Hidden – A Tale of Late Discovery and My Identity

Hidden – A Tale of Late Discovery and My Identity

by Lyric Rivera - Image by Elibee Rose Valentine

by Lyric Rivera

Some Autistic people have a "talent" for pushing themselves past where they should push themselves. I am one of those Autistic People.

My name is Christa, and I am a 34-year-old, multiply neurodivergent adult. I'm also a recovering workaholic.
Like many addictions, my overworking was an escape from a painful reality. I would bury myself in work as a distraction to uncomfortable feelings – my undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues.

Anxiety was a dark, nameless monster for many years. It would whisper in my ear, telling me lies, always reminding me of everything that could go wrong with any given situation—sometimes sending sharp alarms and waves of irrational panic through my body without warning.

It was my well-hidden secret for almost thirty years, as the monster lay in waiting, hoping to be let out to play.
By the time I was diagnosed Autistic, at the age of twenty-nine, I had lived with untreated anxiety for most of my life. Mental health stigma and my lack of understanding around anxiety ensured I would learn to compensate, hiding many of my struggles.

It was all an elaborate mask, designed to help me succeed in a world that can be unkind to people who are different. I was doing my best to navigate a system stacked against me, stuck on the stage in a never-ending play, acting out a role full time – living on autopilot, miserable and unwell.

I learned to mask at an early age. I come from a creative family. My grandparents were part of the local theatre group in our small town when I was growing up. When I was little, my mom would help backstage, styling hair and wigs at lightning speed during set changes.

We saw many shows at the small local theatre. Sometimes, on special occasions, we would drive to Austin, the nearest big city, to see larger productions.

The actors fascinated me. It was magical when they got into character because, as I had learned growing up backstage, in real life, the actors were often nothing like the characters they played on stage.

They played a role, working from a script – as I would later learn to do in my day to day life. I learned a lot watching those actors and then in my roles on stage.

Drama and choir, and music, would become significant outlets for me throughout adolescence. At the time, I didn't realize that I was learning survival skills that would help and hurt me later in life.

Growing up undiscovered and undiagnosed, my sense of self-worth was at an all-time low when I found out I was Autistic. For many years, people had told me that I wasn't good enough, so I learned to hide - be who people wanted me to be and live the life I was expected to live.

The people around me didn't seem to struggle in the same ways that I did and were continually pushing me to do better, accusing me of being lazy or not trying hard enough. Even when I put in extra effort, I often fell short of what was expected of me.
That can do a number on your mental health, work hard, and do your best, only to be told repeatedly that your best isn't good enough – that you need to work harder.

I had slowly lost myself because I'd been tricked into believing that who I was wasn't good enough. I put myself on the backburner and changed who I was, trying to be something I wasn't. My wants, desires, and needs seemed trivial to me because they had been dismissed multiple times throughout my life.

The outer critics planted seeds for a strong inner critic. I started to believe, as many people over the years had told me, that my best wasn't good enough, so I pushed and pushed, even when things were more challenging for me than they were for other people.

Eventually, I got to a place where I could regularly push myself past my breaking point, to the point where my health would spiral downward. It was an unhealthy cycle of running myself into the ground and getting so sick my body would crash, forcing me to rest and recover.

It is an unknown sickness that often appears in times of change or stress. I've battled off and on throughout my life. I've had doctors call it many things – IBS, anxiety, a way to skip class. The Autistic community would call it burnout.

Burnouts tend to be caused by stressors in the Autistic person's environment. The stressors can be mental or physical. My burnouts come when I am taking on or doing "too much," putting myself into stressful situations too frequently. Some things can burn me out quickly, and some things will burn me out more slowly, like masking – the silent killer.

I'm a chameleon, an expert masker. I can be fun and playful or serious and attentive. I can sit still, with proper posture, and give the impression of eye contact. There are many masks, many characters that all require varying skill levels to pull off. Some costumes are more elaborate than others.

The Businessperson is the most work. They dress professionally, use proper speech and grammar, are confident, and make "great eye contact" (according to neurotypical standards). They know how to act "professional" and polished. The Businessperson is just a character, but they are a part of me.

This costume is the heaviest of all because it is elaborate and is built up of many pieces. This role requires the most energy and effort to pull off because the character must follow many rules. It's not a mask I can wear every day. It's too heavy.

Masking can be hard on your self-esteem. When things you do naturally seem to irritate or be strange to other people, you learn to become whoever the person in front of you expects you to be.
When an autistic person masks their Autistic traits, it's not intended to be deceptive. It is a way for that person to blend in, survive, or avoid abuse and bullying.

Shaming comments like "That was weird!" "What's wrong with you?" and "Are you okay?" become cues not to do whatever it was you were doing just before the comment was made. So you learn to put little pieces of yourself away – not now, not here, not in public.

The brain is a power-hungry organ, and masking is a lot of work. At any given time, an Autistic person who is masking may focus all their energy on many things to blend in so as not draw unwanted attention to oneself.

They try to figure out facial expressions, work to try and read body language, try to figure out when to talk, filter out background noise while following a conversation that is moving too quickly for them. They may wonder if they are stimming too much. They may have to focus on not making noise or talking themselves through things out loud.

All of this work can burn up lots of mental energy. Masking from time to time probably won't hurt most people but continued masking, without rest, day after day, continually draining extra energy adds up.

I've hit the burnout phase more than once in my life, but hitting it in adulthood has been eye-opening (partially because it led me to my Autistic discovery).
My most recent burnout has helped me to realize the value and necessity of self-care. It also forced me to look at myself with more self-compassion.

Finally, in my thirties, I've made my mental and physical health a priority. I have also stopped spending time with people who need me to be the masked version of myself.
Many Autistic people mask regularly. Some Autistic people don't. 

I've seen Autistic people debating online if the ability to camouflage one's Autistic traits is a privilege or a curse. This black and white thinking concerning Autistic camouflaging is short sited. In reality, the issue is more nuanced.
Yes, Autistic people who can mask can sneak into neurotypical society, but at what cost?

What about Autistic people who cannot or do not mask, who society may shun for their inability to assimilate expectedly?
It is these Autistic people I have thought about, frequently, as I worked to unwind and unravel my mask since learning I was Autistic four and a half years ago.

Being an Autistic person who can mask but is unmasked is an immense privilege I intend to use for good. Being open and proud as an Autistic person is an act of defiance.
Learning I was Autistic as an adult was like hitting a reset switch on life. Suddenly I saw the world with new eyes, a mighty change set in motion.

I realized I had been working against my Autistic mind instead of with it, as I tried desperately to hang onto a neurotypical lifestyle (that I didn't want or enjoy).

For the first time in a long time, I started to feel proud of who I was and had begun to find ease in my skin.
I'm determined to stop using work as my escape from uncomfortable situations and emotions. I have pride in myself as an Autistic person and have been working hard to get my mental health issues in check.

Those who don't understand Autistic Pride might ask, "How can you be proud of something you have no control over– like being Autistic?"

The Autistic experience colors each piece of my personality, sensory experience, and identity. It impacts my interests, how I view the world, my choices, and even my ethics. Because of this, many Autistic people feel as if autism is a part of who we are.
We can be ashamed of who we are, accept who we are, and even be proud of who we are.

The need for Autistic pride is not born from a need to celebrate being Autistic. It is a recognition of our right and to live authentically as NeuroDivergent human beings.

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Hiding in the Closet

Hiding in the Closet

by Deborahanne Mayer

     To this day, baloney always reminds me of the smell of rotting death. My sister, Linda, always ate what was in her lunch box, including her sandwich. I, on the other hand, would skip the sandwich and just eat the snacks and drink the tepid milk box. Ah, but what to do with the offensive sandwich? I remember the time I stuffed my sandwich deep into the toy box on the porch, away from prying eyes, covertly and in a panic with darting eyes and shallow breath. 

     Predictably, my mother found the sandwich, covered in ants and reeking to high heaven. Hearing her raucous screams upon the discovery made us kids cringe and look immediately for a means of escape. And as usual, we were all rounded up and questioned one by one. We all vehemently denied responsibility—all but Linda, who said nothing. She just stood there with a bowed head and kicked her scuffed keds back and forth on the slate tiles of the porch. Shivering uncontrollably inside, though externally presenting my usual flat facial facade, my heart called out to Linda. Though I knew if I confessed, I would get a beating with the belt and no dinner. As she stared into our faces, she turned to Linda and said, “Why are you so stupid? Only babies do this.” And my mom turned away, tossing the rotting ant sandwich outside. Linda just stands there, feet going back…and forth.

I grab her hand and say, “Let’s go play,” and we run outside into the unrelenting sun.
They called us Irish twins, my sister Linda being 11 months older than I. My earliest memory is of being tossed onto the itchy herculon sofa together for photo ops with my mother’s new Kodak Instamatic camera with the twirling flash cube. I remember squirming because of the prickly feeling of the sofa cushions and Linda, sitting still as a mouse, quietly sucking her thumb.

She didn’t start talking until around age 3, and my mother believed something was wrong with her from the beginning. Back in those days, my parents were not aware or couldn’t afford to get tests done. Or, honestly, they were not willing to face the struggle with their first born child. My mother’s older brother, Johnny, was “not right in the head,” and my father always blamed Linda’s issues on my mother’s genes. “You gave it to her,” he would say,
Linda was a quiet little girl, always doing what she was told, even if she didn’t “pay attention” right away. She was ridiculed pretty constantly by both of my parents. If she didn’t pay attention or if she lagged behind when we were at the beach walking, she would get heckled by them.

What’s wrong with you?

Why can’t you walk with us?

Why can’t you hit the ball as good as Debbie?

She’s half your size and she’s doing better than you.

And on and on.

     Linda always seemed sad and quiet, preferring to stay in her room, rocking back and forth singing songs to herself. When she would get yelled at, she would go run and hide in the closet in the bedroom that we shared together. At that young age, I felt conflicted and confused as to why my older sister couldn’t do things the way I did them. I would get frustrated with her; I hated to hear my parents yell at her, and it was embarrassing how they ridiculed her in front of my friends.

     When she started school, Linda was kept out of kindergarten and placed in what was called the “retarded kids’ class.” It seemed like my parents were always mad at her for not being able to perform as they expected or keep up with the other kids. Children would tease her and push her around. It would enrage me that she wouldn’t stand up for herself, but I became her bodyguard anyway. I could not understand why she just stood there taking the abuse. This would continue as we grew up and became teenagers.

     Then, at 17, my dad approached me in my bedroom. I was looking over a list of my upcoming fall classes. I had applied and been accepted to a Junior college in Boston, unbeknownst to either of my parents. I quickly shoved the paper under some other papers as he unceremoniously threw open the door to our room. 

“I have something I want to talk to you about," says my dad in a low tone. The almost whispered words made me look up in confusion as he usually spoke to me loudly with some command or criticism. This was different, almost a soft whisper.

“Yes, Dad?” I submitted, terrified at what would come next.

“I want to know if you want to go away for a weekend, just you and me," he continued. Perplexed, I just stared at him and started feeling a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, like someone punching you in the gut.

I played stupid and said, “Why can’t we all go together?”

     He said in that feral whisper, “No, just you and me.” I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and my mind scrambled for ways to escape, my eyes looking everywhere but at him. And then, he drops the bomb. “I want to show you how it’s done.” He says, “I don’t want anyone to hurt you. I promise I won’t hurt you.” He was staring at me and I was trapped.

And then with her uncanny timing, Linda nonchalantly skips by my dad and saunters into the room. She is humming Tie a Yellow Ribbon under her breath. My eyes flashed her that long familiar warning. She slowly backed out and ran down the stairs, clunking her feet on every tread, her humming now tinged with a manic energy.
My father ignores her completely, just staring at me with those pleading eyes. And in that moment, a fragment of sass, still lurking, rose to the surface and I blurted out, “I don’t want to have sex with you. You’re my Dad. It’s disgusting."

     His eyes flashed fire and his face twisted into an expression I will never forget for the rest of my life. He turned to leave and over his shoulder, spat out, “I want you outta here. Pack your bags. You’re gone."

     Trembling, I packed a few bags including my coveted figure skates and took the MBTA bus to Wellington Circle where I got on the Orange Line to Boston. After ten nights alone on the street, I was able to find college housing on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay.

     I was shunned by the family and not allowed to speak to anyone or contact them. He said no one was to acknowledge that I had ever been a member of the family. Linda took all of this very hard, and we didn’t see each other for a long time. Eventually, Linda finished high school but she continued to live in my father’s house—she had nowhere else to go, She had no friends, didn’t have a job and just stayed home in her room watching the old Zenith black and white.

     She probably had to take most of the abuse after I was gone. According to my other brothers and sisters, she was mainly ignored by everyone. She started having temper tantrums. Once my mother finally found the courage to move into a condo with my younger brother, Linda found herself alone with my father. Abandoned by her mother and her siblings, she resorted to roaming the streets in the neighborhood, day and night, just walking and walking until she got lost and eventually someone would bring her home. Every time, my father would fly into a rage, and I shudder to think of what her life was like.

     After so many years of abuse, he finally kicked her onto the street as well. “Let the state pick up the tab for her,” he’d said. “I’m tired of paying her keep.” Luckily, the state found Linda and she found a safe harbor, with a community funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation. After shuffling from placement to placement a number of times she finally landed in a home. 

     All of this took a severe toll on Linda’s mental and physical health. When she first moved to state housing, I would try to visit her. I remember she didn’t speak too much during the visit. However, as soon as I started to leave she reacted violently, ripping at her clothes, clawing at her face, hitting herself, moving furniture around, breaking things and crying loudly, “Nobody loves me! Nobody loves me!" She begged me not to leave her there and to take her home with me. It was heartbreaking—she screamed for several days after I left. The house manager and her case manager banned me from visiting after that.

     That was hard to hear, and I couldn’t help but think back to a memory of when we were kids. Linda is dressed in a mismatched jumper set with different socks and worn white Keds. Our Uncle Nick, side hustling as a bookie, takes bets over the phone in the corner of the living room, waving us kids off like pesky flies, mumbling numbers into the receiver. Auntie Marlene and Auntie Angela are trading veiled insults with each other. All us cousins weave a vicious game of tag through the scent of cheap perfume and intermittent puffs of cigarettes. My grandfather sits in front of the TV set, sipping Seagram’s from his Looney Tunes juice glass, swearing and glaring at us as we dart by his chair.

     As usual, I am in charge of Linda. I hear my mother yelling that the grub is ready. I run upstairs to our bedroom. All the sounds from downstairs are muted and I hear her softly singing, “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down." 

     Knowing exactly where she’s hiding, I open the closet door and peer in. Linda sits on the floor rocking rhythmically back and forth, hugging herself, singing. Her thumb in her mouth as she sings the song, over and over. I look down at my shoes and say, “Do you like my shiny shoes, Lindy?”

     She pops the thumb out and says, “They’re so pretty, Debbie.” She is smiling out of the corner of her mouth. I reach out and tug on her hand and she rises up, and together we walk down the stairs, hand in hand, to face the music.

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4 min read