I like to compartmentalize how I spend my time and who I spend it with. I see some friends regularly and other rarely. But in my mind I have friends who fit different aspects of my life. I struggle to integrate all these different aspects into the whole. One of the fall outs of this is that I don’t make the connections that I could make. I keep people apart because I don’t know how to be around two or more people, when I am so different with each of them.
This being different around different people is known in the autistic community as ‘masking’. It is an unconscious process, in which the autistic individual behaves in similar ways to the person that they are interacting with. One of the main difficulties of being someone who masks is that you lose sight of who you are, if you ever knew. Am I the person I am when I am with my closest friends or with my colleagues? Am I both? How does that work?
My ‘self’ may be unrecognizable to someone if they see out out of context. This has always be the way as I have kept my life compartmentalized since high school. Work colleagues can be friends, but I like to keep different friends apart. Before she died, Jane insisted on throwing me a birthday party. She wanted to invite my parents, her friends and mine and some friends of friends. Not my idea of fun, but she really wanted to do it, so I acquiesced.
I am pleased I did, because it brought her so much joy, even though she wasn’t well enough to do all the preparation that she wanted to. Friends helped me get it ready. I struggled with having such disparate people together in one place. Until yesterday, the first time I had disparate people in one room, since my birthday party, was Jane’s funeral. I didn’t really talk to people at the funeral, though I did cry and I did thank everyone for coming, one by one.
I am not sure that I understand how people truly connect to themselves. And if I am not truly connected to myself, if I am not sure who I am, how can I be authentic with other people? I know that other autistics also experience this disconnect from self and others. We talk about it, among ourselves. I have rarely heard a non-autistic autism professional talk about this without pathologizing aspects of it.
The closest I can come to explaining masking to non-autistics, is it’s like being on your ‘best behaviour’ when you are at a job interview and then being relaxed with your best friend. You are two different people in each of those situations, and neither is completely forced or conscious. There are elements of behavioural choice in each, but also instinctive elements. For me, I don’t even know I am behaving differently until someone from one context sees me in another.
It is not just ‘work’ vs ‘play’ contexts, it is a language and a stimulant context. Like most people, I change if I drink alcohol etc. I don’t drink often. Maybe once or twice a year, one or two drinks. I don’t like the lack of control that alcohol brings, although when I was younger I loved the way alcohol minimized my crippling self-containment. When I lived in other countries, depending on the language, my ‘self’ dramatically changed.
Although fluent in French, both dreaming and thinking in French, I couldn’t always find the words I needed and once described pebbles as tiny stones. But, and it was a beautiful but, I found being social really easy in French. Even in Dutch, I found it easier to interact with strangers. In English, I am shy around new people, the warm bubbly me lost inside the social anxiety.
And yet at work, in any language, I am strong and confident. Many people make assumptions about who I am based on the tiny aspect of me that they are familiar with. Then when they see a different side, they can get confused or more usually try to get rid of an unusually open vulnerability that I have mistakenly shared. Long term good friends are different, they have known me long enough and seen me in enough contexts to know I can be both strong and vulnerable, kind and hard. That even though I make business decisions with my head, I still have a good heart and use that when making business policy.
This post was called connections. For the the first time ever, I rewrote this post a number of times, eventually deleting the important parts. I can’t share them. I have always been a very private person. What I share are aspects that are relatively public already, things that won’t affect anyone else. Stories that belong solely to me, or were shared by Jane and I. Even then, I respect Jane’s privacy to only share things that she had already shared a number of times.
For the first time I wanted to write something that was a part of other people’s stories, as well as mine. I just couldn’t do it. In some ways my connections are created over time with threads that weave together until they become strong. The threads are tenuous initially and can fray with anxiety. I forget I have anxiety, until it slaps me from the inside out. This time the anxiety deleted the words, repeatedly. So I let it, I sat with the anxiety and I was ok with not being ok.
It doesn’t mean I won’t be ok going forward. Everything changes. It just means that I am learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Whether that discomfort comes from within or from those around me. I am not perfect, but very few people are. But what I learnt this week, is that whilst I am willing to admit when I am wrong, or when I have done the wrong thing, not everyone is and the consequences can last for a long time.
So please, if you have hurt someone apologize and mean it. If they chose not to accept your apology, that is their right, move on with grace and understand that they do not need to forgive you, if you were in the wrong. I loved my wife, we were together 14 years and each had our fair share of being wrong. Neither of us liked to apologize, and we each said ‘sorry’ in very different ways. But before Jane, I didn’t understand the power of sorry, only the power and pain of hurt. The hurt of knowing I messed up or of being on the receiving end of hurt.
I have been missing Jane more intensely recently, and friends have responded in very different ways, all appreciated. Thank you Jane for teaching me that a meant apology can heal some of the self-created hurt of messing up and if accepted has the power to help both people move forward with grace. Arohanui Jane.