I swear I used to have more energy. I know I did. I never had as much as other people, but I definitely had more than I have had over the last decade or so (I’m in my late forties).
I used to be able to work around 30 hours a week and still hang out with friends on the weekends. I used to be a performer, singing, doing community theater. I used to not need a lot of recharge time, maybe a day here and there by myself, easily accomplished with busy roommates with lives. I used to live with roommates, as in two or three, believe it or not, something that now seems completely out of reach.
I used to be able to hang out with people for hours on end, to go to movies, to go out dancing, to have long conversations into the wee hours with peers about the nature of this or that.
Because I can’t do any of that any more. I’m not even close. It seems like a whole other person, a whole other lifetime.
Starting in my mid-twenties, I started borrowing from my cognitive fuel tank to hide things about myself. I started using some of that energy it to decide what I was about to say, more and more of the time. Then I realized I had to change the way my face looked, so I siphoned off some more to invest in managing my facial expressions, too. The more I learned, the more complexity I added to these activities, to account for small differences in people, in situations, in location. Responses developed into full-fledged scripts. Facial expression management became more fine-tuned as I added more and more subtlety.
Once these efforts started to happen automatically, I became aware that my body language was also off, so I started paying attention to that, too, especially when I was listening to someone or interacting with a group. Head up. Don’t pick at your skin or chew the inside of your mouth. Don’t cross your arms if you don’t have to. Face your body towards the person speaking. Don’t slump in the chair or lean away from them.
A few years after that, I realized my natural eye contact inclinations were wrong, so I needed to pull more energy for that, too, making sure I looked at someone when they stopped talking instead of away from them, making sure that when I was looking at someone, I looked away every 3 to 5 seconds or so (and yes, I still do that, I still count seconds when someone is talking to make sure I don’t make them uncomfortable).
As my strategies grew more advanced, I started reaping noticeable social benefits. I stopped putting people off. At some point, I’m not sure when, I became someone people wanted to be around. I even became someone people genuinely liked. I became someone some people loved.
It felt like I had stepped into sunlight after a lifetime of being trapped in a cave. Finally, people didn’t cringe around me, or disappear after a few weeks or months. People wanted be with me, wanted to touch me, even. Asked about me if I wasn’t there. Cared about what I thought. Would go out of their way for me if I asked them to. Even better, sometimes, they would ask me to go out of my way for them. I loved the warmth. I finally felt human. Paradoxically, the more energy I invested in being someone else, the more people seemed to appreciate who I really was.
For neurotypical people to see the person I feel like on the inside, I have to translate it to make it apparent to them in ways they will understand. As I became more and more skilled at this, I reaped more and more social rewards for it, for being “authentic,” for being honest about certain imperfections and vulnerabilities, and even the fact that I was autistic and investing energy in hiding my autism. You’d think that this would have allowed me to use less energy, but those choices increased the cognitive load, deciding when to say what was in my head because it was OK in that particular situation, and when to fall back on a social script.
That’s where I am now. Being a person in our society, a likable, even lovable person, I have it down to a science. So much of this happens automatically that it actually feels kind of normal.
But that energy has to come from somewhere.
The spoon analogy, used a lot in psychology circles, contends that everyone starts the day with a certain number of spoons of energy. Those of us on the spectrum, or with other neurodivergencies, have to pull a few spoons from what would normally be expended on typical life things, like working, to manage their neurodivergence. When I started masking my autism, over twenty years ago, my strategies were pretty basic and didn’t require more than a single spoon or two.
Now, however, a lot, if not most, of my spoons go to my neurotypical performance and managing the stress of being on a neurotypical environment. It’s no wonder that I can’t work for more than a few hours a day. In fact, seen in this light, it’s amazing that I can work at all. As I have become more and more employable, and more and more sought after, I have less and less left in me to enjoy these privileges.
Was this the right way to go?
I used to think so. I used to think that no investment was too large if it rendered me able to have friends and be around people. Now, realizing that the investment required results in being overdrawn a lot of the time, I’m not so sure.
I have traveled too far down this path to go back and do it another way. But the cost has been exceedingly high, and now, my productivity is nowhere near what it used to be. Even as I have become more adept, and thus a better spokesperson, I am so limited by what I have to do to be that person that I may not be able to invest enough energy in doing the work that comes with it, that I want to do, that I have spent this energy in making possible.
I created the term “Autism Paradox” to describe the catch-22 autistics face in the workplace, where they have to choose between not hiding their autism and being under- or unemployed, or hiding their autism for the sake of their co-workers and not being able to get accommodations because they look too normal.
But there is another Autism Paradox, that is even more harmful, and I am in it. The amount of energy I have to expend to hide my autism prevents me from having enough left over to enjoy the fruits thereof, like a regular job, or extracurricular activities, or going out with friends.
How many of us are like me, having perfected the mask, but at such a great cost? I’m often praised for my ability to look normal. It seems effortless.
It is anything but. And for that reason, I feel like–no, I know–people don’t appreciate what it costs me to do it. And I have no idea how to undo it, or even if that’s possible.
But at least now, I know what happened.