Personal Stories, Autism, anxiety

unmasked #TakeTheMaskOff - lifting the lid on a life spent hiding

With the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign focusing on the mental health impact of masking, I am starting to realise that my silent struggles and my success were my mask and so I have decided to share something that I had written to myself last year.

I wrote this piece shortly after I was diagnosed as autistic when I was concerned about how people would react. I was trying to make sense of my life, and didn't know what masking was. Until recently I hadn't thought that I masked anything, I just had silent struggles.

I also know that many Neurodivergent people have had similar struggles with studying, employment and life in general. This is something that I believe can be avoided through more people / educators/ employers embracing Neurodiversity. In unmasking my own silent struggles, I hope to highlight the need for wider acceptance and support of Neurodiversity, even when someone may appear to be successful. It is only when we create a safe space for Neurodivergent thinkers to open up, that people can truly start to unmask.

As for me, I have already started to change things for myself by opening up about being Neurodivergent and so am struggling a little less than when I first wrote the post below.  My goal for myself is to reach a point when I am no longer struggling in silence and don't need to take time out from the social demands of each week. This is when I know that I have truly been able to take the mask off.

People look at me and say but you have been successful. You are university educated, you are employed, and you are part of the leadership team within a firm that provides consultancy to the top financial services firms in one of the top cities in the world.

They look at me and say, you are confident, communicate well, are sociable and a driving force for change.

I am all of these things, and that is what I let most people see. Much of what they see is learnt and takes an enormous amount of effort on my part. But there is a very different story beneath the veil of my success. There is so much more that they don't see, and so much that my success does not tell.

It doesn’t tell you of the feelings of isolation and being ashamed of who I am. The nerd, the geek, the quirky one. How I wanted to see "Revenge of the Nerds" become my reality. How I have dumbed myself down and pretended to be someone that I am not so that I could fit in.

It doesn't tell you of the struggles with getting on with most people,  the books that I poured over trying to change who I am and the crashing disappointment each time I made the same mistakes and got called out for my lack of social skills. It doesn't tell you how deep down inside I think that I lack the likeability factor, and need to change who I am so that others will want to be around me.

It doesn’t tell you about the many trips to counsellors, psychologists & therapists since I was 14 ... to work through my feelings of not being able to keep afloat, the overwhelming racing thoughts that keep me up many nights as I process so many things, and my compulsion to dissect each conversation and event to see how I could have done it differently.

It doesn’t tell you how I skipped most of my lectures because I found it difficult to sit through them in the large lecture rooms, filled with hundreds of other students. I preferred to study on my own so that I could process the information in my own time and way. It also doesn't mention the exams I missed because life had got too much and I was close to quitting everything (including life), and how I bounced back before my retakes.

It doesn't tell you how I prepare for conversations (playing through what people might say, how I should respond, and what I need to ask them), or how I rate myself on my ability to converse with others when attending work functions and when out with friends. This rating is based on how much I talked about myself and my own interests, how much I remember to ask questions, and how many times people get the telling "blank look" on their face before politely making their excuses and heading off to find a more interesting conversation.

It doesn't tell you how much I need to control not just how I respond, but also my facial features and body language, when someone says something that I don't agree with. At times, I am literally having to fight my natural reflexive reactions as I find it difficult to hide what I am thinking. It is exhausting.

It doesn’t tell you about how I hide from people I know when travelling on the train, so I can avoid having to make conversation with them, as I need my quiet time when travelling to/ from work.  Or how I will ignore people sitting around me at work because I struggle to talk to people I don’t know.

It doesn’t tell you of the many moments missed as I sit on the sidelines watching the world move forward, wishing I could throw caution to the wind and join in. Or the fear that I have to overcome each time I have to walk into a room of people I don't know. The hours I have sat outside of somewhere, willing up the courage to go in and join school mums / local support groups / team drinks.

It doesn’t tell you how I become overwhelmed by crowds of people in social events, even in groups of 6/7 when I don’t know them that well.  How my brain becomes paralysed with anxiety and I lose the ability to think and talk. How I need to calm the panic, find a quiet spot to one side or find someone that I can literally stand behind in order to get through the initial part of the event until I feel comforable about joining in. To others, it may be easy, but in that moment making conversation is beyond my capabilities.

It doesn’t tell you of the years I have spent watching others, studying them and trying to work out what their secret is. Or the internal battle I have gone through of not knowing who I really am, my fear of not fitting in, or my feelings of jealousy towards those who make it all seem so easy.

It doesn’t tell you of the many times I have asked “what is wrong with me” and “why am I not likeable”.

It doesn’t tell you of the days when life is too much for me to get out of bed, or the hours each weekend when I isolate myself in order to recover from the social demands of the week.

These are my silent struggles. I have had them for as long as I can remember, and the pressure of struggling silently has become greater over time.I hope that my time for silently struggling is over. That finally I can fully embrace who I am and can learn to live as me.

No guilt, no shame, no trying to be someone that I am not. If I can do this, and make other people understand the many things that they don't see, then maybe, just maybe I can wave goodbye to the anxiety and feelings of not being enough.

If you have an experience you wish to share on Me.Decoded, please get in touch.

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About Helen Needham

Helen is the originator and founder of Me.Decoded. A passionate advocate for Neurodiversity, - diagnosed as autistic in her 40's after a lifetime of feeling like she was on the outside looking in.
  • England