Behind The Mask

Self Portrait Blue EyesI am a slab of gray potter’s clay.  I am thrown onto the wheel and spun into submission.

I am made smaller, softer, hollow.

I am a block of mahogany.  My chipped corners are chiseled; my edges are sanded away.  

I am diminished, polished, perfect.

I am the mask I wear.

I am two, maybe three years old, and I’m waiting for my first fireworks show to start.  I am sitting next to my Dad on a lawn chair in the grass.  Or maybe I was perched atop his shoulders, waiting and oblivious. I had probably seen fireworks on TV or in my picture books.  I’m sure I was excited to see the colors burst and fade into the twilight sky. But the moment the first explosion went off, I was beside myself with pain from the loud booms.  Dad recently told me he had never heard me scream the way I did that evening.

Now, kindergarten.  I’m five. Other children are dancing in bold-colored clothing around the classroom.  There is lively music playing- probably some bouncy, high-pitched nursery rhyme- though my memory today holds no sound.  I am standing in the corner by the beige wooden building blocks, which I love.  I am twirling my arms in wide circles around me, back and forth.  Over and over again, in soothing repetition.

There are so many memories that make sense now.  All the painful noise and itchy fabric.  All the time I spent doing my homework during recess and sitting by myself at lunch.  All the odd, repetitive motions that calm me down, that lasso me back from the edge.  As a kid and younger teenager, I used to wonder if I was the only human being on the planet who was capable of thinking and feeling, and if every other person I saw was really, truly alive…like me. These days, I know what it all means because I’ve learned clinical, technical words for these experiences.  Sensory overload…Self-stimulatory behavior…Social inhibition…Mind-blindness. Autism Spectrum Disorder.

When I tell other people about the diagnosis from when I was younger, they often react with a measure of disbelief.  I’m most commonly met with, “Really?  I never would have guessed!”  That’s when I chuckle and look down at my shoes.  “Yeah, I get that a lot,” is my usual response.   But I want to be bolder.  I want to ask why they never would have guessed, even though I already know.  I can casually small talk about the weather.  I’m not obsessed with numbers or train schedules.  I don’t flap my hands in front of people or rock back and forth when I’m in public.  If I have to, I can make myself look someone else in the eyes.  I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve taught myself how to be in the world by copying the way the people around me do it, down to the very last, tiring detail.  I am always outside of myself, looking in:

How often should I look at my friend’s eyes when she’s talking to me?  Am I sitting in this chair the way a neurotypical person would?  I should probably stop fidgeting so much.  Am I modulating my tone of voice correctly?  I don’t want to sound too monotone.  What kind of coffee do I want to order?  I need to rehearse what I’m going to tell the barista so that I don’t stutter too much.  I really want to flap my hands right now because I’m stressed, but I think that guy over there is looking at me.  How am I being perceived by other people?  Am I being normal enough?  I mean, no wonder other people can’t tell. I don’t fit their mental image of what it “looks like” to be autistic, and it’s because I put every last ounce of my energy into seeming as “normal” as possible…whatever that even means.  I don’t do this to be fake, and I don’t do it because I think it’s bad that I’m autistic.  I wear the mask of normality because it’s safe.  I do it because I want to fit in with my peers.  Because it’s instinctual.  Because it’s tiresome being an “other.”  Pretending, though, is also tiresome.  When the world is a theater stage you can’t step off of, everything is exhausting.

In the autistic community, this practice of “faking it” is referred to as “Masking.”  We understand it to be a coping strategy born out of trying to navigate a world that was not built with us in mind.  It helps us blend in.  It keeps us safe.  But where is the off switch?  I don’t want to mask so much anymore…I’m tired.  I think:  I must act this way, so that other people don’t stare at me in public.  I have to put on a false face so that I can make friends.  I must change myself in order to be accepted.

I am a slab of gray potter’s clay.  I am thrown onto the wheel and spun into submission.
I am made smaller, softer, hollow. 

I am a block of mahogany.  My chipped corners are chiseled; my edges are sanded away.
I am diminished, polished, perfect.

Am I the mask I wear?


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