The Many Faces of Masking

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Ok real talk, I started that series on pool parties, got overwhelmed, tried to write the second post about ten times, and gave up.

So I’m going to let it sit, maybe come back to it, and in the meantime write what feels right to me. For now, that means talking about masking, because I have been thinking often and deeply about what it means to mask, how you can stop masking if you’ve picked up habits to hide autism or mental illness throughout your entire life, and what it means to be authentic (which is a word that I kind of hate to be honest. Even if I’m changing my behaviors that’s clearly a choice that I’ve made so isn’t it still authentically me?).

Earlier this year, I decided to do some intentional goal planning, and one of the goals that I ended up creating was to stop masking. I created specific plans around that: wear more glitter, be more extra, be loud and take up space, stim freely, and share my emotions widely and vociferously. It seemed like the clear thing to do: I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to be smaller. I had a flipping eating disorder for upwards of five years because I was so afraid of being loud or taking up space. I spend a lot of my energy holding back comments or laughs or noise.

I’ve been trying to do this for a couple of months now and in all honesty dear reader, I didn’t manage to do it much. I forgot to put on my glitter in the morning. Instead of grabbing an exciting outfit I would pick the one that was closest and comfiest. I’d forget to stim, and have to try to plan it into my day, which took more effort than it saved. I started to feel discouraged. Is it really so damn hard to live authentically? To act on what I thought were my basic impulses?? Why was I having to try so fucking hard to be me? Sometimes I’d even plan to go big and be sparkly for a specific event, and the time would come to get ready and all I’d want was to crawl back into my sweatpants and go to bed.

It was incredibly discouraging.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in recent years trying to understand how I can live up to my values and morals without destroying myself in the process with impossible expectations, and the idea of being truly myself, open and vulnerable, seemed like something that could positively impact the world around me by modeling good self-care and joyful neurodivergence while also satisfying my own needs. Was I so bad at being a good person that I couldn’t even do the cop-out easy version of it?

Ok that might be a bit of an overreaction to feeling less than up to putting on glitter, but honestly, that’s where my brain went and I was scared to start poking at why I was having such a challenge with this. So I just kept puttering along and trying to remind myself and adding it to my calendar, then not doing what I told myself to do, and feeling really shitty about myself. Classic.

Over time I started to notice that what I really wanted to do most of the time was to wear a frickin’ onesie and spend no time at all getting ready for anything. I wanted to be comfortable, efficient, and practical. Which felt…boring. It felt like the “real me” or the “unmasked me” should be more subversive or more noticeable or look less like they were just going to take a nap 90% of the time.

I guess I just wanted my maskless face to be more exciting, or at the very least be something that people noticed and cared about. It made me question if I had been actually masking all along or if I was just making things up. The idea of not masking anymore was not just for me, it was also something that I wanted to do to demonstrate to others that they were safe not to mask around me, to teach people about autism, to work on making the world more appropriate for more people. Wearing sweatpants just felt like it wasn’t doing any of that.

So here’s the epiphany that might be very obvious and not very exciting to anyone else: masking looks like a lot of things, but then again so does NOT masking. There will be times where not masking means being A LOT. There will also be times where not masking means being open about how tired and grumpy and overwhelmed I am. Neither one of those is better than the other. When I wrote my goals I was in a season (I have picked up that language from my goal planner and I find it immensely cheesey and weirdly religiously tinged but here I am, using it) of excess. I wanted excuses to dress up. I was feeling drawn to color and light.

And then I dove deep into a lot of goals and my energy was directed elsewhere: I was managing health concerns and money stress and a lot of relationships, and unsurprisingly my impulse was comfort and quiet. Not masking means responding honestly to the things that are happening around you. There is nothing less subversive about wearing fucking sweatpants and no bra. Modeling what it means to be constantly exhausted and not hide it is part of the resistance. Showing other people that you are responding to your challenges by resting and caring for yourself is subversive. These are the quiet skills that so few of us have, which makes them all the more important to demonstrate.

So fuck it. I’m proud of how I’ve been not masking in the last six months. I’ve gone braless more times than I can count. I wear mismatched socks. I look like a total slob. And that’s what has allowed me to continue functioning. I’m good with it.

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