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.