#TakeTheMaskOff: What is Burnout? How is it Connected to Masking?

We all mask.

Masking is not just an autistic thing. It’s a human thing.

We hide the parts of us that we don’t like or don’t want people to see for fear of rejection or ridicule.

When I mask I play a role and that means not being myself.

Onlookers can’t see beyond our mask. They see something that isn’t real.

Take Robin Williams: Twinkling eyes and a great smile. He was a hilariously funny man. And he killed himself.

The man was in hell, but nobody saw it.

We saw what Robin wanted us to see – his mask.

Masking is taking yourself, your fears and your demons and suppressing them so that you can present the world with a version of you that it will accept. You do it to fit in. You do it to survive. This takes a great deal of mental energy and it comes as no surprise to me that most autistic people develop mental illnesses. With me, it’s primarily anxiety.

Anxiety has shadowed me all my life. I’ve mostly functioned with it, but there have been episodes of depression and anxiety which have been severe enough to require medication and time off work. Somehow, I made it to 41. Then my mother died unexpectedly. The problem was that I’d been trying to run my entire house on a car battery (theoretically speaking) for so long that there was quite simply no energy to deal with such a shock and when it comes to trauma – losing a parent (especially a mother) is at number 5 on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale scoring 65/100% – 100% being the death of a spouse.

That was the start of my ill-health and five years later I burned out completely.

Mental breakdown. Nervous breakdown. Burnout.

Call it what you want, it all amounts to the same thing. Not limit reached, but limit breached.

It’s the tidal wave. Or it’s a hurricane.

It’s catastrophic.

I’m convinced that a life of masking led me to burnout at the age of 46 and during that time I didn’t have the energy to function, let alone mask.

How best to describe my mental breakdown?

  • My own personal hell.
  • I lived by the minute, not the day and every one of those agonising minutes felt like an hour.
  • I couldn’t hold onto my thoughts.
  • I couldn’t complete the simplest of tasks.
  • I couldn’t sleep.
  • I was in constant pain.
  • I was having numerous panic attacks a day.
  • I couldn’t eat.
  • I lost weight and muscle mass.
  • I couldn’t watch TV, read a book or listen to music.
  • I was constantly retching and feeling sick.
  • I wanted to be put into a mental institution – just so they could make all of it stop.
  • I thought I was dying, going crazy or both.

In-between bouts of anxiety, there were lulls where depression would take over and I’d cry. The kind of crying where the tears just happen without any effort at all. I actually prayed for the anxiety to come back. I could fight the anxiety, you see, but depression doesn’t fight fair. It consumes you. It numbs you. It steals every ounce of joy you ever had until you feel that nothing is worth living for, even when there is.

With every second of every day – I lost another piece of myself.

There was no dignity in my fight. It was ugly and it was messy and I thought I would never find my way back.

Make no mistake – mental illness is a battle.

You have to remember that the chemicals in the brain are imbalanced. It’s an illness.

Nobody chooses to be mentally ill.

Masking brought me to the brink of my sanity. That’s how it affected my mental health.

Since that time, there is a fragility about me that wasn’t there before. I developed a chronic condition (Fibromyalgia) which affects my entire body. Now, as well as being in mental pain, I am always in physical pain. This is what masking can do!

I wouldn’t be in this state if I’d been able to be myself – if society had accepted me as I am. But it didn’t accept me. It bullied and ostracised me and exploited my vulnerability which forced me to constantly wear the mask that’s damaged me beyond repair.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned – albeit too late to save my health.

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.” ~ Jim Morrison

Be part of the revolution.

#TakeOffTheMask

 

 

 

#TakeOffTheMask: How Does Masking Affect Mental Health?

According to the Australian Actors’ Wellbeing Study taken in 2015, performers are twice as likely than the general public to experience depression. Many report performance anxiety and high levels of stress due to work-related pressures.

What’s this got to do with masking?

Autistic people who mask are performers.

We play a role so that society will accept us and we can fit in.

The actor: Will I be convincing as Othello?

The autist: Will I convince people I’m the same as they are?

Either way, it’s a performance.

The problem with performing is that we’re not being ourselves. Whether it’s strutting about on stage playing Hamlet or standing on the school yard with the other parents – performing takes a great deal of mental effort.

Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…

Some of us mask so much that we lose ourselves. The boundaries between what’s real and what isn’t become blurred. Then one day we look at ourselves in the mirror and are shocked to find that we no longer recognise what’s being reflected back at us. The person that we used to know is buried under the mound of characters that we’ve created over our lifetime.

When I mask, I rely on what I’ve learned.

I have to recall lines or appropriate responses.

I have to judge when to speak and when to stay silent and for how long.

I have to remind myself to look at the person from time to time.

I have to try to work out facial expressions, which is hard when you’re crap at non-verbal communication.

I have prompt myself constantly.

I have to try and deal with the emotional fallout when I get it wrong.

I have to do all of this while trying to cope with my sensory issues, like background noise or smells or lights.

It’s mentally exhausting.

Imagine having to do this EVERY time you socialize, even with a neighbour or someone in the street – every single day.

Imagine having to perform every time you walk out of your front door? Or, even in your own home?

They say that the world is a stage and from the perspective of a lot of autists – it’s true – except that YOU are the actor, the director, the producer, make-up artist, wardrobe stylist and, well, you get my drift?

I have always been scared of the world and most of the people in it – so I’ve worn a mask and tried to fit in. To protect myself. To survive. Except that a lifetime of pretending has left me mentally (and physically) exhausted. All these years I have performed in order to fit in, but the truth is that I no longer want to.

I no longer want the anxiety that goes with trying to fit in.

I no longer want to feel the fear of rejection.

All these years I’ve pretended to be someone I’m not and in doing that I have failed to honour the unique (and worthy) person that I am – that all autists are.

Reggie removed his mask to discover that he’d been awesome all along!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laughter As Therapy

Some of the most saddest people on earth are also the funniest. Funny, that.

Spike Milligan

Stephen Fry

Robin Williams

Jim Carrey

Paul Merton

Catherine Tate

David Walliams

Ruby Wax

Caroline Aherne

Kenneth Williams

All have had a depressive disorder.

I can understand how some people would struggle with the concept of funny people being depressed but the fact is that being funny doesn’t necessarily mean being happy. Humour is often a way of coping with life and the shit it throws at you – a defence mechanism, if you like..

I write funny posts. Correction, I try to write funny posts as well as serious ones but you may have noticed that even my funny ones are sometimes about difficult subjects? It’s a release for me. The sting of a bad memory isn’t quite as sharp when I’m putting a humourous spin on it. That said, some things just aren’t funny and never will be.

Humour was a lifeline to me when I was growing up. Watching comedy like The Kenny Everett Show or The Young Ones went some way to lifting my mood after yet another diabolically crap day at school. I laughed so hard I was in actual pain and sometimes my laughter bordered on the hysterical – which was a bit freaky – but I think it was in lieu of the tears that I hadn’t cried at school. That’s my theory, anyway.

Or I am indeed certifiable?

 

For me, the humour is there but it gets lost in translation if I try to verbalise it, so I write it down. I’m funnier on paper, or screen, in my case as I HATE writing with a passion. Maybe if I’d have been able to make people laugh at school, I wouldn’t have been bullied so much? As it was, I did make them laugh. The problem is that they were laughing at me, instead of with me.

Research shows that children laugh about 300 times a day whereas adults only laugh around 15 times a day.

I have laughed three times today. THREE!

This needs addressing, no?

Humour is medicine.

Write that down and stick it on your fridge door or laptop.

The sciencey bit..

Physical Benefits of Laughter

  • Improves brain and heart function
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Boosts immune system
  • We create disease – fighting antibodies
  • Increases oxygen levels in the blood
  • We heal faster

The way I see it, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by putting this to the test. So instead of putting on a film that makes you sad or on edge – put on a comedy.

Buy yourself a funky notepad (with unicorns on it, if that’s your bag) and rate how you feel, before and after the film.

Think of laughter as therapy. No, I don’t mean the kind of therapy where you sit in a circle and laugh like sodding hyenas for no reason at all. I mean funny books, films and TV.

I’ll give you three examples of what tickles my funny bone..

The 86 Fix by Keith A Pearson

It’s hard to believe this is Keith’s debut but it is and it’s hilarious. If you’re a certain age – you’ll need a change of pants or Tena pad.

It’s basically about mid-life, time travel and the 1980s. That ticks three of my boxes. It was most probably written with male readers in mind but I generally find male humour funnier than female so it works for me.

When it comes to films, Blazing Saddles is up there with the VERY best. There is a little high-pitched fart part way through and I usually lose it at that point. If you can watch this scene and not laugh, you’re dead to me.

Last of all we come to TV..

Dinnerladies is one of my all time favourite comedy programmes. Victoria Wood was a comedy genius. She was an observer of northern life and could take the mundane and make it knicker-wettingly funny. Victoria took her ‘flaws’ and made them funny. Her death was such a huge loss to the world of comedy but it’s the likes of her that inspire me to put a humorous spin on my own life.

This scene NEVER fails to make me laugh.

My examples may not be your cup of tea. The point is that there is something out there to suit everybody’s taste. So get looking and get laughing ha ha ha?

“Do you do sugar free muesli?”
“No. This is a canteen, not a ground sheet at Glastonbury.” ~ Dinnerladies

 

 

 

Finding Your Happy in a World That Farts in Your Face

The first five years of my life were happy because I was at home reading my books, doing my own thing, y’know? Then I started prison (school) and my constant state of happy changed to happy that came in moments, none of which happened there. Since then, life has been hard work with a huge amount of effort going into every single day. The world has farted in my face more times than I’ve had inappropriate thoughts about Nick Rhodes and for the last five years it’s been more about existing than living, thanks to my anxiety disorder. You become wary of life itself. Exhausted. Burnt out. Unhappy.

When you suffer with anxiety or depression, it’s hard to thrive. Moments of happiness (if any) are fleeting and hysterical laughter can change into a snotfest of sobbery within a matter of seconds. You can look at something beautiful and be, meh, or you can moved beyond all comprehension. NOTHING is balanced and it shits your family right up cos they think you’re madder than a box of frogs, innit.

You watch the news and see the face of a six year old boy smiling back at you. He has no hair and there are tubes up his nose. He’s dying. Despite everything he smiles THE most wonderful smile and you feel guilty because you’re alive. This child is grabbing every single second of his life and making it count while you’ve spent another afternoon horizontal on your bed having done sod all but binge watch box sets of Life on Mars.

Yes, I’m talking about me.

There is NO shame in having a mental illness. Nobody is ashamed of any other illness so why be ashamed of anxiety or depression? It’s an illness just the same but just as we take steps to get better if we have the flu (or whatever) we have to take steps to improve our mental well-being, innit?

With my ongoing therapy, it’s becoming clear to me that I can’t change the world or the people in it. However, I can change how I react to things they say or do.

I can change how I think.

So, new motto is…

*drum roll*

EFF ‘EM.

There are so many thoughts and memories that make me unhappy. Like limpets on rocks, they are an absolute bugger to prise off. But you know what? I am done with being unhappy because of other people. I want to be unhappy on my own terms, not theirs. So eff ’em, eff em even more and then eff em again. I’m not the problem. I never was the problem. THEY are the problem.

They are no longer MY problem.

*breathes in for four seconds and out for eight* *smiles serenely*

My heart wants to be happy. How do I know? Well, our bodies thrive with happiness but wither with sadness. This is scientific stuff. So doesn’t it make sense to try and find our happy? Hopefully before we die?

My children make me happy.

OH makes me happy.

Books make me happy.

Music makes me happy.

My psychotic lurcher makes me happy.

My friends (online and off) make me happy.

Those who love me, make me happy.

They make breathing in and out worth the effort.

What makes YOU happy?

There are things we can do to combat anxiety and depression and bring ourselves a bit of happy. Yes, I know how hard it is to see the light when your world is so dark but trust me, it’s there.

Exercising ~ Even a short walk will get the endorphins flowing. You will always feel better for it.

Mindfulness ~ Bringing yourself into the present by noticing the world around you instead of focusing on how shit you feel.

Do Something New ~ Trying out something different, like photography. Anything that takes you out of yourself, even it’s for five minutes.

Goals ~ Having something to aim for in each day, even if it’s to get that ruddy great pile of ironing done.

Therapy ~ Go unleash your shit onto somebody who gets paid to listen. Fill your boots. Use ALL their tissues.

Sense of Purpose ~ We all have a place in this world. We all need a sense of purpose to give our lives meaning. Find your purpose, you glorious being, you.

Focus on the Good Bits ~ Life can be EPICALLY CRAP but try and focus on the better bits, no matter how small. I call them, ‘my lights’. Grab those lights and hold them tightly and when the darkness threatens to overwhelm you they will shine all the more brighter, just like stars.

We may not have had any choice in being here. After all, we are the result of our parents having ‘sexy times’ and we were the best swimmers, but seeing as we ARE here, we might as well try and make the best of our time because in the great scheme of things, it’s very brief. Like, blink and you’re dead – brief.

No matter how sad you feel, happiness can ALWAYS be found.

A wise old wizard once said: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

I’m with you, Dumblydore.

mumturnedmom

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Stars