This post is a long one. Before going further:
Trigger Warning: The following blog post explores suicide, depression, anxiety, trauma, sexual abuse, bullying, and ableism in an attempt to dispel fog around these stigmatized issues. Proceed with care.
I’ve written about masking before, but as a refresher—masking is when an autistic person pretends to be neurotypical as a responsive behavior to stress and anxiety. While not all autistic people mask, in my case, I masked so frequently throughout my teens and 20s, it felt like this “fake me” was occupying more space than “real me,” like I was suffocating myself under my own disguise.
Looking back, masking feels like a complex and psychological form of self-harm. Similar to cutting, masking was a coping mechanism I developed to navigate aggressive and micro-aggressive behavior, a double-edged sword of protecting and hurting myself. And masking is how I piloted my childhood, as well as most of my 20s, before I experienced burnout.
Despite the obvious distaste I now have towards masking, without this complex skill, I would not have made it through my childhood and 20s. Both times I tried to stop masking in unsafe environments, I attempted suicide. My thinking was, If I’m going to be different for the rest of my life, and those differences will forever separate me from people, then dying was the only way to end the bottomless hole of loneliness. Fortunately, I’ve since learned I’m autistic, and there are as many joys to my differences as there are setbacks, so while I still feel at times “othered,” I do not have suicidal ideation anymore. My suicide attempts were at 14yro and 22yro, and I’m 33yro now, which means the distance has enabled me to (a) not only look objectively at these all-time lows in my life, but (b) share the hope that there’s light on the other side of that darkness, for anyone else who’s struggling and reading this now.
Anyway, I relied on masking as a survival mechanism; and if there’s anything PTSD has taught me, it’s that when I’m trying to survive, there’s a deep, dark, underlying well of unresolved traumas still lingering there, messing with the control systems in my brain. I like to think trauma can be overcome and put to rest, even though I’ve lived with many of them for so long, they’ve shaped the nightmares that fragment my sleep.
I’d like to take a sharp segue into how masking and shame share a relationship.
As I’ve unpacked some of the childhood and young adult experiences that led to my early 30s burnout, a couple things came up:
- Whenever I unearth a memory of too much masking, it’s intertwined with a memory of locking myself in my bedroom and weeping.
- It never felt good. I never enjoyed it.
- A few times, I rapped my forehead on the wall to see if anyone heard or cared that I was not well.
- Also, it felt good on my headache to tap my cranium on a hard surface, like rolling nails on a table.
- Poignant Side Note: I’d later learn this was called a “shutdown.” While I was aware these flight-fight-freezes frequently happened to me, they’d blow holes in my otherwise precise memory, like punctures in a drum; so I was at the mercy of external storytellers for any details of what happened immediately before and after x-y-z trigger. To complicate matters, many of my family members would tell me exaggerations or fictions, and if I questioned them, they told me that my memory was strange. This gaslighting burrowed into me, until I was convinced it wasn’t just the holes from my shutdowns, but my entire mind, that had failed me. I truly believed my memory would short-circuit before I turned thirty, like relatives with Alzheimer’s. And this fear of my “terrible memory” is why I didn’t pursue a major in science, though I loved science very much; so the memory punctures of shutdowns, coupled with the gaslighting of loved ones, impacted the trajectory of my life. It wasn’t until my 30s that I started learning science again.
- Every time I ask my inner child, “Why did you mask, then?” I find ableism at the bottom of the rabbit hole.
So the shame that came with gaslighting interwove itself into the shutdowns that accompany my autism, and this is why, even though masking is self-harm, I did it anyway.
Sometimes I wonder, is masking a byproduct of ableism?
And is depression a product of internalized ableism?
Because it feels like depression is just internalized shame; and it feels like I masked to avoid shaming and gaslighting; so depression might just be my internal neglect of my “real self” because I’ve assimilated my “fake self” far too deep; and it feels like, I wouldn’t have been vulnerable to the shaming and gaslighting to begin with—the self-defeating rhetoric that I then turned inward, into depression—if it weren’t for the holes my shutdowns left in my memory; so that would mean my vulnerable feelings about my shutdowns were exploited to shame and gaslight me; to manipulate me; and it feels like, when neurotypical people snub and exploit autistic experiences like shutdowns, meltdowns, stimming, sensitivity, and special interests, that’s ableism in its purest form; so that manipulation of my feelings of vulnerability was ableism, pounding into me from the very beginning.
Ableism is an easy word to break down:
- “Able-,” as in able-bodied people;
- “-ism,” as in “I prefer this.”
Ableism leads to aggressive behavior towards anyone who isn’t able-bodied.
Aggression Takes Center Stage
While aggression can take several forms, I’m only defining three of them:
- Classic aggression is what we think of when we hear the word “aggressive,” and it’s most easily identifiable as abuse.
- Passive aggression comes in the form of blame, guilt trips, gaslighting, and other mental gymnastics that establishes a pecking order, dominance, and/or win-state, in the same way classical aggression might be used. It’s less identifiable as abuse, especially because whistleblowers can be buried with further passive-aggressive techniques.
- Intimidation is the threat of aggression. Trauma can turn intimidation into an internalized experience that simulates a previous aggression, so intimidation is often coupled with the above methods to keep a person “in check”.
Given these elements, I’d propose the following build-up of environmental ableism, followed by internalized ableism, resulting in burnout…
Baggage of the Past
At school, it’s all about “being normal,” and in adulthood, it’s all about marginalizing the baggage we carry by asking, “What’s normal, anyway?”
I’m not a fan of this “what’s normal” trend—and I say it’s a trend because it’s fallacious reasoning, and human beings do their best to evolve beyond faulty rhetoric. The “what’s normal” response is a dismissive strawman that undermines the suffering of the speaker, while relieving the listener from further emotional investment. So in response to “what’s normal,” I took my baggage and dumped the dirty laundry on the floor—which I recommend doing in a safe environment, and a calm mental state, since triggers are ripe in there—then I looked at it. Goodness, I spent a decade of writing, trying to understand why I was obsessed with normalcy.
I’d get into the specifics of different pieces of laundry—laying it out, folding it, matching socks; this is what helps us bring closure—but I was threatened with a lawsuit for writing about my childhood; so I take the laundry to science fiction and fantasy stories. It’s a little disheartening, how I still walk on eggshells about my own past.
There’s a shirt, a pair of pants, and a couple dresses I can still share. For instance, there are stories about bullies.
Since I was not normal, and I attended “not the best” elementary school and junior high, I was bullied daily. One kid shoved me off a swing. Another pushed me into the wall, next to the public restroom, then punched me several times—classical aggression—so in the future, when I went to the restroom, and I saw my bully, I turned to run—intimidation. I learned I could sneak to the “upper grade” or “lower grade” restroom to avoid said bully; the teachers turned a blind eye to my intermingling with older, then younger, children.
I would draw and write during recess and lunch. A third bully liked to break my colored pencils, crumple my drawings, and fling my stack of single-page chapters into the air. Again, classical aggression, directed towards my inner and creative world. Despite this torment, I wrote my first “novel” in third grade. It was thirty pages long. (I’m still scared to read it! I’ve moved with it, home-to-home; I know where it is right now. I have not read it since high school. I typed it on a word processor. The first ripples of the environmental aggressions entering my internal world are charted within that amateur novella.)
In junior high, when I’d tuck my hands between my knees to prevent myself from stimming, a bully whispered to everyone how I was masturbating under the table. Later that semester, girls in the locker room made fun of me for struggling to put on my clothes. They also made fun of how I ran laps every day (I wobble when I run) (think penguins), and some of the name-calling stuck. I wouldn’t hear my name from my peers for two years, except for the couple friends who didn’t mind sharing lunch.
These are enough examples.
Based on the bully stories alone, sans any of the [redacted] at the [redacted] for all the [redacted], it’s suffice to say I needed to mask to make it through high school. And thankfully, by high school, masking with bursts of weirdness felt more acceptable—especially, since I went to a tech school—so I made friends. The masking was helping me build a social life, however temporary. For a moment, you might’ve convinced me being fake was a good thing.
I couldn’t figure out how to keep it up. Not only did my brain have an odd blueprint, I didn’t get to practice social skills all that much before high school; I was too busy dodging hostile children. Sometimes, I’d feel comfortable spending time with one person. I felt really lucky if I ate lunch with two people.
Risks of Unmasking at the Wrong Time
When my social experiences were colored more by bullying than by kindness, I was pushed further and further away from feeling like a person who belongs “within the tribe.” It came to the point where I truly felt I’d been ostracized, outcast from everyone—anyone—a lone human, sent into the wilderness to die.
It’s hard to live as a person who doesn’t belong with people.
So thank goodness my cat taught me, even if I can’t do people, living beings can feel a sense of belonging with all other forms of life—which means, where I once desperately wanted out, now I wanted to get to know all the biology on the planet. If my species continues to frustrate me, fine. There’s greater than them. And there’s even greater connection to the universe, if you’re willing to think beyond biology, like the evolution of viruses, artificial intelligences, and memes. There are neutron stars spinning like frothing animals, until they collide and create platinum and gold.
Long-term Harm of Internalized Ableism
I’ve written about gaslighting in the past, if you’d like to explore what’s under the hood of that manipulation tactic; but for now, I just want to look more at how gaslighting contributes to internalized ableism, because I think this can unravel some of the frustrations that lead to masking, which in turn increase risks of depression and anxiety.
So autistic people live in this world with bullies and micro-aggressions. Then we try to communicate about said bullies and micro-aggressions; and while neurotypicals might think we have our “unique social skills,” which leaves us “trapped within ourselves,” we truly do our damnest to signal distress. It might not be words. It might not be “normal gestures.” But we try to reach out. For those us lucky enough to talk and write, like me, maybe we communicate about needs and accommodations that are different from neurotypical children. I remember complaining about my sensitivity to pain, from the dentist, to getting my hair tugged, to agonizing growing pains, and each failed attempt, hopelessness grew. Feeling heard would have been a good first step. If anyone knows how to turn our disabilities into differabilities, it’d be us; and people listening to us and failing would be better than being ignored while neurotypical expectations are applied.
Shouldn’t we be better at deciding what’s best for us than people who experience life different from us?
Unfortunately, our attempts at communication are not always carried to resolution. I’m not sure where the error happens. I don’t know if it’s the speaker or listener. Yet I’m more inclined to believe it’s a problem with listening, since that’s a repeating narrative for minorities: “We are trying to tell you this is wrong, but you do not want to hear it.”
Also, that’s the root of my social anxiety:
“No one is listening. Why socialize?”
Even if society moves the onus off of neurotypicals and onto the autistic person (as society tries to do with ABA therapy, misinformed stereotypes, and “the search for a cure”), we’re still left with a human being who’s lived in an environment that tells them they’re unwanted—regardless of supposed fault, irrespective of who’s the person who needs “fixing” here—and people who mask tend to integrate that ableist narrative into the internal story of who they are, who they should be, who they could amount to becoming…
Once the ableism moves from the external, aggressive environment, into the internal world of the autistic person—whether you blame the environment (which you should), or blame the autistic person (which you shouldn’t)—the aftermath is the same: The ableism seeps into the autistic person’s real self—beneath the mask—so that no survival mechanism is left.
This is where my depression started.
This is where my self-destruction started.
This is where my anxiety started.
This is where, I think, all my co-morbids started.
Here is the dirty laundry, the mess I promised my cat I would properly sort (so I could make friends with the animals A.S.A.P.) (but seriously, I’m scared to take that biology class).
We Can Do Better
Autism alone doesn’t condemn a person to a pre-disposition towards mental illnesses—it’s a symptom of what we’re taught.
We are not born with a baseline of unhappiness, doomed to no choice by chemical therapies—although medications do help some of us, so I don’t mean to cast the wrong shadow there, either. What I mean to say is:
We are not born broken.
Genetics make us.
Our environment breaks us.
We could have been made and supported. The breaking was a mistake.
Then many people judge us for not handling this disaster better.
The sooner society accepts the mistake, the sooner we can get to work on brighter horizons. The same people who taught us to internalize the ableism are the ones that hold the judge’s mallet, so the first step is to fix the power dynamic.
The classic aggression of childhood evolves into the passive aggression of families and young adults, and the intimidation to keep the dominoes falling, the triggers flipping, until burnout opens like a maw at the inevitable bottom—and we could do better.
At the bottom here, all I hope to do is catch those are falling, too; because if the earth hollows out deeper than burnout, there’s no fixing that. If depression takes a life (and it is the untreated mental illness that takes lives, not a lack of willpower), there’s no fixing that. If anxiety takes a heart (and it is the untreated mental illness that causes heart attacks, not the person’s decisions), there’s no fixing that. If Alzheimer’s creeps into the memory that’s been blasted open by trauma, there’s no fixing that either, at least right now.
For me, opening up to the whole planet made it easier to open up to people, in a strange and therapeutic way. From openness, the ability to help others grew. I learned how to teach, so I could share my special interest in writing with others. I learned to encourage the right voices to speak up about our most pressing issues—rather than internalize the oppressive voices that led us astray. I learned to harness the hyperempathy that neurotypicals will never give autistic people credit for possessing.
The Internet makes the people of the planet accessible. The only consequence I’ve found with this approach is a distaste for people who don’t care about the planet, as well as the occasional judgment from people who don’t think writing and socializing on the Internet is “a good idea” for good-ol’-way reasons. Anyway, this openness also makes a hole for me to slowly, slowly squeeze the ableist toxins out of my system. I’ve already noticed progress. For instance, last year, April’s Autism Awareness Month felt like celebrating Christmas for autistic people; but this year, April’s Autism Awareness Month feels like the perfect example of how disassociated people have become about neurodiversity.
We should be understood everyday; we shouldn’t be regulated to a holiday.
Liberation of Unmasking at the Right Time
Fast-forward to now, in my mid-30s.
I still experience bullying. That’s to say, I still experience ableism from my external environment. In adulthood, the shades are more subtle. I wrote about this more when I explored micro-aggressions, including the most common micro-aggressions I encountered in the last couple years.
But I am getting better at noticing ableism, so I can protect myself. I’m understanding these are belief systems I no longer need to carry. I’m developing a funnel where the environment comes in, and the ableism comes out, because I can recognize it—rather than internalize it as a code to follow later.
I break no laws by standing up for the rights of disabled people.
I do no wrong by drawing a thick boundary between me and neurotypical people who villainize my autism.
I am not selfish just because I have unique needs.
I am not “less than” just because I have different behaviors.
The ableist story others have told me to live is no longer viable.
That means the mask won’t fit my face at all anymore, even if I wanted it to pop back on.
The following post is about my experiences living as an autistic person recovering from mental illness and trauma. My stories are meant to empower others to embrace their personal experiences—but self-empowerment may not be enough; so if you are experiencing difficulties, please reach out for professional help.
Featured image commissioned from Fiverr.com.
Kourtnie has an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno and a BA in English from CSU Fullerton. When she isn't writing or making art, she's moonlighting as a professor at community colleges. Read her writing at Kourtnie.net or Wattpad.com/user/KourtnieNet.