This post is for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012
That has been my highest priority for so long, and it was only when it was about to break that I even realized it was.
For the benefit of anyone who’s new, I’ll situate myself before I begin. I’m autistic, and I am a trans woman, which are both things I have kept facades about. I’m also white and USian (citizen living in the country), which are important and relevant privileges to my experience keeping facades.
In a recent post, I talked about how I had burned out twice in as many years, the first time minorly and the more recent time very heavily. I also touched on the role of facade-keeping, and how both made the burnouts look a lot more sudden than they are. So, I’m going to talk more about the role facade-keeping has played in my life and the influence it has had, but before I can do that I’m going to have to define what I mean by it.
What I mean by “facade-keeping” goes a bit beyond what I’ve seen other autistics refer to as “passing” (for allistic), and beyond merely remaining closeted and pretending (before I came out) to be a cis man. It’s also where I pretended to have many fewer difficulties than I actually had in other things, lest I look “weird” for being challenged. It’s where I, even when I couldn’t be productive (which was often, toward the end) always tried to look like I was being productive.
This meant sitting at work, hiding my computer screen as I did something that didn’t cost my energy, ready to tab over to some work-related reading (scientific journal articles, usually) that I didn’t have the energy to read straight through. Or sometimes at all. It meant sitting late at work, guilting myself over not having been productive. It meant hiding my stims. Or not stimming, which actually made things a lot more obvious (hellooooo sleeping in class).
To a lesser extent, it meant hiding my femaleness. Even when I wanted to be able to relax it meant making every effort to not give off the slightest clue that I was a trans woman to people I had not explicitly come out to, or that my femininity strayed beyond “acceptable” bounds. Now that I am “out” and no longer make deliberate efforts to hide that I am a woman, there is a little bit of carryover of this into hiding my transness. Most of hiding that, though, is physical. Hiding my gender was easy, compared to hiding my being autistic, though; I chose what to show and what to hide, and what to hide mostly meant overt signs that I, say, had a name other than the one I was using when someone might look. Hiding my autisticness was way more all-consuming than that.
I can’t say, looking back on my life, when I decided to start keeping these facades. They clearly did not start from my diagnosis, when I was 12. They were already there, even then. They might not have been as strong, but there they were. Was it when I was younger (seven, eight, nine, maybe?) and first heard the words “asperger syndrome” (a label I loathe) applied to me? I think it was even younger. It didn’t have a single start, but was instead the biproduct of years of social shaming to make me shut up. Which, I can call myself lucky for, because at least I didn’t face worse violence.
Going forward through my life, this facade-keeping brought me benefits as well as disadvantages. It shielded me from the worst of other’s ableism, and, most importantly, from my own internalized ableism. I was quite horrible to my fellow autistics in that time, keeping my facade even to myself. Equally, seeing who the “mainstreamed” special ed kids were and looked like (like me), and who wasn’t, and who got respect among my fellow special education students, reinforced my drive to keep my facade. At this point in my life it was driven entirely by internalized ableism.
Facade-keeping got me into and through a bachelor’s degree unaccommodated, even as I developed a political consciousness as a disabled person halfway through. I can’t say if I would do that again were I doing it over, but I can’t say either that any of the accommodations that would have helped me could be given be written out in a formal accommodations document and people be expected to adhere to it. I graduated with maybe two classmates knowing me as an autistic. And fewer than that number in real friends from class.
It was about a semester and a half before I graduated that I hit the first of my burnouts. And here’s where the first negative side of facade-keeping comes in. Burnous surprised me. I was completely surprised by my inability to motivate myself to do the work in front of me. My facade of the diligent, or at least competent, student had hidden what had happened even from me. This scared me. I hid it from everyone else, too, except the people I needed to talk to to leave the program. I cut class rather than attend and not turn in homework that was due. But the burnout itself was “mild” enough that I only needed to drop one of my programs to soldier on. So I did.
Soon after, I found my actual gender. I had hidden from myself so well that even that was locked away. And, like I mentioned, I knew that I had to transition before I burned out on that, too. This was a facade that killed people to keep.
But I had class to press on through, and I kept that up. And then I graduated. And then I pressed on to graduate school. And that’s where things fell apart. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my priorities had become skewed. They were, first, to maintain my facades, especially about my being disabled (because that was all I knew); second, to accomplish the productive work I was supposed to do as a graduate student, both in class and toward a dissertation. Third, to care for myself. This was a recipe for breakdown.
And it happened. A bunch of things came together all at once. Classes finally passed what I could handle with my barely-developed study skills (until then, I relied mostly on my memory). Work responsibility dramatically increased, and I was expected to be more self-directed in it, which taxed my executive function heavily. My work became based around finicky chemistry that I only half-understood, and I was still expected to get results. All of these together combined into a level of stress where, to keep my facade of competence, I pledged things I couldn’t promise and then did my utmost to do them anyway.
And then, when I finally thought I could relax from one burst of that, I hit my limit. I no longer had the executive function to be a self-motivated worker. So I slumped. And I kept up my facade, and kept trying to make myself make any small amount of progress on my work each day even though each time I did I burned myself out further, and I was stealing the energy I needed to maintain my daily life. And still it was not enough.
In bad times, I could usually keep my classwork up, because I at least had to keep up my facade of that to teachers and classmates. For small things I could cut class if I absolutely needed to. But a thing came that I couldn’t cut, and I didn’t have the energy to do well, or even to develop enough of an understanding of my topic to do well in. And I had to present it. So I did. And then I ran off and cried as soon as I could find a place without people. It was then that I realized what had happened. My facade was the most important thing, from my years of being taught that it was. It had cracked, but only because I had burned myself out so thoroughly that there was nothing left but it.
Were it not for other circumstances, that burnout could have killed me, or put me in the hospital. The level of that burnout could only have been reached by my pretending I wasn’t burned out, by my pretending I had energy, by my pretending I wasn’t disabled. Had I not been keeping my facades, there is no way I would not have headed it off earlier. And now, I’ve come to believe that no benefit the facades give is worth keeping them around a minute longer than is necessary.