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.
13 thoughts on “An Autistic Perspective #TakeTheMaskOff – Masking, Mental Health, & Burnout”
Really beautiful article loved the photos and how you have such away with words
Great Post! : )
Such great photos! 🙂 I also liked the quote, “The brain is a power hungry organ.” That was a GREAT metaphor to explain the taxing effects of trying keep up the physical and social environment around you. I know the feeling of trying to change masks and how excruciatingly EXHAUSTING it can be, especially when living with an anxiety disorder. Even though I don’t like doing it, my body is absorbing all the sensors around me and then my brain is figuring out to—in a sense– to survive the physical and/or social environment. Being said I have to say when it comes to interacting in physical/social environment, it’s less exhausting when it’s in a/with familiar physical/social environment than with new one.
How neat! I loved being part of the stage crew, whether as a set painter or prop master, I thought backstage was so much more exciting. Later I did perform as a dancer, but experienced similar bouts of nausea, etc. before nearly every performance. If only someone had told me about propranalol for performance anxiety because meditation & CBT didn’t do much. I probably wouldn’t have been able to perform at all if I didn’t love dancing so much. Thanks for another enjoyable (great pics!) and informative post.
I keep learning new things from your blog, Christa! I hadn’t heard of autistic burnout until today.
Two major episodes of anxiety in my life arose in the course of attempting PhDs, which are notoriously stressful things to do anyway. The first time (in the ’90s), I did nothing about it, but dropped out, after spending a while trying to avoid everything and everyone. The second time, I spoke to my supervisor about it, and to my GP and a counsellor, and I came out as trans shortly afterwards (removing one mask I’d been wearing for a very long time!). I haven’t gone back to my studies yet, but hope to do so at some point.
When I went to see my GP, I mentioned all sorts of physical symptoms I’d been suffering, and among other things was told that I probably had IBS (!). And I was put on antidepressants for the anxiety, which seemed to help. (I came off them for a few months, but went back on them recently.)
Anyway, I was just curious about how you could tell the difference between autistic burnout and other kinds of stress-related anxiety. (It took me ages to work out that I’d suffered all my life from episodes of depression and anxiety, but now I wonder whether those could have been something else.) I’m interested to know how your burnout in adulthood led to your autism diagnosis.
Thank you so much for continuing to educate me. x
For me, other health issues come around and I just have NO energy to do things. It comes form doing too much and being in environments that need me to mask often. Everything seems overwhelming and exhausting .
Thank you for another reminder to support those we love to become who they are rather than an “outcome” we desire or demand.
Keep telling it how it is Christa. I don’t mask anymore and I’m so much better for it. I’ve moved departments at work, I’m totally open about being autistic. The comments I get are simply, We the love fact you’re honest, see things differently and are so passionate about what you do. It makes us challenge how we work.
Your description of the Businesswoman mask really resonated with me. I know that I have different masks for different occasions, but I hadn’t really named them, just vaguely understood that there was a mask for each occasion.
“She’s so heavy” is such an evocative description of the way I feel when I am performing. You expressed that better than I’ve been able to.
Masking leading to burnout is something I know about and this may surprise some, as I am a male. However, I was never a typical macho male and as a boy I was horrified by the aggressive of many of my peer group. My breakthrough came aged 17 when I changed school and got to know my first friend who is still my best friend, but while the school was not as rough as the previous, there were certain people my presence annoyed. While many autistic boys presents problems with aggression, I kept much of mine inward and not known as an aggressive problem teenager.