Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer.
I hope everyone has had a good week. It’s been a tricky few days for me, with a couple of positive things, but some real difficulties as well. I’ve had a hard reminder this week about how deeply I am struggling with anxiety, and how my self-confidence has been eroded. Bizarrely enough for the circumstances, I do feel optimistic for the future, in the sense that I feel I can get better. The process will undoubtedly have its ups and downs, but I feel that, given time, I can make it.
I’m on sick leave from my day job. In my current mental state, it’s not feasible for me to try to do my job. I need to recover; as I mentioned in last week’s blog, I need gluing back together.
One thing that helps me relax and reduce my anxiety levels is, unsurprisingly, peace and quiet. This week has seen the opposite. A few months ago, my wife and I booked a firm to come and fit us a new bathroom. And guess when we booked it in for? That’s right, this week. The noise, mess and disruption has been diabolical. Various problems have arisen, such as a water leak which resulted in a gush of water from the bathroom into the downstairs loo one evening. There have also been issues with installation of an extractor fan. The whole job was planned to take one week, but is now going to run over into the following week. And to cap it all, we were also supposed to be having a full refurb on the downstairs loo, but some difficulties have emerged with the supply of the new toilet. I can do without this stuff. Maybe NT people can deal with this, laugh it off, and roll with the punches. I can’t. As a result, my anxiety is up to eleven. There is a part of me that can step back from it all and coldly assess the situation and know that it will all end up ok. But the frustration and disruption to routine and peace trigger a visceral response in me that is verging on intolerable.
Well, this is disappointing. As it stands, I have written nothing for the novel this week. It’s not conducive to writing when you’ve got all the noise and mess of the work being done in the house. Ideally, I need complete silence and no interruptions to be able to write fiction; the level of concentration I have to employ demands it. I remember hearing that the famous writer Stephen King listens to loud rock music when writing. This boggles my mind. How on earth can anyone concentrate on writing a novel while being bombarded with noise? Maybe this is just an example of the difference between an autistic mind and a NT mind.
I will be back on track, I know, but not being able to work on the novel just now is a nightmare for me.
The Aut Life
I’ve mentioned previously that reading, and getting out in the fresh air for a walk, are two things that improve my mental state, and should contribute to my recovery from the pit of depression I’ve found myself in recently. The noise at home this week has also meant I’ve not been able to read as much. On top of that, I’ve not been able to get out for a walk as much either, just snatching a few short spells occasionally.
There has, however, been one really bright spot for me this week; it was forced upon me, but has nevertheless been a positive: With the bathroom being out of order while the work is being done, I needed somewhere to get a shower. My wife has been using her mother’s house for this, and I could have done the same. Instead, I decided I would sign up at the local gym, and use their showers in the evening, and hopefully get some exercise while there.
Monday night, I stepped inside a gym for the first time in months. My anxiety was sky-high. I forgot half the things I meant to take with me, and didn’t do any exercise, but at least I conquered my anxiety, and got in the building. I did have a shower, but in my state of heightened anxiety, I left my new bottle of shower gel in the gym when I went home. I’ll never see that again!
Tuesday night, I went again and did a little exercise before my shower, and the same every night since. I can do this. It’s stressful, it’s difficult, but I can do it. The bizarre thing is, some years ago, I used to be at the gym all the time, and was extremely physically fit. I stopped going to gyms due to an ongoing physical health problem which has since happily been resolved, but it did drag on for several years, and my physical fitness declined drastically as a result. But yes, I used to work out all the time. How did I manage that, considering I was just as autistic back then as I am now, with all the same anxieties? How could I do it? Well, the answer to that question brings me nicely to the next segment of this week’s blog, and a discussion about something called masking.
The Aut Files
What is masking?
I spent almost thirty years working in a management capacity for one of the largest retail businesses in the UK. I worked in various roles across the northern region of the company. Being in a management role for that extended length of time, obviously, there were some ups and downs. But I’d like to think that for the most part, my performance, and the results I delivered were first class. Yes, a couple of time I hit low spots – it was nearly thirty years, after all. But overall, I did good, and I have a string of performance reviews that evidence that. One of my bosses in the company once told me that they’d given me the nickname Scud. He said it was because I was like a Scud missile; if the business had a problem that needed sorting, they knew they could point me at it, and I’d blow that problem up (he meant, I solve problems quickly, with solutions that tend to stand the test of time, if maintained).
The last few years I was in that business were somewhat tainted by a decline in both my physical and mental health. I struggled badly for an extended period of time. It seemed that the more my health deteriorated, the more my previous successes were forgotten. I eventually got an answer and solution to my physical health issues not long after leaving the company. But my mental health problems declined further, eventually resulting in the crisis that led to my diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
When I first began to wonder if I might be autistic, I hardly knew a thing about what autism was. I was very much in the realm of people who associated it with Rain Man type figures. How could I be autistic? I had held down a decent, challenging job for nearly thirty years! I was married! I write books! I had a first class degree in literature! I had friends… well, I used to have friends. I wasn’t autistic! For a start, I hate maths!
Then during the nineteen-month wait between referral and diagnosis, I did a little research, and began to think maybe I was autistic after all…
Before meeting the wonderful woman who became my wife (one of the many reasons she’s wonderful is that she accepts me for who I am), I had a string of failed relationships. In fact, I was starting to realise I did not have the ability to maintain any type of relationship for an extended period of time. While I always had reasons I could point to for any relationship ending, the track record spoke for itself: girlfriends, friends, work colleagues, family members… either I stopped being able to tolerate people, or they went off me; occasionally due to some kind of meltdown from myself. My track record of maintaining any kind of relationship is abysmal, by any measure. At some stage, I seemed to become a master of upsetting people without realising how or why, and pushing them away from me.
Then there is my anxiety. Through all my life, I have been unable to join in with certain things due to feelings of anxiety and not belonging. As an adult, I began to engage more, but it was at a cost. I would tell myself my anxiety was stupid, and I just needed to man up and get a grip. That didn’t make the anxiety go away, so I relied on alcohol, aggression, and a lot of front to get by. A colleague of mine once said to me that he thought I was supremely self-confident and assured. I replied that I spent most of my life quaking inside. I don’t know why I was so honest with him; he caught me just at the right moment, I guess. But in any case, I don’t think he believed me. He was incredulous. The truth was that I was getting through every day walking a tightrope of aggression and panic. I was often described as driven, and like a dog with a bone when I was tackling a challenge. Meanwhile, however, I would back out of social events because I just couldn’t face it, or I’d have to get drunk to be able to cope with the situation. When I realised I was relying on alcohol too much, I went teetotal for five years, and threw myself into the gym every night. But even going to the gym was a nightmare; I’d get stressed out if I had to wait for equipment, or if the gym was too busy, or too noisy. Many of these types of things, it should be said, that other people seemed to cope with just fine, left me stressed, angry and belligerent.
In short, I was living a lie. Outwardly, I was successful at work, a driven and talented individual who got a first class honours degree in three years while holding down a full-time management position and writing a novel. My string of failed relationships had resulted in me being cast as a ladies man, which suited me because it hid the truth. I went to football matches, and went to pubs and drank beer. Sometimes I got into fights. Some people saw me as a lad’s lad. Some people saw me as an intellectual. Some people saw me as a model professional. Inside, I was a panic-driven wreck. I felt no one understood me. I didn’t know how to interact with people in situations where the rules weren’t clearly defined: In the workplace, the rules were clear enough that, even though I felt uncomfortable, I knew what I should be doing and saying. But in more freeform situations, where the rules and expectations were fluid, like social events, I was lost. In truth, I felt like I simply didn’t fit anywhere. I was working hard to cover it up and to appear normal, but it was exhausting me and something had to give. Eventually it did, of course. No one can live like that indefinitely.
It turns out that my experience of living this lie is far from unique. It’s called masking, which is a method many autistic people use, either consciously or (like me for so many years) unconsciously in order to function in the world.
Masking is what it sounds like: It’s covering up who you really are, to give a different impression to the world. With autism, masking isn’t about covering your face up. It’s about taking on certain behaviours, often mimicking what you’ve seen and heard from other people, and / or about repressing certain behaviours that might not be seen as socially acceptable. If you’ve been bullied as an autistic child for stimming*, then as a young adult, you might start repressing that behaviour so you don’t stand out, for example. So, masking is partly repressing what comes naturally to you, and partly performing an act… every single day, just to fit into a world that feels alien to you. There is no scenario in which maintaining this behaviour for years and years can be good for mental wellbeing. The autism co-morbidities of depression and anxiety might not always be caused by masking, but they are certainly grossly exacerbated by it.
What is particularly intriguing for me is trying to understand when masking is conscious, and when it is unconscious. As I described above, I mentioned to a work colleague on one occasion that I always felt like I was quaking inside. But quite often, in fact for most of the time, before and after that confession, I seemed to convince myself that wasn’t the case. Looking back, I seemed to have developed the ability to take my anxieties and frustrations and put them into some kind of mental box, sealed off from everything else, so that I could pretend even to myself that I was “normal”. In other words, I was using masking on myself; I was self-masking, building a narrative of my life that said I’d had a lot of relationships because I was a ladies man, that I couldn’t get on with other people because they weren’t as smart as me, that my aggression was justified because some people are dicks, and so on and on and on.
The realisation of the truth about my life did not come all at once; there was no Road to Damascus moment. Instead, it’s been a painful, slow awakening. Everything I thought I knew about my life was a lie, a mask. Maintaining the mask has taken a huge toll on my mental and emotional health. Now, I am undertaking a process of learning to be the real me, being able to function as an autistic person, being myself in a world that still doesn’t fit.
*Stimming is a behaviour associated with autism. The word is derived from self-stimulation. Types of stimming vary, from stereotypical autistic behaviours such as flapping hands, rocking, and self-harming, to more generic fidgeting, and other repetitive behaviours, such as touching certain objects or types of objects. Stimming may be conscious or unconscious, and can be an obsessive behaviour. Many autistic people take great comfort from their stimming, and it is now recognised as a way of relieving stress.
That’s all for this time. I hope you all have a great week. When I talk to you next, I hope to have made some significant progress on the novel, and to have a working bathroom! Until then, take care.