must always be tensed and ready for social attack. She smiles when she can’t hear the words through an accent. She makes all the right noises and gestures, and uses all her skill to keep everything superficial, because she knows that’s where other people’s comfort zones lie.

She likes deep and big-talk, but that makes those not like her feel awkward. They like a slow build up. She knows she can’t stay the course long enough to get to the end. She can’t invest the time and energy that she doesn’t have. She knows she will only ever stay on the superficial, but that that is better than not connecting at all.

My closest friend told me, one drunken, honest night, about who I was, and who I am. We worked beside each other for months before we clicked. Months and months.

She found me intimidating at times. I always seemed so certain and sure, my rules were rigid and unyielding; she was often late, lateness makes my skin crawl. She seemed to have so many connections; such a light and friendly social butterfly. I was the moth, she the flame; and I knew I’d get burnt if I tried to be her friend. I’d get it wrong; I’d be too self-deprecating or too arrogant. I’d be too passionate about something and the intensity would drown the light. So I held my work mask between us.

She told me, on that honest late-night-early-morning that one day I had woken up. I had been a misty figure in the distance, and then one day I was technicolored brilliance, in full surround-sound: I was an automaton going through the motions of living, brought to life by some magic wish, or completed quest, or inevitable destiny.

One day I let my mask slip. I said the things I found funny. I spoke about the subjects that inspire me. I probably sang, I definitely laughed, I maybe pointed out rain-motes in lamp-light; whatever it was, it was me.

There is a reason for all my masks, they are a result of not having that connection when being genuine. They are the result of being pushed away because of who I am.

And they have been useful, as I say in my play, The Duck, “They keep me safe from the unsafe pieces of the world”.

But how many opportunities for connections have I missed, because I was too busy hiding? How many genuine friendships have passed me by, because I could never trust them enough to laugh with them?

Which mask is me? They all are. They’re all aspects pulling up some sides, dragging down others. They’re all shadows of me. None of them are lies. They’re only lies if you assume they tell the full story; if you assume they are the complete truth.

Some of them are following rigid rules learned long ago; never be late, never swear at work, look pleasantly interested at all times to avoid misunderstandings. Some of them are designed to keep people from approaching me, some of them are supposed to be approachable (though I’ve never mastered that one, I apparently look too self-contained).

It can be hard to know where the mask ends and I begin. I have pondered upon it. The mask ends when I am certain I am alone – that is me in my rawest form – but she can also be found on a dance floor, she can be found when she laughs so hard that the tears fall, she can be found when she gets the wind behind her on a topic she loves, she can be seen leaping over waves in the ocean (‘boomf-splat’ is the name of the game, and the biggest belly-flop wins), she can be collected in fragments here and there, and always has been.

Taking the mask off is no small feat. It’s an archaeological dig with brushes and patience, not a frantic digging for treasure. X doesn’t mark the spot, there’s no single chest to haul to the surface, the spots are all over the place.

My mask is here to control my communication techniques. It is here because I don’t trust you to understand me. It is here because I chose it. I built it. I sculpted it. I had a thousand and one reasons to do that, and only one to undo it; because it’s heavy and I don’t need it anymore.

I have to trust that trying to live my life non-autistically hasn’t worked. The desired result has not been forthcoming.

Because when all is said and done, I don’t want to be surrounded by people who like my mask. I want to be surrounded by people who like me. Taking off the mask doesn’t mean I’ll achieve that, but keeping it on, guarantees I won’t.

If I can always be found in the logic, then there I shall be. In the logic and dancing in the rain, I hope to see you there.

42 thoughts on “Taking or Leaving the Mask

  1. I used to wear masks too. And somehow I lost my self among them. Or at least thats how it felt.
    I’m still wearing my “jobmask” but it’s not quite the same one as before. This one is more of a filter.
    Because you know, I’m a NT person who lives in a country were you put your hands in your pocket and keeps your voice down, more or less…
    I don’t. I speak loud and clear, I gesture and I take room without trying. I just do.
    There are so many times and places that I have felt SO wrong that I lost count.
    And some years ago I came to the point were I felt – this is who I am, like it or not, and if not then let’s move on!
    And to my suprise I found that there ARE people who likes me for me.
    And that fealing is priceless. Absolutly priceless.
    I hope that you will find that to, that those who you feel you can be you around will be far more than those who you can not ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Such lovely, positive words. I’m so glad you made that decision. None of us are best squashed. We can all be considerate, whilst still being us 💐

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      1. Yes, and the more people stop being afraid to show who they are behind the mask, the easier it will be. And the more human i think our world will be, more including and friendly.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. There is my mother-and-baby group mask; she desperately wants to talk about anything but babies, but babies is the small talk of the moment. — that was me (my child is now 9 years old) I smiled so much when I read this I thought I was the only one so thank you! To be frank I gave up the group after the third time. This piece you wrote is wonderful. Thank you. Really thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You are so very welcome. I sometimes wonder if there were other me’s doing the same thing in the same room at the same time. How different it all could have been. We’ll never know.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree that everyone has different masks for different situations, but the way masking is done in autism requires much more energy to put together, purely because it doesn’t come naturally, and it’s much more of a conscious effort. Trying to mask autism is like having to constantly solve a puzzle – a puzzle which keeps changing, pieces added and removed, in many different dimensions. I think the distinction is really important.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I’ve come to believe neurotypicals, particularly those in authority, are the ones who wear the masks. They just seem so….fake. As though they’re only pretending to be nice.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Wonderfully expressed. Looking at your posts has made me realise why similar phenomenon have plagued me all my life (I’m 79) and it is a relief, in a way, to understand that it was ‘mild’ autism all along. I hope it helps me cope better with life, what there is left of it. Thank you for opening up in such an expressive way and helping others, like me, to understand more fully what’s going on. It isn’t me, I’m okay really, it’s autism. And thanks to the respondents for their comments too.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Incredible writing, you have unearthed many truths about me,so many o wonder when exactly it was that you doubled my life?!
    I’m new to acknowledging that it’s autism I have, and I’m still waiting for official diagnosis. The concept of masking and the complex issues it causes is new to me, but boy do I do it. My take so far is that it has helped me immensely. It was when I started learning to mask well that my life changed and I felt like a fellow human. I was SOOO relieved to have some casual friends, people who like me and valued me, compared to the devastating loneliness I had as my only companion for so many years. I thought I was winning at this being a human finally. I was proud of myself for finally getting it.

    But … soon after came my lethargy, my lack of mental energy, my executive function issues magnified, I couldn’t ‘get it together’ to do the most minor of things. I let my business slide and didn’t really care, but I never linked those things, I thought I had a new way of being a crap failing human. And when I’d got over the euphoria of my friendship successes, I noticed that actually I was only on the edge of groups, I maintained a distance because I coulednt handle the gaggle of hens clucking over stuff, and I wasn’t as tied in as others in the group but flitted round the edge. I’d go out, have a laugh, but at the same time feel alone. Again. And depression came back again.
    I need to drop my mask, but I don’t specifically know what it is, or which bits are which. And I don’t want the rejection, again, after showing the real me, that people don’t like.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a tricky and delicate balance (that I am very much still working on). The biggest relief is finding people that you don’t need to mask around, but that doesn’t come easily and will always involve a risk.

      I know that feeling of being on the peripheries of groups. I always thought I was a social butterfly, when actually I was unable to stay with one group for too long without feeling out of my depth.

      A mask is a heavy tool to use. The older I get, the more exhausting I find it, but also the happier I feel in my own skin.

      All we can do is strive for a balance that is right for us.

      Like

  6. wow I felt like you wrote my thoughts out. Although I find it painful to read that others have the same angst as I do, it is so comforting to finally realise people do feel like me, and now knowing why. thank you for writing this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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