I’m an actress – acting is what I do. It’s what I’ve always done, but it’s not a profession or even a hobby. It’s survival.
I can pin-point the day that I realised that I was different. It was my first day at school. I was five years old. Up to then, I’d lived in my own world with occasional visits to this one.
I remember that I didn’t like this world very much.
I remember strangers talking to me.
I remember strange voices saying, ‘Aren’t you speaking to me?’
I remember voices asking if I was shy.
I didn’t want to talk to them.
I didn’t want them to talk to me.
It wasn’t shyness. It was selective muteness. That’s what happens when the world gets too much. I shut down. I stop talking. I become mute. It’s my safety valve. Without this ability to shut off, I’d totally (and regularly) lose my shit.
I started school in 1975 and the other children treated me differently from the onset. My first day was shit and it set the tone for the next ten years. Teachers told me off or ignored me. Either way, they didn’t understand me. I was bullied, as so many autistic kids are. Only I didn’t know that I was autistic. I just knew that I wasn’t like everybody else. Eventually I understood that I had to interact with people in order to fit in. I had to be more like them and less like me.
That’s when I learned how to perform.
So my life has been one big performance.
I’ve taken inspiration from many people. Some female, some male. All researched via TV, books or people I’ve come into contact with. I copied their voices, their mannerisms, their style (where sensory issues allowed) – so much so, that I lost my own identity.
I forgot who I was.
Was I an alien? Was that why I found it so hard to fit in?
Had I actually been birthed by a human being?
Or had I somehow landed on the wrong planet?
Performing. Chamoflaging. Masking. Whatever you call it, it means the same thing – NOT BEING YOU!
As the years have gone by, I’ve tried my hardest to be like everybody else, except that masking came at a huge personal cost.
One example of how I mask is with eye-contact.
I struggle with eye-contact, though on a good day, you probably wouldn’t guess.
I don’t like looking into most people’s eyes and I don’t like most people looking into mine. It’s an incredibly sensory experience for me – one which overwhelms and makes me feel vulnerable. Like they can read my crazy thoughts? Or I’m standing in my bra and pants. Either way, it’s not good. Then, in my mid-twenties I taught myself to look just above someone’s eye. I’d read it in a book somewhere. It helped, but the effort comes in remembering where to look and when it’s appropriate to look away. It’s in trying to take in what someone is saying while your concentration is elsewhere. There is this inner monologue going on reminding me what to do and when. It’s not natural, therefore it’s not effortless and the more anxious I am, the worse my eye-contact gets. When I’m really anxious, my eye-tic kicks in so people think I’m winking at them. *sigh*
I’ve fought against the mental and physical exhaustion that comes with trying to be something I’m not. Diagnosis helped me to understand who I am and why I experience the world differently and it took some of the pressure off. However, the diagnosis coincided with a nervous breakdown and though I wouldn’t wish one on anybody, it couldn’t have been more timely because I was unable to mask during my assessment. What they got was the real me because I had no energy to pretend otherwise.
Burnout is something that many autistic people encounter at some point in their lives. I did well to get to 46 before I broke down, but when I did break, the fallout was catastrophic. I didn’t know what the hell had hit me. I thought I was shuffling off my mortal coil. Or going mad. Or both. What I didn’t know was that my years of pushing myself beyond my limits had set me up for a chronic condition called Fibromyalgia. Look it up, it’s shit! At the same time, my life-long anxiety turned feral and my entire body started malfunctioning.
I was really unwell.
Masking had been draining the life out of me.
The only way back from that mental crap-hole was to be myself, not that I had any energy to mask anyway.
The only way back was to stop forcing myself to interact because it’s what society expected me to do.
The only way back was to be me.
I live with the knowledge that my health has suffered because of having to mask and it’s hard not to grieve for what’s been taken from me over the years. I didn’t choose to be autistic. I didn’t choose to be different. I didn’t ask people to be arse-holes to me. For most of my life, I considered myself to be the problem to be me, but I am not the problem.
I never was.
I can’t discard the mask completely. It’s impossible. There will be situations where I need to perform in order to get through them because not everything is in my control. Nor can it ever be. But I know that I can slip my mask on occasionally and draw from all those years of acting. The difference is that I give myself permission to leave when I’ve had enough and to accept that I will need recovery time afterwards and to lose the guilt-trip. Self-care is better late than never, yes?
My problems stem from trying to force myself to fit into a world that isn’t mine. Or that’s how it feels. Shove your size 4 foot into a size 2 shoe and it’s going to hurt, right? Try and walk in those shoes, every single day, and you’ll cripple yourself. You get me? The consequence is the damage to my physical and mental health. I’m basically f**ked and I can’t change any of it. I can’t rewind the clock. Not that it would help if I could because autism had a different meaning in those days. All I can do is be here as I was meant to be. As I am wired to be.
To help me to remember, I keep these words where I can see them everyday.