How Does Masking Affect Mental Health?
#TakeTheMaskOff Campaign - Week 3
A few months before I realised I was autistic, my therapist told me that she didn't know why I wasn't making more progress. I'd been seeing her weekly for two years having been struggling with anxiety and depression. While my depression had lifted, my anxiety was as bad as ever. I was thankful for her honesty; I'd seen a handful of different therapists from the ages of 20 to 23 and while all were kind and well meaning, they had also all dismissed me after a while, saying that I seemed "fine". I was not.
It is lucky that I was finally working with someone who could see me struggling, and although she didn't have all the answers, was still persevering. It is also lucky that only a few months went by before I happened upon a documentary about girls with autism, and subsequently was diagnosed. Once I learned that I was autistic, my mental health improved vastly.
For the first time I started to recognise when I was masking. I had assumed that the way I interacted with the world was how everybody else interacted with the world. Apparently not. The more I learnt about myself and the ways in which I was different to most people, the more I was able to understand and accept those differences. I could learn to work around them, work with them, rather than blindly pushing against them because I didn't know they were there. I started to ask my friends and family for clarification when before I would have pretended to understand. I allowed myself to feel happy or excited or scared of things that before I would have dismissed as "silly". When I felt emotions bubble up inside me and threaten to explode out, I began to allow them to surface rather than freaking out and squashing them back down because they felt too big.
All of these things were, unsurprisingly, great for my mental health. Even though masking is still a big part of my life, I am much more aware of when I do it and the toll it takes on me. However, having spent 26 years of my life being undiagnosed, the mask can be pretty difficult to shift. Not only that, but it becomes inextricably linked with your persona. Who am I when I'm not masking around other people? How would I act? Would I even tolerate some of the situations I find myself in? Learning how to unmask and be more true to yourself can be a scary prospect, but apart from that, it can seem impossible to do in the first place.
I am also coming at this from a privileged position: I am white and middle-class and, aside from the fears I have as a woman, don't live my life in fear of persecution for other 'differences', such as being black, for example. The reactions of the public to exhibiting autistic behaviours, such as stimming (see last week's post), is likely to be different for someone with black skin compared to someone with white skin. While I am not in a position to talk about anyone else's experience, it is important to note that if I do try to mask less around others, I am already at an advantage merely because of my light skin. I have fewer repercussions to fear.
While for clarity's sake it can sometimes be helpful to talk of 'mental health' and 'physical health' as separate ideas, they are inextricably linked. The health of your body affects your mental health and the health of your mind affects your physical health. Last week, after suffering from increasingly debilitating fatigue over the past 10 years, I have been diagnosed with M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and under various other guises. I look forward to writing a separate post about this once #TakeTheMaskOff is over, but for now, suffice to say that masking has likely contributed to my development of this illness. It is not only 'mental health' that can be impacted by masking, but 'health' in general.
Speaking of which, I am going to stop there. I am particularly tired at the moment and am trying more than ever not to push myself, given my new diagnosis. It feels unnatural (and, honestly, horrible) for me to leave a blog post before I am ready to finish and without having edited it. However, I'm giving myself a break in a bid to look after my, physical and mental, health.
I had other things to say but they will have to wait for another time. Given that next week's topic is burnout, I am going to go and take care of myself, and hope everyone reading this does the same.