Until the age of five, I didn’t mask. There was no need to. I was free to exist in my little world without fear of ridicule. I was happy with who I was. Then one day my mother took me to a strange place. This place was loud and scary and had lots of other children in it. It was a sensory nightmare.
My mother stayed with me for a while, then she got up to leave. I remember trying to leave with her, but she told me that I had to stay there. So I did what many children do on their first day of school – I cried.
The teacher sat me on her knee, but it didn’t comfort me because I didn’t like the closeness of her. She was a stranger invading my personal space, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t do anything to change the situation. A bell rang (loudly) and we were told to go outside where it was hot and the noise was deafening. It hurt my ears. I mean really. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, so I just stood in the middle of the playground trying (and failing) to process the sensory stimulus that was threatening to overwhelm me.
That was the first time I remember experiencing loss of control.
At that moment, a girl walked up to me. I thought she was going to talk to me. Maybe offer me some friendliness? But she didn’t say a word. Instead, she looked at me as if I was something particularly nasty. Like shit? Then she pinched me hard on the arm.
Whatever I was expecting it wasn’t that.
To the onlooker, it must have looked like I didn’t react at all, but inside of me all hell was breaking loose.
I stared at my shoes while my brain went into overdrive.
I remember wanting to run off home to be with the family who loved me unconditionally and the invisible friends who understood me.
I also remember that nobody came to help me.
How could nobody have seen this?
And why had my mother left me in this horrible place?
At the end of that first day of school, I went to collect my coat, but there was something else on my peg – a mask. I placed it over my face and I wasn’t me anymore.
I wore it for the next forty-one years.
In my forties I became ill. The mask had been slowly suffocating me and now I was struggling to breathe – to live.
During this time I saw a doctor who saw beyond my anxiety. He sent me to see a psychiatrist who sent me for an autism assessment.
Nine months later, I was formally diagnosed as autistic.
First there was relief. Then came the grief – not for being autistic, but for all the time I’d lost trying to be something I’m not and can never be. I grieved for the fearful child that I’d been, the troubled teenager I became and the adult who masked so much that she lost her own identity!
In the beginning, masking is helpful because it provides a way to fit in with everybody else, but over time the mask gets heavier because you lose energy and strength. The mask starts to suffocate you. But you’ve worn it for so long you don’t know how to take it off. Then, life has a way of forcing change upon you and it often comes in the form of mental illness.
Mental illness shrinks you. Literally, in my case. My clothes became loose. My skin lost it’s elasticity. My mask came loose. In the end, it came away with no effort at all, but it was because I was ill. I thought I would feel vulnerable without it, but mental illness takes you to the darkest place you could imagine. A place you NEVER want to be again. I would rather take on the world in it’s full judgemental glory than go back there!
I masked because the world didn’t want the real me and I needed to try and be like everyone else to survive. Being me wasn’t an option – certainly not when I was school in the 70s and early 80’s. It also meant that I flew under the autism radar.
Masking delays diagnosis. Boys are diagnosed a lot earlier because they are generally crap at masking. The example I can give is of my son and myself. My son doesn’t mask and he was diagnosed at 4 years old. I have masked for the majority of my life and I was diagnosed at 46 years old.
Since my breakdown and subsequent diagnosis, I no longer care what people think of me. I get to be me, now.
I walk out into the middle of the infant school playground towards the smaller version of me.
She looks lost, awkward and out-of-place.
She’s hurting, but nobody knows it.
I gently take her hand and whisper, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got you now’.
We walk past the girl who is responsible for the bright red mark on my younger self’s arm.
We could use the law of retaliation and give the little bitch an eye for an eye, but this is about healing, not revenge.
So we place the girl’s image into an imaginary balloon and let it float up into the sky.
Then we walk off into the cloakroom where a solitary coat is hanging on its peg.
I remove the coat and replace it with a well-worn mask.
We don’t need it anymore.