Masking is a skill that many autistic folks learn to blend in with society around us. It sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t. At least, it isn’t an unmitigated good.
Masking has two big problems and a host of smaller ones:
- It takes a huge amount of focus and energy. For me, an hour’s heavy masking is as tiring as an hour playing outside with the kids. Imagine playing catch, tag, seesaw, swings, etc for 8 hours, and you might understand how tiring the average work day is for many autistic folks.
- It keeps us from connecting with people. Making friends, having relationships, these things require honesty. When we’re masking you can’t get to know us as we really are. And that isolates even more than just being autistic does.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t mask. Every autistic person should be able to decide for themselves when masking is worth it. I usually mask when dealing with the apartment manager. Reducing miscommunication and not making the manager dislike me because of my ‘weirdness’ is worth the effort and the manager isn’t someone I’d ever be friends with anyway.
Most autistic folks are aware of this. We live it, after all, those of us who can mask.
But something I didn’t realize until very recently is how deep the mask goes.
My writing has been a mask.
I spent years teaching myself a ‘professional’ writing style. I did well enough that at least one reviewer compared my writing to McCaffrey and Lackey — high praise!
But I used to have my own style. A very different voice, much more narrative style.
I’ve been told it had a ‘dream-like quality’ in places.
I think my autism has influenced that — writing the world as I experience it creates this distance and narrative feeling that isn’t the norm for modern writing which emphasizes ‘immersion’.
I’m giving myself permission to reclaim that voice– and sitting down to redraft this unfinished story in that voice has me holding off a panic attack!
Wish me luck and send tea!
See, masking can become a habitual. Something we do reflexively without even realizing we are doing it. I taught myself a ‘proper’ writing style so well that for several years I forgot I had ever written differently. This summer, reorganizing my files, I found some of my old stories. Things that never got published. And I read how different they were. How — to me — much more real they were.
I started crying. And I promised myself I’d reclaim my writing. That I’d let my real voice show through. At least some of the time. (Hey, I can still choose to mask sometimes!)
Then I started having a panic attack because the idea of publishing my writing in my voice, of letting people see the real me — that was terrifying!
I sat down yesterday to draft out this short story idea, and immediately fell into the mask. Habitual. I caught myself this morning, had a brief panic attack again, and started redrafting.
Here’s both versions of the first couple paragraphs:
They dragged Lilah and his siblings out to the beach in the early morning. One by one, the guards stripped them and forced them down onto the sands and tied them spread eagle to posts hammered deep into the ground. Then the guards left them under the quickly-heating sun. Was it mercy or a different kind of cruelty that they were well above the high tide line? Next to him, he heard his siblings struggling and cursing, fighting the ropes. Lilah looked inward, fighting a different battle. The beast clawed with inhim, desperate to be free. If he released it, it could rip him free of the ropes in moments. But if he did, the beast would immediately turn on his siblings.
“Lilah? Lilah!” Sherzod called. The beast tried to take advantage of his distraction and rise up, but he managed to force it back down.
It was early morning when the guards dragged Lilah and his siblings down to the beach and staked them out spread-eagled above the high tide line. Dalma and Sherzod fought and cursed the guards, frantic not just with fear but with ignorance. They had no idea why the guards had broken down their doors and dragged them from bed.
Lilah knew why he was here. Knew it with every tightening of the ropes — the beast which had been growing within him since he was attacked in the woods two nights since fought against his control, desperate to break free and tear everyone around them to pieces. If the beast wouldn’t have killed his siblings as well as the guards, Lilah might have let it. If his siblings hadn’t been here, Lilah wouldn’t even consider letting the beast free. He’d gone to the guards to ask them to kill him so he couldn’t harm any one else.
I thought I had gotten a handle on my masking years ago. I hadn’t.
It still permeates my life down to something as central to me as my writing. I’m taking off the mask. And I’m terrified. But it’s the right thing to do.
I am an awesome writer who deserves to be seen as I am, and not as I think the world wants me to be.
What about you? What are you still masking habitually?