Masking: Discarding the Masks

I walk down a path lined with huge masks, again seeing no one.
I am alone in this world of the psyche of my creation.
The path leads me to several strange ancient buildings.
I choose one and walk inside.

It strikes me, as I walk these ancient corridors, that people have been wearing masks for eons, not only in theatre to tell their ancient tales but also to fit into whatever society they were born.
We all adapt to survive.
And that’s what masking is to neurodivergent people, an adaptation to lessen the likelihood of being singled out as not fitting in.
It’s a conscious or unconscious suppression of our natural autistic responses when in the company of others.

I’ve always been fascinated with faces and masks, but not the psychological kind.
I made masks, painted them and used them in theatre.

But the masks in this world of the psyche are psychological, not physical.

Down halls of masks fixed on wall panels I wander, overawed by their beauty.

I look around, wondering if someone will arrive to direct me, but I see no one, except the masks.
They grow more alive looking, the deeper into this place I go, and then …
they begin to awaken.

They say nothing, just watch me.
And I’m speechless.
What do you say to a mask stuck on a wall that stares into the depth of your soul?
I have no idea, so I rush on, feeling their gazes on my back.

One doorway stands open.
And a group of people turn as one and stare at me.
I wave rather pathetically and say, ‘Hi.’
But there is no response.
Their masks, however, are out of this world.
Some of them look like real faces.
But I know they aren’t.

We are clever, us adult autistics, skilful in creating masks that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

The door slams in my face, plunging me back into the dim light of the interior.
So what, you might ask, is the problem with masking our oddities?

The trouble is that – other than hiding who you really are – it takes a lot of energy, and if you do it a lot, it can lead to serious mental and physical health problems, like depression and anxiety.

I figure that if you can take your mask off when you’re alone or with family and close friends, you’ll probably be okay.
But if we don’t know we’re masking, we can’t take it off, and our elaborate unseen mask may weigh heavily on our psyche.

I was unaware of the concept until recently.

Now I have to ask myself, is the ‘me’ I think I am just a mask?

I don’t think so, but I have to look closely, for if I do have a pseudo self, I’ll have to strip it away and find the real me beneath.

I know I mask my autistic traits in social situations.
Not to do so would be social suicide, so I’ll not be taking that mask off in public! 
But I don’t wear it any other time.
Or do I?

My urge is to share my passions, you see.
But it overwhelms others when I do.
They think I only care for myself, but I am merely enthusiastic, and my words flow like an unstoppable torrent, causing their eyes to glaze over.
They lose interest long before I’m done, then walk away and never return, so I keep a lid on my passions, being careful not to share too much.
Or too deeply, or for too long.
I stifle my urge in order to conform to social expectations.
How can I not?

Neurotypical people don’t like it when I skip the boring small talk, get straight to the point and seek some meaningful topic through which to connect.
So I mask my natural communication style and play the social-skills game.
I know to ask them about themselves!

I can make eye contact because I know it’s necessary (though I’d rather not a lot of the time).
And I can nod and smile as required.
And I prepare well, reminding myself what I need to do and what I can expect of any gathering.
And my repetitive movements are so small now that most won’t notice them, just a bit of finger flicking. Lots of people do it, right? (Apparently, they don’t.)

I consider it a light mask,
one I can take off at will.

And I’ve learned not to flap my arms around, though it feels better when I allow myself to do so.
It’s hard to stop my eyes growing extra wide with excitement, but I can do it if I have to.
People think it all a little mad if I allow myself to do these things that are part of my natural exuberance – and if I want to be taken seriously, I mustn’t appear crazy.

But somehow, despite my efforts, I never managed to truly hide my weirdness,
and I accepted that in my twenties.

I revelled in my weirdness – or so I thought, but I still used my social-skills mask.
I do want to have friends, and I do try,
but if I unmask my autistic traits in public, it makes most people uncomfortable.
They don’t know how to categorise me, and most people need to do that,
which is why it can help to own a label.

‘Oh, that’s why she’s a bit odd. She’s neurodivergent.’ they might say –
if they know the meaning of the word!
‘Harmless. Just a bit quirky. Nothing to worry about.’ 

I never felt I belonged in this world.

It’s disheartening to feel rejected all the time, to stress about social events, to feel like a fake because you can’t talk about what you’re really passionate about for fear you won’t be able to stop.
And always putting the brakes on yourself is so exhausting!

But I’m very good at it, though.
Which is why I didn’t think I was autistic.
I hid it so well, I hid it from myself.
Now I’m waking up, and I’m not sure I like what I see.

Am I seeing myself through rose-coloured glasses, believing I have no mask other than social skills because I don’t want there to be any?
I don’t want to have been fooling myself all these years.

I thought I had no masks,
no obvious persona I adopted, at least.
Social skills learned, of course,
my preferred mode of communication moderated.
Out of necessity because this is a neurotypical world,
and most people find me too intense.
But I refused to be less,
so I set myself apart,
moved to the forest where I lived off grid away from the demands of society.
No social gatherings.
No need for masks.
Worked for myself.
No need to satisfy bosses.
Make my passion my livelihood.
No need for soul-destroying work.
And yet …
And yet …
I sense I have other masks,
but I’m not sure I want to look.

I hide away from the world.
Is that not a mask of a kind?
If it is, it’s a useful one, and I’ll not be ripping it off and rushing out into the world.
I peek out occasionally,
and I’m not afraid to go out.

I think staying away from the world is a support for me, not a mask.
There’s no pretence, no stopping me from doing anything I’d naturally want to do.
On the contrary, living far from others feeds my soul.

But my behavioural modifications, learned young, have restricted my expression of joy and made me fearful of offering my art to the world.

Perhaps the visage I wear to suit others has hidden my real face in far deeper ways than I’d thought.

I glimpse my unadorned face. 

And in the light of my new awareness, I feel something cracking.
I must climb out from behind these masks, escape their prison.

I practice spontaneous expression, allowing myself to truly be me.
I’m like a child giggling and declaring, ‘Look at my daggy pants and funny socks.’

‘Showing off’ they called it, speaking of ego-driven attention seeking.
But no, for to ‘show off’ there must be an ‘I’, a ‘me’, to do the showing.
But there is no such person in that moment.
Just spontaneous joy delighting in life, in being alive,
amused at the vagaries of existence.

The mask preventing my expressions of joy begins to flake away.

I donned the don’t-show-off mask for social purposes, but it’s stuck to my face and become a barrier to living a life that fully expresses who I am

I’m grateful for the assistance the mask has given me, but it’s time to remove it – until I need it for some occasion where I wouldn’t feel safe without it, of course.
When I feel hesitant to share my art, I’ll talk to the don’t-show-off mask.
‘Thank you for helping me for all these years, but I don’t need you right now,’ I’ll say as I lovingly set it aside

I’ve been feeling the fear of sharing too much and doing it anyway for decades. Perhaps, in time, I’ll no longer need to reach for the mask.

Not only do they hide our true face, but they also present faces that do not really exit,
and masks lies beneath masks, layer upon layer, growing ever more subtle and harder to find as each layer is peeled away.

Close examination reveals a mask so subtle it’s transparent, hard to see.

I’m shocked to discover my ‘together’ persona,
the one that tries to convince myself as well as others that I have the answers, that I know how to be and practice it always.
It’s been my protection for a long time.
‘I’m okay.’
Yes, I am,
but sometimes I’m not.
And that’s okay.

I’m okay and not okay at the same time because the messy stuff will always be there;
it’s part of being human.
But awareness watches, and it’s okay with that too.

I don’t have to pretend to be a good little Buddhist anymore.
I’m no longer in a cult that gave coveted teachings only to those who proved their devotion in the way they behaved, the words they parroted.

I can take off that mask and find my own words and my own way, and I don’t have to have it all together.

I don’t have to pretend to be more than I am … or less than.

Removing my I-have-it-all-together mask is a huge relief.

I don’t have to have all the answers.

I don’t have to be aware all the time.

I don’t have to be clever or good at anything or inspiring or wise.

I don’t have to be anything.

Or do anything.

I don’t even have to be helpful!

And I can have every emotion that rises in me.
And it’s all okay.
Even the painful ones.
Perhaps, especially those.

Yes, I can love myself without my masks – the pretty and the ugly.

I walk backwards through my life, remembering how it was to be me, before I became not me, before speech turned everything into concepts, and my attempts to share my perception of the world were met with worried frowns.

‘No. God is not in everything; God made everything,’ they told me.

It seemed that my very way of perceiving the world was wrong.

‘I feel their pain,’ I said.

‘No, you cannot. For they are they, not you.’

Not me.

Apparently, everything was not me.

‘Rocks aren’t alive; they’re just rocks.’

To see it otherwise was just too strange.

No one understood.

Except my father, long gone now.

But it was our secret.
He knew it wasn’t something to talk about.

No one else seemed to see the world and everything in it as one living beingness.

So like everyone else, I pretended to be separate; it was easier that way,

Easier not to feel their pain.

And so I wore the mask of ordinary perception which obscured the nakedness of reality.

I glimpsed it only in rare times when, alone, I allowed the mask to slip.

I clothed my perception in this and that, me and not me.

Until two decades of meditation pared away the mask, and I discovered the familiarity of my naked perception, unadorned with concepts,
Where everything is not, and yet is.
Where all is luminous, alive with presence, arising from a field of endless open awareness – even rocks – and there is really no ‘I’ to be one with it all.
We just are as we are.
All one.
A moment in time and then another,
and even that is an illusion for there is only ever one moment, this one, now.

I cannot grasp the edges of this mask of normal perception and rip it away
for it has fused to my face, indistinguishable from the ‘me’ I think I am.

But in the light of my loving awareness of its existence,
it dissolves, and in its absence, I am faced with the living beingness of everything.

In oneness, I am earth.

I am water.

I am fire.

I am air.

I am all and I am nothing
 and there is no contradiction between the two.

I don’t have a philosophy.

I don’t have answers.

I’m not wise.

I’m no expert.

I have nothing to offer the world,

Except myself


And that has to be enough because that’s all I have,
and I’m done with masking.

The doors appear again and the Gatekeep along with them.

He doesn’t need to speak.
I know what he wants.
I have nothing other than that to give.
So I hand over the necklace of wisdom that sparkles with awareness.
Without the I-have-it-all-together mask, it’s easier than I thought it would be.

As I walk toward the door to the world of being, sweeping waves of energy swirl around me and rip away my clothes.
I step naked through the door.