I favor it, but not this one, ok?
This wrangle about masking and unmasking has given me the yips to try my hand at untangling the spaghetti. Let’s begin by defining our terms. We need tight, narrow definitions — especially when the same word doesn’t mean the same thing in all situations. I boiled it down to these two, while excluding the topic of the day, which I hope we’re all wearing to keep each other safe and well.
- Hiding the less desirable aspects of your personality to fit in, mimicking socially acceptable behaviors, A/K/A Good Manners.
- Pretense to avoid vulnerability, human contact, knowing and being known.
What do you mean put the mask back on? Under a patriarchal system of governance, the male chauvinist pig is a mask! What eggheads might call an adaptation, social conformity, imposter syndrome or defense mechanism — they’re all masks and none are genetic.
If your special needs partner is unsuccessfully masking his insecurity by bullying you, he has to stop that, but blaming autism for it is shortsighted. And when frustrated sisterwives who feel duped cry out in rage and heartache, rueing the day their man’s NT mask slipped I must step back and go #lolwutnow? You want an authentic connection? Masks don’t get us there, honeybunch. Aim higher.
As luck would have it he turned out to be as weird as me. But NTs wear masks too. Neurotypicals pretend that they’re not pretending, Autistic people know they’re struggling to keep up with the facade. Hey, this unmasking sounds like common ground, if not a shared special interest, with possibility for mutual exploration, should you two tire of <cough> parallel play.®
Disabled folks buy into stigma when they hide aspects of themselves to manage a spoiled identity. But there is no disagreeable autistic archetype chiseled in stone, out of time and place, with no framework of presupposition from which it emerges.
Whether autistic or neurotypical masking is something both share and for the same reason, to ward off being vulnerable. It’s an incongruity, acting differently on the outside from the feelings on the inside, the way bullies feel weak and scared, for instance. Am I asking you to sympathize with bullies? Sure, why not? Might do you both some good. But in the event you don’t want to look at emotions, that doesn’t mean emotions don’t bear investigation.
That reminds me, I detest stigma campaigns and have no problem setting faux allies straight who claim to fight to end it on behalf of my people with psych disabilities. I reject the stigma you seek to brand me with, but call me when you’re ready to fight to end prejudice. This means you, NAMI, where propaganda all is phony.
But enough about Dylan. Back to boy trouble. An Austin therapist who works with Aspergers once tole me not to get hung up on whether difficult behavior is hard-wired or “overdetermined” — if it’s bad it’s got to go, she said. Wrong. He gets a pass on the neurobiological business, we all do, since that can’t be changed. A polite lady leaves his wiring alone and kicks over the privilege, entitlement, sexism and grandiosity that’s been pounded into the brute male skull as a cultural imperative from the day they were born.
What I learned from Terry Real
We talk a lot about unmasking on Farcebook. A recurring post goes something like this:
He’s bringing his A-game to the office, wearing himself out attending to people he doesn’t care about. His A-game belongs to the family, his wife gets the energy he’s throwing away on the replaceables. If his job requires him to fling the happy horseshit all day let him find another job.
I don’t know why we’re pretending autistics are the only men known to neglect their families in favor of the job. Our fathers were workaholics who’d openly shun their wives back when women were dependent on men as providers and disciplinarians, full stop. Mid-century marriages weren’t emotional, egalitarian partnerships, but the problem that had no name.
Maybe these husbands haven’t caught up with the times. Maybe their NT wives share online what they find inconceivable to confront their partners about. These couples are suffering an imbalance of power. There’s no need to go overboard about autism or putting a mask back on or kitchen-sinking to address an imbalance of power. A feminist framework’s got you covered.
You might remember the shock and awe of reading the opening story of Helen and Grant in Dr. Kathy Marshack’s bestseller for cliff-hanging neurotypicals. Those two. Talk about masking. At first, I thought it was fiction. I’ve since heard many similar stories, but it’s the force of the first one that stays with you. This might be why our therapist says she’s never met a couple that works as hard as my partner and me. These of course are my impressions, and not necessarily the authorial intent.
Helen was the wife who snaked around the floor after an excruciating back injury knocked her out as she fell off the bed. Yet she took a strange pride — yes, pride — in going through this agony in silence, taking care not to disturb her ASD husband, who we discover was wide awake the entire time, fully aware she’d hit the floor and lay there immobilized. That’s right. They were both aware she was stone cold on the floor. She’s crawling around, having wet herself, he’s staring at the ceiling, both of them keeping their mouths shut. I believe this silence was based on a covert agreement that neither of them knew how they got into. Eventually, Helen declares she needs his help to get on her feet and into the bathroom.
“Now?!” he asked, with incredulity.
“Yes, Grant. I need you to get up and help me. I cannot move. I am in great pain. I fell to the floor because I have a pinched nerve in my back. You must help me get up.”
“Oh,” he said. “I was wondering what you were doing on the floor.”Marshack, Going Over the Edge? pp 18-19
He can’t put it together, why Helen’s not in the bed when it’s night-time. It’s dark outside, she’s supposed to be in bed. He does not understand that she is despairing, only that she is acting out of context, what they call context-blindness, a prominent feature of ASD. It’s not clear why Grant kept his thoughts to himself. Perhaps he didn’t realize she needed to hear them. Neither one of them is cognizant of the unusual way his brain organizes and integrates stimuli, or that what is salient for him skirts the bounds of consensual reality. From Grant’s point of view, Helen is outside of his context. They need to have a meaningful conversation but don’t know how to do this micro-analysis or even where to start. They think they speak the same language when they don’t.
Even when he got out of bed to help Helen, she had to instruct him how to lift her to avoid the pain. She had to ask him to get her clean pajamas. She had to ask him to wait for her in the bathroom. She had to ask him to get towels to clean the carpet. She had to ask him to help her back to bed. Even the next morning, she had to remind him that she needed help and ask him to call the chiropractor for an emergency visit. He could not problem solve any of this. Instead of being concerned for Helen’s health and well-being, he worried about being late for work when she asked him to drive her to her appointment.Marshack, ibid
Can you imagine what’s going on inside these two? The cascading chemicals, the flooding sensations they’re trying to escape. You can bet they’re both bickering internally like marital champions, while what passes for communication is mechanistic, task-oriented, ritualized, emotionless. Unspoken resentment is present, along with disappointment, judgment (if not condemnation), interpretations, justifications, sorrow, possibly grief, but no doubt so is Grant’s alexithymia, which makes him emotionally illiterate to the core.
Helen, who doesn’t know what to do with all this unbearable bullshit, enables it. She’s thrown away her authenticity, as she gradually becomes alexithymic herself, morphing into the more domineering personality. Why do people live like this?
To fake it is to stand guard over emptiness — Herzog
You once thought relationships were about seeing and being seen, but having a partner who makes DAD jokes in the face of your raw vulnerability has changed all that.
Sorry, you were right the first time, they’re about seeing and being seen. A mindblind partner does not see you, which doesn’t mean he doesn’t care or want to know. Girl, we have to be more verbal; we have to initiate, that’s just doing our part to respect the disability. We have to assert ourselves and say what we want when crawling around on the floor. We do not have to contort ourselves to avoid meltdowns, flooding, and making things worse. Let there be wailing and amygdala hijackings. The line forms to the right. So we have to tolerate distress before things get much better between people. Come out the other end of that distress a few times seeing it was worth it and the process gets easier, strengthening like a muscle.
Do you have a bag of tricks? Teachings and guides, apps, card games, workgroups, counseling? Someone told me she couldn’t get the free Gottman app I endorsed in my last post because her Aspie refuses to acknowledge there’s anything wrong with their marriage.
What if there’s nothing wrong with her marriage and the apps are sweet little pastimes even happy couples utilize? Then she wouldn’t be able to play if it weren’t for him. Life is what you make it, babycakes.
Also too, considering all these awkward silences and pregnant pauses, less emoting and body language signifying, does anyone know how to take temperature checks and re-establish the relationship as a container of safety and security, without encroaching on your Aspie? Probably not! If you learn how to fix your relationships by thinking about them, let me know! We’re policy-makers, we’re making house rules. Somewhere on that list: Go easy on my mind.
I know all this sounds psychological, but that’s where all the problems are. There’s nothing more to being genuine than to notice and describe what your senses take in — what you see, hear, smell (notice), and what your mind makes of them. We will interpret, it’s ridiculous to deny that. We will judge, imagine, assume, trigger and get triggered, but instead of resisting we acknowledge these mental happenings as they occur.
The idea is to defang our demons by letting them be, make them smaller as we notice and disclose our pretenses. When I notice my partner isn’t responding to my questions, I imagine he is stonewalling me. I’m not accusing or blaming. When we talk like this, our boundaries are more likely to stay in place. It’s making a world of difference, here’s the formula.
How about when or I tell Michael I’m acting like I know what’s going on when I don’t, or pretending to know things I don’t know or I’m trying to push his buttons, or I’m attempting to control the outcome of our conversation? The more I do that, the more it makes me burst out laughing at how petty and manipulative I can be. And at how little he can hurt me.
One more thing. Noticing and describing isn’t like accountability, where you’re about to get your ass kicked by another ugly American for your own good. Owning our experience might even keep us humble.
Any day now.