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The simple courtesy of wearing a mask is something autistic people do invisibly all the time, often at great psychological cost.

Hope’s #MadCovidDiaries Tuesday 14.8.2020

TW autism and rape/sexual abuse

‘In wise love each divines the high secret self of the other and, refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life. Love also creates the mask’.

— W. B. Yeats (1909), Memoirs, p. 145.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the word ‘mask’; to wear a mask is now consonant with our Covid-informed ideas of responsibility, consideration, cautiousness. But it’s also a word that autistic people like myself use to express how we pretend or act in order to fit in with the behaviours and norms of neurotypical society. I’ve been having a difficult time lately because of my autistic (or neurotypical?!) ‘mask’; in the increasingly detached world of online communication and more irregular in-person meetings, I don’t know
when to wear my ‘mask’, and when it is safe not to wear it.

Last week, I went on a train for the first time since February. I was sat across from a person who was wearing their mask incorrectly, so that the top edge only just touched their bottom lip. Their nose and mouth were exposed. That the person was wearing the mask at all suggested they did not fall into one of the categories for being exempt. The train kept announcing that everyone must wear their masks unless exempt, and that the air was being recycled every six minutes. Still the person would not wear their mask properly. It irritated me but I did not say anything— cowardly, I know. I was worried they would become angry.

The simple courtesy of wearing a mask is something autistic people do invisibly all the time, often at great psychological cost. Recently— possibly due to the recent A Level crisis— I have endured unwelcome reminders of the mask I wore when I was a teenager. When I was 12, I realised that my only chance at making friends at school was by pretending to be someone else. By the time I was 15, I had been sexually abused by two teenage boys one and two years older than me respectively. I did not accept that my vulnerability was inadequately masked. I began to spend time with an old school friend and a group of men in their thirties. They laughed at my jokes and made me feel I was a valued and vivacious friend. They carefully confirmed all of the pretences I wished were true about myself, the character I acted. And I loved them for that. They let me visit them and stay as long as I wanted— and I did, because my home life was becoming very difficult. When I was 17, one of the men started sleeping with me.

But wasn’t this what you wanted? To be accepted, to be adored, to be valued by them? I had found this man attractive in a distant kind of way. I did not expect anything to ever happen between us. Surely I was too young, wasn’t I? And so, when it did, I wasn’t equipped to think critically about it. I thought, This is what I should want, and it is a great achievement that he is interested in me. Besides, they will all hate me if I refuse. He slept with me for eight months until I gathered the courage to stop. Sometimes, we had a laugh together. He also lied to me on several occasions about his sexual health, causing me to become diagnosed with a (thankfully treatable) STD when I was 18. He would fuck me when I was exhausted and I didn’t move or speak. He filmed it. He once cut off my breathing and orally raped me when I was drunk. He pretended that condoms kept accidentally falling off. I started taking the contraceptive pill, being frightened by this, and kept it a secret until he found out. I finally stopped seeing all of them, and the spring went by. Then, I told him that he had abused and infected me and he cried, said sorry. I told the others that he had raped me. They told me I was a liar. But I am a liar. I lied to myself so fiercely that I had no resources to stand up for myself and stop this happening. Part of my compliance was due to other things wearing me down, such as the situation at home, but it was also because I was intricately tangled up in the idea of ultimate invulnerability— and thus ultimate culpability— that my mask had given me.

I continue to wear this mask unwillingly. Despite the years I’ve spent having therapy and working through the trauma this period of my life has caused me, I still sometimes question myself according to the personality of the mask. This has been happening recently. I start to remember the feeling of power I had, the laughter, the ways I felt excited about being a part of their world. The powerlessness in which that feeling existed can seem but a shadowy backdrop, slow and grey, against the vivid energy of my mask
that I apprehensively, and probably erroneously, remember. I feel heavy with the weight of my guilt, my body stretched out between a grotesque complicity and a frightened snatching at my younger self as I desperately try to remember what the stomach aches were like, the need to smoke and drink myself numb, to understand where the powerlessness really was in me.
The mask will talk to me about it. It’ll say all the things it said then, but you liked him, but you wanted to, you’re just making yourself feel bad about it because you are morally abhorrent and incontainably self-destructive. And it will also say you’ve fucked everything right up by telling people about this. As if they’ll believe you, or believe IN you, in any part of you, after you’ve lied like that.

The delusion of the mask is the same as the powerlessness; it fails to capture me in its dreariness. How can the truth feel so heavy and flat? How can it hurt so much? In the worst times, I do not understand when it is safe, when it is responsible, to stop listening to this mask. Just in case I have lied and in case there is something about myself to be remedied, I keep listening. The bleak roots of PTSD have grown underneath the foundation I have built to understand my autism, and they wind together in a rubble that I can’t find my way out of. I have been here since Monday.

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One thought on “The simple courtesy of wearing a mask is something autistic people do invisibly all the time, often at great psychological cost.

  1. Listen. You are important. You are not to blame for what happened. They were to blame for what happened. Your mask is protecting you, just as my mask protects me when I leave the house. All of us have things we can’t forget. But all people can have a fresh start, leaving the past behind. It’s not forgotten, but left. Imagine you have a good friend holding your hand, standing at your side, ready to walk with you into a new beginning. Any one of us would walk with you into tomorrow, just as we have had a friend to walk with us.


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