If you read just a small amount about how autism presents in females, chances are you’ll stumble upon the word “masking”. But what is masking? For me it’s made up of a number of different things.
For me, masking is hiding the parts of me that may be considered socially unacceptable and forcing myself to act in a more “neurotypical” way. It’s psyching myself up to leave the house and face people, even if it’s just to pop to the shop or do the school run. It’s laughing at a joke even though I don’t think it’s funny. It’s wearing certain clothes because if I wore what I felt most comfortable in people would think I’m weird. It’s forcing eye contact when talking even though it makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s plastering a smile on my face that’s so convincing even I start to believe it’s real. It’s trying to not fidget even though I desperately need to. It’s all of this, every single day. It’s basically like living every day in a job interview, trying to convince people that you’re like them and that you’re worthy of a place in their world.
I remember the first time I actually noticed I was masking, although back then I hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that I’m probably autistic or the term “masking” yet. I went to a friend’s house for a rare child-free evening, and a small group of us were there. This was my my best friend at the time, her boyfriend, and a couple of other friends who my (then) husband and I were both friends with. I’ve since lost touch with all of them, I guess he got them in the divorce. Anyway, it was that evening that I realised that I had a different “persona” with them. I laughed at the jokes, I smiled a lot, I appeared to be fitting in. But I didn’t fit in. And I realised that I never really had. I had my “game face” on. Now I’m no actress, I can’t lie to save my life and I don’t do fake. I realised that I simply exaggerated the parts of me that fitted with the company I was in, and pushed down the parts that didn’t. But it did, to some extent, feel like a performance. And I felt a sense of adrenaline after being with them, much like you would have after a “real” acting performance. And then I quite quickly had a massive low.
And then there’s work. Before having kids I worked 5 days a week, after having my eldest I worked 3 days a week. I worked in an office doing database work. This was not my idea of an enjoyable job. But it was flexible, it paid well. It worked for my family. Apart from it actually didn’t. Not really. Because every day I was there I had to have my work mask on, and it was a heavy mask. The constant office chit-chat, the mundane work, the meetings, the sensory overload from noise and lights but having to pretend I was ok. My lunch breaks were a real struggle too. The transition from being inside the office environment to being outside, and then back in a while later. When I could I didn’t bother going out because taking the work mask off for such a short time only to put it back on soon after was so difficult.
I even felt I needed to keep my mask up at home with my husband. He never did well with disabilities, be it physical or mental, and was very open about this fact. I was always so aware of the need to do or say the “right” thing. I struggled to keep up with things around the house, and was made to feel bad about that because my friends could do it so I should be able to as well. I simply couldn’t be myself around him. But he should have been my safe place, where I could be myself without fear of judgement. So that messed with my head quite a bit, and so home would be where I would have what I now know to be meltdowns. I would scream. I would cry. I’d hit myself with whatever I could (the pyrex jug to the head was a particularly memorable one, resulting in a disgusted look on his face and the words “what’s WRONG with you?” and a lovely bruise for days). Or I would throw something. It wasn’t pretty. But it’s what happens when you spend your entire life hiding fundamental parts of yourself away and forcing yourself into a box you don’t fit in.
Interestingly, once my husband and I had separated, and a year later I was out of my job through redundancy, the weight of these two masks were no longer a regular part of my life, and so I settled down better in myself. I was happier. I was more me. I was able to accept myself better and I had far less meltdowns. The pressure of seeing my old friendship group is no longer there and so that mask is gone too.
I’m pickier about who I spend time with now. If someone comes into my house they don’t get to judge the mess. I do my best, but anyone who suggests that my best isn’t good enough can re-aquaint themselves with my front door as they leave. My true friends are the ones that accept me for who I am. They build my box to fit me, rather than try to force me into the box they’ve already made. They accept that if they come over I’ll likely be wrapped in a blanket with a fidget toy in hand, probably rocking my legs too and fro as we either talk or sit there in silence because we can do that. They know that I struggle to go out places and if I need to go to shops they offer to come with me so I’m not alone. They don’t push me to do anything I don’t feel like I can do. It’s amazing.
Same goes for my boyfriend. 18 months in and he’s still waiting to see She-Hulk in full meltdown action. That’s partly because I don’t have such heavy masks elsewhere anymore but it’s also because I don’t have to wear any sort of mask around him. He’s seen shutdown mode a fair few times, which has made me realise something else. In the past I had to push my anxieties, sadness, etc down because it made other people feel uncomfortable. Avoiding these emotions didn’t help at all, all it did was suppress the shutdown and skip straight to meltdown instead. I strongly believe that by being able to shutdown more often now, the meltdowns are kept at bay because I’m getting the recovery from masking that I need.
I still mask a lot. I can barely leave the house without one. I think the masks are less heavy when I’m with my boyfriend or one of my close friends because I feel like they know I’m wearing that mask, that I am having to put extra effort in and that it does weigh me down. But just them knowing that and still being there for me, takes a bit of that weight off.
I dont know if I’ll ever be able to unmask completely. I need to find a job. I have school runs and errands and lots of things for which my masks are almost perfected and I don’t know if I want or even need to remove them all. I’ve been a social chameleon for 35 years, and that’s going to be difficult to stop. Some of my masks aren’t damaging. They only require minor tweaking (just a little less quirk and a little more normal, but not so much so that I’m not me anymore) and so are easier to come down from. For me, the important thing is that I’m recognising the masks, I’m still learning who the fully unmasked version of me is, and that those closest to me see my unmasked self and accept me as I am. And I’m ok with that.