I don’t know what is typical.

I have no idea what’s typical. I had a really great job interview today and, while I’m feeling energized by having participated in some invigorating conversations and also hopeful at the prospect of finding myself in a new job that actually values me, I am already dreading the crash I know that’s going to hit tomorrow. Or the next day. Or, most likely, Sunday, when I’m supposed to be spending time with my family. Is foreseeing myself in a low place, resentful of the laughter and general noise around me, resenting my family, is picturing this more likely to make it happen?

I feel like I put on my corporate persona as a costume. There’s definitely some code-switching that happens: I inject the corporate jargon I know their looking for, being careful to repeat the same buzzwords that I heard them mention and also some industry synonyms so they know I understand what they’re talking about when they use the buzzwords and not just parroting the language back to them. But there’s more to it than that, even. I make sure to widen my eyes and make plenty of eye contact so they know I’m not only attentive and engaged but confident. I widen my mouth and make sure to smile a lot. I keep my pitch low while keeping my tone more upbeat and also making sure to avoid up-speak where I can, intentionally ending sentences definitely to convey more confidence and let them know definitely it’s their turn to speak. I lean forward as much as I can but not too much. Careful not to play with my hands but also not remain so still as to be unnatural. I avoid negative-sounding language but still remain honest because I am not conning anyone. These are all conscious choices but it’s not an act as much as it is camouflage. I know that I belong here but I need to do all these ritualistic things to curate my appearance so that you also know I belong here.

Does everyone do this? Is everyone thinking about themselves in this way at all times while still remaining attentive and engaged enough to answer questions intelligently and also remember to ask the questions I need to ask? Is this masking?

It’s not like these behaviors come naturally to me. I’ve been in the corporate world for 16 years now and in that time I’ve had countless conversations with managers about these specific behaviors. I realize now but didn’t know then that I was receiving feedback but I would hear that my tone was too flat. I used to confuse the words effect and affect until I heard so often that I had a “flat affect” that these two words fell into four discrete boxes with axes based on vowel and part of speech, with the vowel “a” intersecting with “noun” to describe my general demeanor of what I was told was disinterested, bored, disengaged, annoyed, serious, and even angry, among a whole host of descriptions that all came as a shock to me, thinking I’d been enthusiastic and cheerful. I was lucky enough to have the privilege of a corporate job and a caring manager who would brainstorm with me on ways I could adjust my presentation so as not to be misinterpreted.

I meant to only reflect for a little while but it feels like I’ve been typing for hours. All I wanted was to record this experience. In a way, I have been thinking about this as recording evidence of my autism so I can later show anyone who says “but you seem so outgoing” or “you seem so social” or “you’re too successful” or I don’t know what they say but I feel invalidated all the time and I sort of want to record these things so I can come back and say See? Is this enough for you? Can you finally see me for who I am? But then that feels disingenuous to me so I feel like I also have to adequately record my doubt. If it turned out that I did not have autism, how would I feel? I’ve only recently come to latch onto this diagnosis because it feels so much like home but it’s not the first time, is it? I was convinced I had Bipolar II at one point because my depression had been so cyclic. Looking back, I think my depression has been heavily influenced by my environment and as my mood has dipped I can simultaneously track where my environment has shifted to be less supportive. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like a fraud. And maybe I am a fraud. And maybe that would be ok but I need to figure it out.

What is abundantly clear is that I need to get out of my head and get out of my house and be around other people, neurodiverse or otherwise. But it would be nice to also be cultivating a sort of tribe or community or chosen family, too. That feels too big for me. I guess we’ll see.

The mask is melting.

Trauma. I picture little baby me trying to get his needs met and retreating inside himself when those needs felt like too much. I picture little toddler me stumbling around the house in jewelry and high heels being told that these are girls things. I picture a cocoon made of wax that I slowly built up around me both to keep rejection out but to keep those parts of me that faced rejection in.

I was a quiet kid. I don’t think I wanted to be a quiet kid but I never felt like I could compete and so I’ve always felt more comfortable stepping back and letting others fight to be fed. But I watched.

I learned.

I learned how to not feel my feelings until I convinced myself I didn’t have any. I learned how to put myself in uncomfortable social situations until I convinced myself I was outgoing. I learned how to use language, and sarcasm, and satire, until I convinced myself I was charming and funny. I learned how to be mean.

Jesus, this is all over the place. The mask is melting. I am feeling like a raw nerve walking around in the world, feeling only pain from everything I touch. I was driving behind a big white SUV with a tinted back window and I couldn’t see the traffic in front of me. This has bothered me ever since I can remember but, today, it was intolerable. I was legitimately considering turning into oncoming traffic to get around the larger vehicle when we came to a yellow traffic signal and I could justify stopping to myself to give the vehicles in front of me some distance. We were driving home after looking for very specific sneakers for three hours. Because they have to be the exact brand and colors that I am picturing in my head, whether or not such a thing exists, and no other shoe will do. I don’t remember being like this before. Although, maybe part of it is the pandemic. I used to work downtown next to a bunch of stores and I remember spending entire weekends by myself strolling from store to store trying to find the perfect this or that, always asking myself if it was something I’d seen in an ad somewhere or just made up in my head and needed to have. Maybe it’s having a partner trailing behind me that increases the anxiety. Maybe it’s some hidden factor I can’t determine. Whatever the cause, I feel like I am becoming more and more sensitive by the day. The things that were always a little uncomfortable have become downright intolerable.

I know this sounds like depression. I have had a diagnosis of major depressive disorder since I can remember. When I was in middle school, I remember telling my parents while on the way to bed that I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. (My mom said that made her sad and kissed me goodnight.) I have two suicide attempts under my belt and have taken time from work on three different occasions to go through Intensive Outpatient. I actually just took twelve weeks of disability leave in the fall to go through ECT but that’s a story for another post. The point is, I am well acquainted with my depression and I know it sometimes shows up as irritability or with anxiety… but I keep coming back to a suggestion that was made to me once that depression might be a symptom of trying to function in a world that wasn’t built for me.

But I have functioned in the past. I think. I guess it depends on the definition of function. To a degree, I am functioning now. I have a full-time job, though I work remotely and there’s some interpersonal conflicts at work that have resulted in me having a pretty small workload. I’ve had a full-time job since I moved away from home. I should be grateful. I want to be grateful. Despite all of the mistakes I’ve made, I’ve been consistently employed since 2006 and I actually have a relatively high income and I hate myself because I am drowning in debt and I can’t seem to figure out how to convert income into paid bills and savings and assets. I was thinking I had this great success in my past that I was drifting away from and in trying to build out the contrast, I am seeing right now as I’m typing it how I am just a repeating pattern, a spiral staircase, not sure if I’m going up or down. I started working late in life but have been employed since. Yet my performance reviews all read similar to my report cards from when I was a kid.

Smart but lazy. Has so much potential if he could just buckle down and do the work.

I picture myself in this wax cocoon I’ve built up through years of coping with trauma and many more years watching traumatic things happen to those around me. I built this thick hard shell to keep myself safe and protected. But I’ve been passed around and jostled and there are gouges and scratches and the shell is wearing thin. There’s a fire somewhere and it feels like the heat is coming from all directions and it’s starting to melt and pull away.

I can’t be calm right now. I can’t be caring and understanding and sage right now. I can’t be productive and innovative right now. I can’t be smart and witty and charming right now. I can’t be friends right now. I can’t be lovers right now. I can’t be family right now. I can’t be professional and courteous right now. I can’t understand your double entendre right now. I can’t figure out why your face is moving like that or why your voice sounds like that right now. I can’t figure out what to eat right now. I don’t even know if I’m hungry right now. I can’t be political right now. I can’t fight for social justice right now. I can’t create right now. I can’t plan ahead right now. I can’t stick to a schedule or enforce a routine right now. The mask is melting.