Removing the Mask

Yesterday at the dentist I had a breakdown.

A full on public display of my autism.

He was putting a needle in the roof of my mouth for root canal work, and I was breathing slowly and painfully through it. He told me to keep breathing, to breath with him, and I did but he went too fast.

I lost it.

The mask slipped through my fingers, my tenacious grip failing as I slowed down my breath again to let him finish. When he was done I sat up, and began flapping my hands, rocking, and crying. Apologizing that I had Asperger’s and I just needed a minute.

And after a couple of minutes I lay back down, and let him finish his work for another hour. I walked home, put on the kettle, checked my dogs hadn’t destroyed our back yard, got a glass of water because tea felt it might be too hot, and cried.

I cried my heart out.

I’m a thirty seven year old woman and I’d just openly broke down in my dentist’s office.

But that wasn’t what I was crying about.

It hit me like a brick, a car, a freight train of thought clear and sudden as a shaft of sunlight in a storm.

I wasn’t ashamed.

I was crying because I’d had my melt down in front of strangers and it was okay.

For the last ten months I’d been alone. I spent four months unemployed due to the covid crisis and a new job falling through, writing while applying for jobs before I found one where I could work from home.

I live in Victoria Australia and our premier put us in harsh lock down restrictions to stop covid. I’ve rarely seen other faces that weren’t over the web, twice I’ve seen my husband’s family, and once two friends visited us. No co-workers, no family, nobody else.

But I did spend the last year coming to terms with my Aspergers in a better way than I had in the seven years since I first found out about it. I remember the big click for me was reading Asper Girls after my therapists’ diagnosis and thinking; yes. This is me.

Not everyone took the news well or with much understanding. Many refused to think that it mattered because I was mostly normal, or normal enough as long as I kept my mouth shut. What happened after my diagnosis was a few years of spiraling into a depression that nearly cost me my life. Nobody but my husband and family saw it as a real issue.

Because I was an adult you see; I had a job and could function normally.

No one saw me stim because I’d do it in private or in acceptable manners; clicking pens was a favourite, swinging an office chair from side to side rather than rocking. Any meltdowns were in the car driving home from work screaming until my throat was raw. Staying up too late, listening to the same song over and over at 2am and crying in the dark. I’d get up the next morning and go to work like none of it ever happened. Things I’d done to mask who I was all my life because they were habits already and provided I acted like an ‘adult’.

I wasn’t very good at it. At work in one place they called me “Wikipedia” for all my useless knowledge. I struggled to make friends and still only have a handful from university. I hate social situations and often drank through them just to stop feeling so fucking out of place all the time. It’s taken years to unlearn how to do this, how to undo so much of the behavior that was self-destructive and hurtful.

Then 2020 hit and I was alone.

And I’ve honestly never been happier.

I openly stim at home, have had more meltdowns this year, asked for compression hugs and become so familiar with my own boundaries in the safety of my home I can go outside without a mask (and for the Aspie inside I’ll clarify that the only mask I’m wearing now is the one on the outside of my face because covid).

I tell people new people I know that I have Aspergers, including for the first time my employer.

But having a minor meltdown at the dentist was the first time in public with strangers I didn’t know. Everyone was cool about it, the dentist left for a minute to let me breath, the nurse stuck around and got me water and tissues (she was so lovely about it), and they just accommodated me.

That won’t always happen. People will probably get unsettled, distance themselves, or refuse to take me serious or think I warrant the space. I’ll find myself leaving situations where I don’t feel safe; I know all this.

I’m holding onto my mask, but I’m choosing now when to put it on. It’s not sitting under my skin as the default lie I’ve lived my whole life. I’m not hiding who I am or what I think or how it affects the world around me.

That’s why I cried; because for the first time in my life I could be 100% me and not be ashamed of my behavior.

I can’t promise I’ll always feel like this, but if you do please know that you are not alone.

There are things we do to fit our amorphous shapes into the proverbial square holes, and much of it makes us extraordinarily unhappy.

This isn’t perfect, and it may not last, but its freeing in his own way. For the first time I feel like the person inside is okay I can work on the person outside, and my health and fitness, without being made to feel ashamed for being clumsy or unathletic. I don’t fit into boxes and wasn’t picked for teams but I know who I am and what I can and can’t do and for once, just this once, its OK.

I wanted to finish this blog post by saying; I get it if you can’t.

It’d be easy to gloss this over with some positive bullshit about “you be you” but it doesn’t always work like that and I know. I’ve been there, I’ll probably be there again one day. But I can tell you that coming to terms with it, to accept myself for who I am, was freeing.

If you can try, if you can’t… one day I hope you can let go, to have the space to be yourself. I’m wishing that so hard for you right now.

I wasn’t easy, or without trauma, but I do feel like a part of me for once has unclenched. I can just sit here, without a mask, and be me.

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