#Take The Mask Off: What It’s Like To Wear The Mask

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.

My darling girl, when are you going to realize that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage. Alice Hoffman ~Practical Magic

 

 

 

 

 

Among Angels..

According to a recent (ish) poll, one in ten people in the UK believe in angels.

Christmas is hurtling towards us an alarming rate so it seems apt to do one or two posts about angels.

There is a plethora of information about angels but perhaps one of the best advocates for the winged-ones is Lorna Byrne.

I’ve always been in two minds whether or not Lorna is certifiably insane? I mean, this lady has conversations with angels on a daily basis and has been seeing them since she was a baby. Yet she appears to be as sane as you or I.

Well you, anyway..

Lorna sees angels as physically as she sees everybody else and is of the opinion that everybody has at least one angel with them at all times. At this point, people usually ask, ‘Well, if that’s true, how come people get hurt or get ill? Why don’t their angels save them?’

Other people ask where their ‘car parking’ angel is when they need them?

“I drove round the Tesco car-park THREE SODDING TIMES. Where was my effing angel?!!”

Having a doze?

Saving a beached whale?

How the heck am I supposed to know?!

What I do know is that for every atrocity that happens – there some people who ‘miraculously survive’ and those who die horribly.

This is what I struggle with when it comes to the concept of angels.

One answer is that angels do appear to intervene where there is danger but not in every instance. It doesn’t seem fair that some people are saved and not others. Are some lives worth more than others? I don’t think so, yet this is how life is. The problem is that we don’t understand how all this works. People just assume that angels don’t exist for the same reason that some people reject the idea of God – because people suffer.

I have had a few ‘near misses’ in my time and when I say near miss, I mean that I have NO idea how I came out of these things alive..

The first incident was when an old (and extremely heavy) door fell on top of me when I was about four years old. I was rooting about in that forbidden area (the garage) and it fell on top of me. My parents couldn’t understand why I wasn’t dead or at the very least, a cabbage. Yet all I suffered was a small scratch on my nose.

Another incident was when I was driving home from work one day. I was doing 50 mph and an articulated lorry pulled out on me. I braked but my car kept on going, skidding onto the wrong side of the road.

Miraculously, there were no cars coming in the other direction.

It could have been a LOT worse.

It should have been a lot worse because it happened during the rush hour on a road that junctioned onto the M6 motorway – one of the busiest in the country.

All this happened in a matter of seconds yet I remember three things.

One – Time slowed right down.

Two – My life flashed before me.

Third – I felt protected.

Those were occasions where, by rights, I should have been seriously injured at least. Maybe it was just my good luck. Or maybe someone was looking out for me?

On another occasion, my eldest son (then about 16) came out of the local shop and stepped off the pavement into the road. He later told me, “I felt someone pull me roughly back onto the pavement. I looked around but there was NOBODY there. I thought it was one of my mates playing silly buggers. At that moment, a car came speeding round the corner. Had I have carried on across the road, the car would have hit me for sure”.

I also had a bizarre experience one day when my car broke down. These were the days before mobile phones and I had my elderly mother in law with me and a boot full of shopping. The place where I broke down was quite a distance from the nearest working phone-box and there were no houses either. My dilemma was that I had to leave my MIL in the car on her own while I went to get help as there was no way she could come with me. Just as I was starting to panic, a car drew in behind us and a man came to the window asking if I needed help. I could have kissed him! I explained the situation and he offered us (and the shopping) a lift back to MILs house.

The man looked to be in his 60s and had the kindest (and bluest) eyes I’d ever seen and I instinctively felt safe, as if he was someone I’d known all my life. Normally, I am suspicious of people.

He drove us to MILS house and helped me to carry the shopping in..

Nothing strange thus far but here’s where it gets funky…

We’d taken the last bags inside the house and I turned to thank him and offer him a cuppa but he’d gone.

I looked outside and his car was gone too. I know this sounds unbelievable but there simply wasn’t the time for the bloke to put the shopping bag down, walk out of the door, get into his car, drive off, without me seeing him.

I know what you’re thinking but no, he hadn’t nicked anything and SHAME ON YOU FOR THINKING IT!

What happened was impossible.

Some time later, I read an article about angels which led me to do some extensive research of my own and a few details consistently cropped up in people’s accounts:

These ‘angels’ appeared out of nowhere when people desperately needed help.

  • They generally had kind (and very blue) eyes.
  • There was a sense of peaceful and calming energy.
  • They buggered off quicker than is humanly possible.

So angels drive do they?

Apparently so.

My question is how do they get around the tax and insurance?

Why do they appear as humans then? Why not just appear in all their winged glory?

Well, I for one would have shit myself had a seven foot bird person revealed themselves to me in front of my Peugeot. As for my mother-in-law, she’d already had one heart attack. The shock would have finished her off!

Even if you think my story is about as believable as Wayne Rooney’s weave, there is no denying the mountain of evidence to support the existence of these beings known as angels.

Personally, I don’t believe it’s an angel’s job to save every person on the planet. Granted, it would be great if only the ancient among us died after long and gloriously happy lives but the reality is that the planet would be vastly overcrowded and we would become extinct.

Maybe angels do warn us but it’s our free will to heed or ignore the whispers?

Maybe it’s gut instinct not to travel on a certain road, or catch a certain train?

Or maybe it’s a whisper from an angel?

I see an angel’s job as one who comforts and guides. Who’s to say that when bad things happen they are not comforting someone to the very end? So maybe they can’t always save lives but comforting someone in their final minutes? That’s a very special thing, no?

One of the problems is that we don’t understand life. We don’t understand why good people die young and utter twats live to ripe old ages. If you believe that everything is chance and life is meaningless, then you have no problem. For those of us who don’t fit with that concept – there is confusion.

That said, I think that when we die, we will understand pain and suffering.

We will understand the whole damn thing.

It’s just that it’s incomprehensible to us in human form.

The other problem is some of us struggle with things that can’t be scientifically measured. There is no proof, therefore it doesn’t exist. Experience convinces you. While there is no definitive proof that angels exist, there is an abundance of evidence and in any court of law evidence stands for something.

I like Lorna’s Byrne’s theory that our guardian angels are always with us. That said, I hope mine averts their eyes when I’m perched on the loo or in the shower because, well – dignity.

Do you believe in angels?

Some things are true whether you believe in them or not ~ Nicholas Cage