An Introduction to Masking

When you’re someone like me who has multiple mental health problems and no access to any form of treatment, you learn a lot of coping mechanisms. My chronic anxiety means that I’ve had to learn when and how to avoid gatherings that will make me uncomfortable. My ADHD has made me go to extremes to make sure that I don’t stay in a single routine for too long. However, one skill which has manifested over all my mental health problems, is the ability to mask.

Masking is a method by which a lot of people hide their mental illness behind a façade of normality. If you’ve ever been surprised to learn that someone was on the autism spectrum, chances are they had a lot of practice in masking their autistic behavior. This isn’t to say that all autistic people have the capability to mask, but it does mean that you shouldn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that someone isn’t truly autistic if they don’t act like whatever stereotype exists in your mind.

There are some mixed feelings about masking when it comes to mental health. Some people feel that masking is an unhealthy coping mechanism that exists only because of how neurodivergent people are marginalized. It’s also important to recognize that masking can also be used to cover up emotional or physical abuse. However, I don’t want to delve too much into the ethics or implications of masking right now. Instead, I’d like to explore how masking has manifested in my life and how it helps me cope with daily life.

Masking my Depression

I’ve struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for a number of years now. In hindsight, I now see that much of my depression wasn’t emotional or due to any hormonal changes my adolescent body was going through. I don’t even think my depression is chronic to be honest. Instead, I feel that it’s probably due to an imbalanced life thanks to my other more concrete mental illnesses. My chronic anxiety meant that I had a difficult time making and maintaining any real friendships, and my ADHD made any sense of satisfaction in a new hobby or routine short-lived.

However, as a younger person I didn’t know any of this so I was left confused as to why I felt the way I was feeling. Of course, the one thing you can be sure of when you have any illness—mental or otherwise—is that people always want to give you advice or explanations for why you feel the way you feel. These ranged from not eating enough green juices or eating too much bread, to more personal problems like me not listening to the voice of god.

Not all the explanations people had were purely my fault of course. One young woman at a church I went to believed that my struggles were due to god putting me “thru the fire” as it were in order that I could become the refined gold he wanted me to be. At the time I found this concept comforting; now I just feel repulsed at the idea of telling a child that their mental illness is something being inflicted on them so that they can be less of a garbage person. Whatever your beliefs about religion or a higher power are, it’s no excuse for ignoring someone’s depression.

Still, after years of being told my depression was my fault one way or another I eventually just gave up trying to get any assemblance of help from the people in my life. Instead, I learned how to hide my own feelings either behind jokes or just long periods of silences. I had always been a quieter child, so this wasn’t much of a transition to make. I often worry what might have become of me if my depression had been a chronic illness rather than a byproduct of my other issues. It’s not to say that my suicidal thoughts weren’t valid or something to be concerned about. But deep down I’m not certain I was ever in much danger and for that much I’m thankful.

Masking my Anxiety

I don’t know if it’s a part of being an introvert or if I’m just bad at being a human, but anxiety has been a part of my life longer than I’ve known the word anxiety. One of my oldest memories was of getting lost between sunday school classes and crying in the hall until someone went an got me. I’ve always felt that somehow everyone else has things figured out while I’m in the perverbial hallway watching the crowds move past each other desperately trying to figure out which one I’m supposed to follow.

It’s for these reasons I don’t feel too bad about having to mask my anxiety. It’s been a part of me for long enough that I’ve come to the conclusion it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Having a routine can help, but you aren’t going to accomplish much if you have the same routine at 39 as you did at 23. So in order to push myself, I’ve found that I’ve got to find ways of putting my anxious feelings on hold.

I’ve gained quite a few tactics for this over the course of my life. One method is to figure out what group you’re currently a part of and which people you can count on to reliably follow. That’s not a great method for when you’re expected to do things on your own, but it can be helpful in moments when you won’t be able to take the time to make comfortable decisions.

The other important method I’ve found is to figure out exactly what’s expected from you. This can be difficult—especially if your anxiety is laced with ADHD like mine—but fortunately when it comes to most work and school expectations, expectations are usually well-documented meaning you can review it at any time. Obsess over these enough and you’ll eventually get to the point where you can hopefully operate under pressure without making too many dumb decisions.

When it comes to social anxiety, I’ve found this process to be a little more difficult. I can have conversations with people, but it’s very rare that I’m actually comfortable in these situations. As unhelpful as the advice may be, I’ve found the only option is to put my anxiety on hold as long as possible. I have methods of holding conversations that don’t cause too much anxiety. Awkward pauses tend to make things worse, so I’ve learned that it’s best to either find something the other person will find relatable to talk about or else end the conversation.

The best example of this working in my life would be a recent dinner I attended with others from my first-year Physics seminar. I found very quickly that the adults I talked to were more interested in hearing the story of how I moved from Illinois to South Dakota, whereas I had more luck in conversations with fellow students when I discussed their reasons for choosing their major. Learning to navigate conversations is a skill not a lot of people who aren’t anxious get very good at—so it’ll understandably take a while to get used to talking to people.

However, my number one advice would actually be to know when you need to get out of social situations. I’ve found that at a certain point, being around a larger group hits a tipping point where I can’t cope any longer. At these points I’ve found it’s best not to push myself any further. Staying positive is an important part of anxiety masking for me, so traumatizing myself further isn’t going to accomplish much.

Masking my ADHD

My ADHD masking is the type of masking I’ve been aware of for the least amount of time and is simultaneously the one I put the least amount of thought in. I’ve often thought of my ADHD tendencies as a bit of a superpower for myself. I understand now that this attitude towards a legitimate mental illness is toxic both for myself and others who suffer with ADHD. Even so, unlike my anxiety and depression, my ADHD hasn’t been something I’ve felt the need to hide.

However, there are situations where I’ve found ADHD makes myself seem inconsiderate. For example, when sitting in class I often zone out and start daydreaming. Or when having a conversation I often find myself suddenly realizing that I’ve not caught any of what was being said for the last minute and am suddenly forced to search desperately for context clues to figure out aproximately what was said.

It’s because of these situations, I tend to try and appear more attentative during classes and conversations by nodding and making as much eye-contact as possible. It’s not great for actually paying attention; I very often end up trying too hard to look like I’m paying attention and forget to actually pay attention.

This also makes ADHD masking the least effective method for masking in my life as it’s not very helpful for actually dealing with the symptoms of ADHD. Things like foot-tapping or stress-doodling may seem poor methods for focusing, but as long as I can do it in a nondisruptive way they help me and are thus better coping mechanisms than masking is.

I think at the end of the day that’s the real issue with masking. It’s great for when you need to feel comfortable in social situations, but they often don’t do much for the core problems you’re going through. I don’t believe masking is always harmful, but relying on it too much can be a problem. There are a number of methods for dealing with mental illness, you should pick and choose which ones work best for you and your mental health, whether they make you seem more normal or not.

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