#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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yours Mentally

Three days ago I stood outside my local cafe and hesitated before I opened the door.

‘Just sodding well go in, you loon!’ I bollocked myself.

I walked in and sat down at my usual table and within minutes the cafe owner was at my side, notepad in hand.

“Nice to see you! What can I get for you?”

‘Tea and toast please’

Five minutes later I was drinking my tea and was overcome with a sense of achievement.

I sent OH a text..

In the cafe. ON MY OWN! *smiley face*

I’ll forgive you for thinking ‘what on earth is the idiot on about now?’ but what if I was to tell you that it was the first time in over 12 months that I had been in ANY cafe on my own?

Being autistic, going into any public places requires effort due to my sensory and social issues but this post isn’t about my autism, not directly anyway.

The anxiety which has shadowed me from birth morphed into Panic Disorder in 2014, then General Anxiety Disorder and after three years of my body being constantly flooded with stress hormones, I had a nervous breakdown.

Definition: A nervous or mental breakdown is a term used to describe a period of intense mental distress. During this period, you’re unable to function in your everyday life.

At the peak of my illness,  I visited my GP ten times, A&E twice and the out of hours GP service twice – this was in a period of two weeks. EACH time I was convinced I would be admitted to hospital. EACH time, I was told it was anxiety.

When it came to symptoms, I had the works with my entire body from my scalp to my toes being affected. I felt sick ALL of the time and kept spontaneously retching. On one occasion I sat in the GP’s office retching violently into a cardboard bowl. She said I had a gastric bug but I’d been retching for the past three years (just not in public) so if it was a gastric bug then I was breaking some kind of record! Another time I was walking down the street and retched so hard I actually vomited over myself.

Barfing, not dancing, in the street.

My weight dropped into the 7 stone range and my muscles were starting to waste. I was starting to look like Skeletor, only less sexy..

My bowels woke me up at 4-5am with a ‘MOVE IT OR YOU’LL SHIT THE BED’ cramping in my lower regions. I’d also wake in the early hours shaking violently, not that it woke OH. Nothing short of the house blowing up would have roused him from his coma..

I couldn’t tolerate drugs, even painkillers. Come to think of it, even vitamins gave me gyp.

Palpitations? Don’t start me.

My mouth was sore but with no visible cause because I checked via a dental mirror NUMEROUS times. Yes, REALLY! You do things like this when you are mentally ill, see. You spend hours inspecting yourself and prodding your poo. Dignified, no?

I had test after test but all came back clear.

‘All those doctors can’t be wrong, Sweetie’, OH said.

‘They just haven’t found the cancer yet dearie.’ countered Fear.

By far, the most debilitating symptom was the feeling that I was losing my mind..

My grip on reality can be iffy at the best of times but this was in a different realm completely. I struggled to go out or be on my own. My stims became more noticeable and I had no control over them at all. My rocking went from my usual subtle movement to virtually falling off the chair-rocking and my lips were sore from frantically picking the skin off them.  I couldn’t see a way out and in my worst moment I actually wanted to be sectioned.

Yep, you read that right. I wanted to be thrown in the big house where they could put me to bye-byes and be there for me 24/7. I understand now just how poorly I was and If I hadn’t have turned myself around when I did, I may not have had any choice in the matter..

I threw everything at getting better. I did relaxation and yoga. I cut out sugar, caffeine, alcohol, gluten etc but none of it helped for long because I wasn’t accepting how I felt. I was fighting Fear ALL the way..

The breakthrough came when I was told I would have to have a colonoscopy. I was SO convinced I was coffing it that I accepted my fate AND all those weird and unwonderful sensations. I told myself to enjoy what time I had left because Fear could eff right off if it thought it could rob me of that too. With support from OH and a few good friends, including one who’s had a breakdown of his own, I began to see blue sky even in the shadow of my imagined death.

Beautiful Blue Sky

I stuffed food into my mouth and didn’t dwell on how crap it made me feel. I lived alongside Fear and accepted whatever it threw at me. What had I got to lose?

I started to put weight on and my tummy started to rumble again. I FELT HUNGRY!!

I told myself constantly that ‘whatever happens to me. I am here, NOW’.

Then my bum got invaded courtesy of the NHS, and everything was fine. I wasn’t dying (HURRAH) but I had to face the fact that I was mentally ill..

My weight is now back up to 8 and a half stone and my heart isn’t pounding all the time. The anxiety will always be there but I’m not in crisis anymore. I have taken steps to help myself, the biggest and most important being ACCEPTANCE.

There were many times when depression tangoed with the anxiety and I thought I would slip further into insanity but my mind is stronger than I could ever have imagined. It’s healing itself, especially now I understand that magic word, acceptance.

So, yeah, I went to the cafe alone. It was a GINORMOUS step and I’m PROUD of me. I know that recovery is a long process and there will be setbacks along the way but that’s ALL they will be because I’ve accepted fear for what it is.

We need fear. It stops us from being reckless but fear should work for us, not the other way around. That jumped up little git needs to know it’s place, innit.

If you are reading this and are struggling with mental illness, know that you CAN get better. It’s your thoughts that have put you where you are and it’s your thoughts that will set you free.

Yours, mentally

ACCEPT

 All Images Via Creative Commons