Masking & Anxiety & Living That Pandemic Life

I have 16 drafts in here waiting to be written or finished. When I first set up the blog, I opened the drafts–some only as titles and some with a bunch of notes–because I have so much to research and examine and make sense of, and I make sense of things mostly by writing about them. Each editing pass helps me refine my thoughts and I’m never really done, but you have to hit “publish” sometime. So let’s just say, for all of these topics, “Here’s what I know so far.”

One topic I didn’t have a draft for was masking. It’s just so big that while it seems easy to define, it’s so important, so central to how I live in this world (as I’m now learning, thanks to reading about others’ masking experiences), that I was avoiding it. It makes me feel, to some extent, that my personality is fake and that’s pretty horrible if true–of course I don’t want to examine that. You have my partner Tom to thank for my finally sitting down to work through this one. He keeps suggesting it as a next post, probably for the same reason I’ve been avoiding it. (Although, for the record, he says my personality is not fake.)

At its most basic level, masking (or camouflaging) is the set of tactics I use to make myself not stick out as a social failure. In a larger, more personally important sense, it’s a way to deal with some of my challenges and get them out of the way so I can handle the more difficult or novel ones as they arise. You could think of it as me observing the “normal” folks around me and then either mimicking or suppressing behaviors as needed. Some of it is subconscious and some of it I am fully aware and in charge of. Maybe the subconscious stuff was on purpose when I was younger, I don’t know. It’s said that girls mask younger and better/more than boys do, which is partly why girls are diagnosed at a 1:4-ish rate to boys. We have earlier and different social expectations, even when there aren’t overt gender roles involved. And yes, it really bothers me to think in terms of gender, but that’s the research available to me and I am so new to all of this, and as a (not super girly at all) cis-woman, it applies (mostly) to my situation.

Some examples of masking that I’ve identified in myself (see my previous post on “businessing” for more):

  • Instead of the very visible patterned finger tapping thing I do, I can touch my teeth to my lips and cheek in a pattern or move my toes in a pattern. Doing the pattern with my fingers is most satisfying, and when I’m really nervous or upset it’s hard to not do it.
  • When I was younger, fashion was very important to me. I appreciate fashion as an art now, but back then it was popular fashion I followed. This wasn’t to be popular or impress people, but rather to look like a normal kid, to compensate for being really into math instead of boys. It was a burden on my parents, of course, because buying the cool sweatshirt with the right brand name printed on it was not cheap. And of course I was a brat about it, but I needed it. Same idea for doing sports and wearing the right perfume (it was the ’80s). Everything changed when I had a breakdown/rebuild at 14 and fell into the loving arms of punk.
  • Consuming or at least researching current popular culture, like watching the right TV shows so I could talk about them or listening to at least one song by whomever the kids are talking about. This is another one I do less of these days. At 47, I can play the “I’m old” card.
  • I prepare for social interactions, building a collection of tools by observing others. I don’t always do a great job with these, and I think I may have put more effort into this when I was younger, but I honestly don’t care so much anymore what people think of me. I try to do things like asking people questions, smiling, and making periodic eye contact. (This one is really hard to write, knowing it’ll be out there–friends, really, I do care and I do want to hear all your stories. I just have a hard time putting the words together at the right time to ask you for your stories.)
  • When I need to, I’ll use my “engaged” face. I’ve for real practiced this one in the mirror. It’s a face that says, “I care about what’s happening here. I find it interesting and I’m paying attention to all the things everyone is saying.” It’s a pleasant face and it makes me not look like a jerk who’s tuned out even though I’m pretty tuned out. It’s exhausting.

It’s all exhausting, really, and I’m sure there’s anxiety or fear that it’s not working. I’ve dealt with some degree of anxiety and then exhaustion after social situations, but I didn’t really understand why. I wonder if this will improve now that I’ve made this connection and identified some of these tactics and their causes. Maybe I’ll do less masking and be more myself (whatever that is) in safe situations. Someday, when we’ve got this COVID thing under control, I’ll find myself in social situations again. Maybe I’ll return to the office, maybe I’ll spend time again with family or friends…maybe people will have parties again. Oh man, not parties. (Friends, keep inviting me to your parties–I might show up and not hide in the kitchen or with your cat.)

Since the initial stay-at-home order six months ago, it’s been mostly me, my fella, and the two cats alone in our apartment, and I find it curious that this is also when I made the ASC/spectrum connection. Sure, it was sparked by television references, prompting me to dive into research, but I’ve probably also let go of some of my masking tactics more than ever. There’s no one I’m more comfortable with than Tom, as we’ve been together half my life now. And my cats don’t care as long as I sing them songs and clean their litter box. At the same time, there’s a layer of “this has to be the apocalypse” tension that makes me need my comforts more than ever, so I’m definitely doing more of those self-soothing behaviors. I wonder how much less normal–or quirkier–I’ve slowly let myself be as I lose my social practice. Again, I guess I’ll find out when it’s safe enough to be back out there, mixin’ it up with the outside world.

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