May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
As much as I think awareness in and of itself is good, what interests me right now is what we do with that awareness. Does it make us more compassionate? Kinder? More open-hearted and willing to listen? Does it make us pay attention to candidates who seek to expand coverage and care? Does it make a change, whether large or small?
I don’t really know.
This is what I know.
I’ve spent most of my life wearing a mask.
It’s a mask of my own construction, an amalgam of social tools and hidden emotion, of confusion and consternation. I wrote recently about my gender, about how aware I was even as a small child of the press of social constructions. What I didn’t mention much (if at all) in that post was that I was acutely and painfully aware that I was Other. The other kids seem to fit into social groups with ease; I did not. I learned early what it felt like to be singled out as Other, and that led to a very young Emmie constructing the mask I’ve now worn for almost three decades.
I spent countless hours analysing the behaviours and social proclivities of my peers. I got harsh lessons in social cues and normative behaviour, sometimes from peers and sometimes from their parents. I was a quiet and polite kid (the latter most likely because quiet and polite are often synonymous when it comes to female-socialised people), often exploratory but also keenly observation-minded. I remember the hot swell of shame when even in my quietness someone would point out something lacking in my social behaviour.
I began to gather materials for my mask, a deliberate and cognitive checklist of things that People Expect From You. Ask people how they are doing. Say thank you to your friend’s parents when you go to their houses. Ask people about what they like and what they do. Remember if someone had a Big Life Event. Refer to it. Breakups happen in person, even if words are easier on paper or computers. Be quiet. Listen. See what they like, and like those things too.
The list goes on and on.
I favoured toys like LEGO and Lite Brite. I made every Lite Brite design meticulously to the blueprint. When friends came over and wanted to play with it, I would panic. I remember that panic, which felt like a large balloon expanding inside me until it reached the inside of my skin. It wasn’t about being selfish (though that’s how it was labeled), but it was about what I had made. I needed it a very certain way. Disrupting that very certain way caused me distress.
I threw overwhelming tantrums over very small things, like a teal bag dress that was exactly the right colour and I needed that colour. I was obsessed with McDonalds and would scream to go there. When there was a disruption in plan or routine, I went nuclear. And other times I would withdraw so completely that I would eschew normal comfort. I hated being touched most of the time, long before anyone tried to molest me. (This led to my mother — a therapist herself — wondering if I had Reactive Attachment Disorder, but I am and always have been capable of forming emotional ties and bonds and can seek and receive comfort.) I loved soft fabrics and playing the same songs over and over until I knew all the words.
Most of those things are still true. I seek out colours and sounds and fabrics that make me feel safe.
I knew from a very early age that I was Different.
I remember being ten years old and being confronted by a friend because I, in my intense desire to fit in, had decided to be a marine biologist and that dolphins were my favourite animal, like hers. She said I copied her. She was right, but by then the mask was so far in place that I only knew I wanted acceptance. Being pointed at for copying something I didn’t realise was supposed to be different (she had dolphin; I ought to have chosen a tiger — but that was someone else’s — so I ought to have known to say leopard or jaguar or elephant) was panic-inducingly distressing. I had Done It Wrong. I was obsessed with ancient Egypt at the time, but I didn’t talk about it. Favourite animals weren’t all I gathered from friends. I emulated their handwriting, how they dressed, how they spoke. I was desperate for acceptance, but even then the mask chafed.
My favourite character — my favourite, the one I in my actual self truly favoured — in the Baby-Sitters Club books I read was Claudia Kishi. Not because she had candy stashed everywhere in her room (though I with my sweet tooth did like that), but because she wore exactly what she wanted to wear. She made crazy outfits and she was herself. I envied that. I yearned for that. But I felt certain, after years of reinforcement, that were I to be myself, I would be found defective.
Can’t you take a joke?
This was a common refrain of my childhood. Adults are a little more tactful than kids, but it’s not one that has completely gone away. Someone would say something teasing to me, and I, knowing only the literal interpretation of it, took it to heart and felt it. I added layers to my mask as I got older and learned that People Tease Other People In Kindness Sometimes and tried to add layers to my mask, protective stuff, reminders to myself that people do that, but any teasing or gentle fun-poking (and of course, the not gentle fun-poking) hurt. I learned to pretend it didn’t, to laugh along. Problem was, as I got older, I couldn’t tell what was meant as gentle silliness and what was meant to hurt. I’ve never in my life been able to tell the difference.
Social situations became fraught with anxiety. I wasn’t an overly anxious toddler or child, that I remember. I became anxious. In school from about age ten to fifteen, I barely spoke. “Selective mutism,” it’s called. I know that now. Once, when in class with one of my few close friends, I turned to say something to her. A boy looked at me and said, “You can talk?”
I didn’t answer.
Anxiety gave way to intense loneliness and anger. Teen years are turbulent enough, but the mask felt like a part of me by then, and no matter what I did I felt like it wasn’t good enough to hide that I was defective. My outsides were defective enough by peer standards, but I knew my insides were too. That was communicated in myriad little ways on a thousand different days.
I dived headfirst into fantasy literature. I would read the same books over and over and over again. Where other people might branch out, I latched on. My copies of LJ Smith’s Night World series and David Eddings’s Belgariad and Malloreon became so tattered from wear that covers fell off. In those books, people who were Other found their place, they found soulmates who were meant for them, who fit them and accepted them just as they were.
The rest didn’t go away. I kept trying and trying to get my mask right. I did well in school, social anything notwithstanding. I forced my outsides into some semblance of “acceptable.” But sometimes everything would overwhelm me and I would punch myself in my right leg, over and over and over again.
Anxiety and fear became constant companions. And I would withdraw. People who met me in withdrawl mode thought I was a bitch or “cold.” My mother thought I was depressed and wanted to medicate me. I have always felt a core-wrenching aversion to externally applied labels. I have to find things for myself. Depression wasn’t who or what I was, but more and more as an adult I’m finding it’s something I carry with me, slung between the anxiety and fear.
It’s clear to me now that I have been living for thirty years with a very big undiagnosed thing. I know what it is, and I’m not ashamed of it. In fact, it is to me a miraculous thing that, in understanding it, has allowed me to love myself better. When I found it, I found the corners and edges of my mask, the one I’ve spent my whole life building. All of the things I’ve mentioned here clicked into place. I found where I was underneath that mask, an explanation for my Otherness, for the way my brain works. I’m in the early process of trying to seek an official diagnosis for legal/emotional/external validation reasons, but I know I am on the autism spectrum.
It’s only with the support of some very dear friends and my partner (who indeed, loves and accepts me just as I am) that I feel okay saying any of this.
I love my brain and how it works. However, living this long in the mask invited those other things to come along. Anxiety and depression and fear, those things that latched onto me and leech away my confidence and my ambition and my desires. They are very, very common companions for people like me who reach adulthood without explanation or diagnosis.
For Mental Health Awareness Month, my story is more about living with mental illness that comes from a life of struggling to self-treat a developmental disorder. Autism is not a mental illness, but many, many people with autism live with mental illnesses that may or may not result from living in a world not meant to accommodate us or how we function. I have learned how to navigate the world, to lesser or greater extent. My work history shines a lot of light on what I have lived with. I’ve been unable to stay in one job for much longer than 2 years (never longer than 3). I am educated and intelligent and qualified for plenty of things, but I struggle with unpredictable environments and any profession that requires social interaction. I managed as a server for five years, and I can pass in public (and in environments where I am comfortable or surrounded by people I deem safe, like geek conventions), but the mask has grown heavy, and I am weary of it.
I want people to be able to get the help they need, to feel safe enough to ask for it, and to be able to take off their own masks, whatever they may be. I want to create stories about people like me, about whatever facets of me I feel like sharing. I think I live between the lines of my stories, maskless, in every character and universe that comes out of my imagination. All writers do, I think. For me it’s one of the few places I can truly breathe and feel the wind on my bare face.
(I have learned how to metaphor, too.)
I want that for me, and I want that for you.
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