As my narrow section of the world opens once more, as vaccines skyrocket and the world dives back into social freedoms, I can only contemplate on thing.

I sat behind a closed door for twenty two months, and found who existed within.

Without the daily pressure to pretend. Without the daily demand to be someone else.

The mask I’d worn all my life was so ingrained when I could finally remove it, it tore my skin. Rivets of loss lay on my face, but it wasn’t age, it was youth. It was the person shuttered up from years before everyone told me I was wrong. A kid, a teenager, a confident woman who wasn’t quite in control, but on wobbling feet began to take the first footsteps into who I really was inside.

I didn’t have to bend to someone’s words, tone, body language to find my place.

I could uncrumple from the perpetual cowering.

To borrow from Sir Terry Pratchett’s world, I felt like Carrot after he first leaves the mine. A 6ft warrior crammed into a mine fit for dwarfs.

It wasn’t just the hunch that had to fade, or the proverbial fear of hitting my head all the time. It was to be reacquainted with who I really was, and in all of this I feel for my partner most of all.

We’d known I was autistic of years. We’d known there was another ‘me’ beneath who everyone expected me to be.

I was pleased to find she was far more confident than I’d ever allowed myself to be.

But by gods was she sensitive.

Meltdowns, temperamental, OCD, twitchy, social cues learnt but tendency for forgetting them, saying unexpected things, finding a super light sense of humor rather than dark, hyperfocus to extremes, obsessions with patterns, games, and a voice.

I’d never heard anything quite like it from myself before. When I had to speak at work on zoom, people listened. When I talked to authors as an editor, my partner came to me afterwards and while he never normally listens, said I’d intimidated him with how professional I’d sounded.

Like I knew what I was doing.

For once.

And I did.

This is the beautiful thing making me cry and why I’m filled with a deep and endless dread. I don’t want to go back to the 9 to 5 grind and social norms to find that mask slipping back beneath my skin. I had to break parts of myself to find out who lay beneath, and I can’t imagine losing her again for other people’s expectations.

So, when everyone says we’re going to go back to the way things used to be, I’m going to respond with quiet sweetness; no we’re fucking not.

Maybe it was fine for you. Maybe you missed the social piranha that is the workplace, social groups, and the constant noise, expectations, and chaos, but I sure as fuck didn’t.

I didn’t miss snide remarks about my weight.

I didn’t miss being forced into loud and uncomfortable spaces.

I didn’t miss people ignoring me because I hadn’t had time to prep what I wanted to say.

I didn’t miss the way everyone claims it’s a professional environment where all that matters is the work, when all along beneath the surface lies a social complexity I never understood, and it had nothing to do with the “work.”

I didn’t miss the social groups where I drank to get rid of my nerves and ended up making matters worse for myself, or sat there in silence wondering what the hell to say, even to people I’d known for over ten years, because familiarity didn’t take away how fucking awkward I constantly felt even in “safe” spaces.

I didn’t like the person that was on that mask. Sometimes I hated her. Getting rid of her was the most freeing experience of my life.

I’m not going back to that. I’m in a place I can be heard. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t have a lot of friends who endured the cut off of lock downs, and those that stayed are coming to know and accept me as I’ve always wanted to be. I like what I do in the work enviroment, I’m good at, and I work very hard to make sure that is the case because I like it.

That’s not true for everyone.

So, while the rest of you go about your day, remember this; someone you work with is trying not to have to put the mask back on, and you might be the cause for why they pick up that rustic tool, and force it back beneath their skin, all the while crying where you’ll never see.

And… my dear ones. My brothers and sisters and colleagues. Those of you who got to hide at home, and learn how to let go, and not hurt when you did it; I am sorry.

I’m sorry lock downs are lifting.

I’m sorry workplaces are going to make you put those masks back on, make you pretend to be someone you aren’t. That those social groups are going to return and maybe they won’t feel quite as safe for you as they used to, but that you still love them and want to go anyway.

But let me tell you something; there are workplaces that exist where you don’t have to do that. Where I can say to my boss; its better for me to work from the safety of my home. I can come in, but I do not want to do this every day because it will hurt my mental well being to do so. There are friends who will be left behind but others who stay and you get to know a whole other side of them too, or new friends you get to meet for the first time and know they’ll be with you for years to come.

And they get it.

They might not understand the complexity, or even in an emotional sense. But they understand I have a disability that is affected by being around a lot of people and thus far, have allowed me to continue to stay where I am, and be that slightly anxious autistic person. I have a place where I am safe.

This isn’t what everyone is experiencing, and for those of you that aren’t I’m so very fucking sorry.

We have to pay rent, pay bills, pay debts, and a job often means putting that mask back on.

We have things we love, people too, that means stepping outside of our comfort zones sometimes.

I hope you keep the part of you that you learned to be while we were locked down. I hope you keep the new you found in the relief of constant isolation from outside expectations. Please hold onto that part of yourself. Make a point of reacquainting often in the quiet so they’re never lost again.

Above all, remember that I love that part of you. That it is the most beautiful, heart wrenchingly honest part of you that deserves to be savored. And one day, if you want, I want to meet that part of you.