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Healing as a Form of Autistic Masking?
Some thoughts on the drive to be well
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I wanted to hop on here really quickly and talk about something that has been at the back of my mind for awhile:
When does the pursuit of healing turn into another form of masking?
My autism diagnosis at the age of 38 catapulted me into new levels of self-awareness. By understanding that I was autistic (and not just a piece of shit who couldn’t seem to handle life like other people could), I started to accommodate my sensory overwhelm and what I called my “existential crises” (which were internalized autistic meltdowns. As a good little Christian who was socialized as female, I learned early on to never have outward meltdowns). I started to use self-regulation tools: an ice pack on the chest, laying down in a cool, dark room with a fan several times a day, microdosing with THC to calm my nervous system. I was in therapy weekly, reading all sorts of books on autism and neurodivergence and healing from high control and abusive religion, and all of it was helping me feel seen and validated in ways I never had before. I did programs like the Safe and Sound Protocol, which helped regulate my nervous system and opened up new avenues of being able to be in my body after decades of dissociation. I could start to better understand my triggers and build the skills to deal with them without harming the people in my life. I started to be better able to understand the toxic situations I had found myself in and started to be able to put up boundaries that aligned with my values. I pursued somatic practices and did inner child work and started to let myself feel my feelings (instead of just intellectualizing them!).
All of this has been amazing. And difficult. And exhausting. And it’s also a LOT of change to happen in 18 months or so. Like so many late-diagnosed autistic people, autism itself became my new special interest, and it gradually morphed into a special interest in healing from the impacts of a society that not only doesn’t accommodate neurodivergence but a society that has wounded me in multiple ways. From high control religion to compulsory heteronormativity, the impacts of being pressured to conform from a young age have built up in my body. I wanted to heal from the impacts of living in a racist, sexist, homophobic capitalistic world--I wanted to heal myself to prove life could be better. That people can change. That life is worth living.
That is . . . some pretty intense stuff. And a lot of pressure to put on myself. I believe that healing is an incredibly valid pursuit, and it is a core value of mine. But it isn’t the only one. So much of my healing work is coming from inside of myself, and it’s about validating my own inner world for the first time. But when I try and share about these changes I have experienced internally, I am aware that there is a deep pull towards me wanting to be perceived by myself and others as being fully “healed.” Self-regulated. Calm. Working on myself as a means of harm reduction. Having it all figured out and having an iron-clad way to “deal” with all of the unpleasant emotions that come from being autistic and being overwhelmed by the world.
I saw a Tik Tok that mentioned the pursuit of healing can be another form of masking for autistic people. A way to prove our self worth and to prove we are doing well (or at least working on being less of a bother to other people). It is a way to fit in, and a way to get positive encouragement. When actually it can be a way for us to continue to hate ourselves—by fixating on “healing” what’s “broken”.
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And that thought stopped me in my tracks. Is there an element to this in my own journey? I think there is. Am I healing in order to feel good about myself, and also to encourage others to view me positively? Perhaps.
The truth is, I have a lifetime of making people uncomfortable for reasons that were usually not clear to me. For decades I wrote and spoke and “ministered” in churches and spaces where I thought we were all on the same page of wanting to follow the teachings of Jesus and prioritize the flourishing of the most marginalized people in our communities. I didn’t understand that I was actively angering people when I went into their churches and Christian universities and pointed out how deeply far off the mark we were when it came to taking Jesus seriously. Churches, for the most part, have evolved into enclaves where people can feel incredibly good about themselves, their exclusivist theology, and their political worldview. They do not want an intense autistic person coming and earnestly explaining that they in fact need to re-assess their ethics if they want to be consistent in what they profess to believe.
Only now am I starting to grapple with the impact it had on me to bring my full, vulnerable self into situations where I was demeaned, undercut, patronized, and mansplained, over and over again. For years I tried to deconstruct in the ways they told me to—to be kinder, nice, gentler. And it never, ever worked. But I can still hear the whispers of the men and women who tried to temper me and my sense of justice. I can still hear them telling me to be calmer. I can hear them telling me that if I was just a little bit more “healed,” then I could finally convince others to change. And damn if I didn’t start to believe them.
I do not want to heal in order to make people more comfortable and therefore make them like me more. Healing is just for me. I want to heal because I want to be alive. I want to work towards trusting myself. I want to make my own body a safe home, a place of grounding. I want to know my values and operate out of them, confident in my ability to process, change, and adapt as needed. I want to heal because I don’t want to live the rest of my life being terrified of humanity.
I am learning from wiser people than me that to be centered does not mean calm. You can be centered and angry. You can be centered and highly emotional. You can be centered and speak out loudly against injustice. It is a perversion of the concept of being grounded and centered to imagine a thin white woman sitting calmly in a yoga pose, quiet and demure and small. That kind of centered certainly exists, but I can also see how if that was the only kind of healing we were all striving for, a lot of injustice would continue to exist.
Instead, I am doing the work to learn to listen to myself and trust what my body says and what my values are. The more I learn those, the more I can operate out of a sense of being true to myself. I won’t have to look to outward validation or spend hours replaying and obsessing over how people respond to me. I can assess my own behavior through the lens of: does this actually align with my values? Do I need to take accountability for how my actions lead to impact that doesn’t align with my values? Can I spend a bit more time nurturing my own sense of self and letting my nervous system rest in order to have better access to my own desires? Yeah, I can do that. And that is what I will continue to do.
There is a difference between the healing I am pursuing for myself / my family and healing as means of getting community, love, acceptance—and even to be seen as knowledgeable. And I don’t believe one is morally superior to the other even, I am just noticing that these are different things. I can feel the temptation in myself to cling to binaries—Wow, I am so much more in touch with my body and my emotions these days, maybe I am totally healed now, or sometimes, I’m such a mess, who would ever want to be friends with me, of course everyone hates me. I think both of those thoughts multiple times a day, and that is just my reality. I ping-pong between the binary of wanting to be completely well and being overwhelmed by how erratic, unpredictable, and human I actually am.
So this is just a word of caution for myself, going forward. Healing is my special interest, but that doesn’t mean I am completely healed—because this will never truly be the case. I think one of the antidotes to healing being a form of masking is for me to develop a tolerance for the ambiguity of being a human. Which is hard for someone who was raised to believe in the rigid binary of good (evangelical Christians) and bad (everyone else). Me and my literal-minded brain tried so hard to make that framework be OK because it is what my caregivers believed in. But it has been at odds with my actual values since day one. And instead of being allowed to express contradictory thoughts and emotions, I was socialized to internalize all the discord. I was taught to hate myself instead of a system that affronted my core values of human dignity, flourishing, and creativity outside of binaries and hierarchies.
I am learning to have hope that a better future is possible for me and for others, while still being aware that I will not be able to figure it all out. I will never be perfect. I will never find some mystical way to be a human that is 100% “correct.” I will change, and grow, and regress, and apologize, and be petulant, and emotional, and all over the map. I will have periods where I go inwards, and periods where I want to share every detail of everything I am learning with anyone who will listen. For the rest of my life, I will be a really complicated human being with a really complicated past. And I, like everyone else, deserve to love myself.
I deserve my own body to be a place of safety instead of disgust.
I deserve for my inner world to be taken seriously by myself.
I deserve for my sensory needs to be accommodated.
I deserve to be able to feel the full range of my emotions, and to hate injustice in the world instead of myself.
I’m sorry I can’t help myself I needed to make one more:
Ok, back to SERIOUS STUFF.
I’m curious if anyone else has been in a healing/self-help special interest hole before. Have you experienced some of the complexities I am talking about here?
I highly recommend doing the Safe and Sound protocol! It’s the opposite of talk therapy, but you do need to find a trained practitioner to set you up with the listening program. Here’s the website if you want to find more info about it / find a local provider!
You know what else Tik Tok reminded me of the other day? Being a kid and singing the song “brokenness, brokenness, is what I long for. Brokenness, brokenness, is what I need. Brokenness, Brokenness, is what You want for meeeeeeeeeee.” I seriously had to sing this song approximately one billion times growing up, and now I think it is weird as SHIT.
It kind of makes you wonder why this is the most common image we see when it comes to “healing” or “wellness” . . .
The long-term impacts of both abuse and being undiagnosed autistic lead to incredibly negative perceptions of myself And evangelical Christianity nurtured this for me personally—I was rotten to my core, and the only good things about me were because of the grace of God.
Kesha just came out with a new album, and boy howdy does it give me permission to explore the complexity of negative emotions as a survivor of abuse. I highly recommend it—it’s called Gag Order and you can listen to it wherever you normally get your music!