I come from a creative family. My grandparents were part of the local theatre group in our small town when I was growing up. When I was little my mom would help backstage, styling hair and wigs at lightning speed during set changes.
We saw many shows at the small local theatre. Sometimes, on special occasions, we would drive to Austin. Musicals, comedies, Shakespeare, and even puppet shows. When we saw Grease (I was in elementary school), I nearly fell out of my chair laughing uncontrollably, and loudly, when the mooners interrupted the prom with their bare bottoms.
For a long time being on stage wasn’t my passion. I enjoyed being backstage, behind the scenes, helping out with set changes and running errands for the crew and cast, wearing all black, sneaking around quietly and quickly, blending into the background.
The actors fascinated me. It was magical when they got into character because, as I had learned growing up backstage, often the actors were nothing like the characters they played on stage in real life. They were playing a role, working from a script.
It would be a few years before my own self-confidence would grow enough for me to move from backstage to onstage. At age eleven, I tried out for, and landed a role in, my first play with a local theatre group. It was a small speaking role. I learned my lines by reciting them repeatedly while listening to a cassette recording of the play on repeat. By show’s debut, I had not only memorized my lines but also all of the lines for each of the roles in every scene I appeared in. It almost killed me.
Learning my lines, attending rehearsals, and pushing through stage fright every day began to wear on me and my health took a dip. Backstage and at home bouts of nausea, vertigo, pain, and disorientation were hitting more frequently.
It is an unknown sickness that often appears in times of change or stress. I’ve battled off and on throughout my life. I’ve had doctors call it many things – IBS, anxiety, a way to skip class. The autistic community would call it burnout.
Burnouts tend to be caused by stressors in the autistic person’s environment. The stressors can be mental or physical. Burnout, for me, has always come when I was taking on or doing “too much” or from putting myself into situations that are stressful too frequently. There are things that can burn me out quickly and there are things that will burn me out more slowly, like masking – the silent killer.
I’m a chameleon, an expert masker. I can be fun and playful, or serious and attentive. I can sit still, with proper posture, and give the impression of eye contact. There are many masks, many characters that all require varying skill levels to pull off. Some costumes are more elaborate than others.
The Businesswoman is the most work. She dresses professionally, uses proper speech and grammar, makes great “eye contact”, and is confident. She knows how to act professional and polished. The Businesswoman is just a character but she a part of me and she is me. Her costume is the heaviest of all because it has the most pieces, rules, and requires the most energy and effort to pull off. I can’t wear her every day. She’s so heavy.
Masking can be hard on your self-esteem. Things you do naturally seem to irritate or be strange to other people. You learn to become whoever the person in front of you expects you to be. When an autistic person picks up the mask it is often a way to blend in, survive, or avoid abuse and bullying. Shaming comments like “That was weird!” “What’s wrong with you?” and “Are you okay?” become cues not to do whatever it was you were doing just before the comment. So you put it away – not now, not here, not in public. Wait till you’re home alone.
The brain is a power hungry organ. Masking is tiring. An autistic person who is focusing all their energy on not stimming, not making noises, not making the wrong face, trying to figure out when to talk, thinking about their posture and wondering if it is correct, trying to figure out facial expressions, trying to filter out background noise and follow a conversation. Burning up lots of mental energy. Masking from time to time probably won’t hurt most people but continued masking, without rest, day after day, continually draining extra energy adds up.
I’ve hit the burnout phase more than once in my life, but hitting it in adulthood has really been eye-opening (partially because it led me to my autism diagnosis). My most recent burnout has helped me to realize the value and necessity for self-care and forced me to look at myself with more self-compassion. I made my mental and physical health a priority and stopped spending time with people who need me to be the masked version of myself.
For the first time in a long time, I’m starting to feel at ease in my own skin.