Part of masking is learning to prioritize the priorities of others over your own, even on the level of what sensations an individual acknowledges within their own body.
The result is a kind of unconscious gaslighting to delegitimize what you feel insofar as it seems to violate the rules of normality based on what you perceive of the expectations and priorities of neurotypical folks.
Logically speaking, unmasking is a reevaluation of priorities: literally, to change the values placed on the priorities of others versus one’s own priorities, no matter how trivially other people may treat them.
Forced heating is not a minor issue for me; I always had to pretend like it was, but it has always been a serious problem—again, for me. I’m hypersensitive to it, how it coats my skin with a layer of … something, how it makes the air sharp and fuzzy at once, like a basket of wool with daggers and pins mixed in, how it sounds when it comes rushing into my space at all hours, day and night, how it makes it hard for me to breathe, how it gives me a sensation of being poked by needles all over my skin, and how my internal temperature rises beyond a boiling-point threshold, but then keeps rising, incrementally with every cough, which come in fits (probably I have asthma but I’m still trying to figure out what that means exactly).
I hate that wall of fake heat waiting for me when I walk into a heated building. I’m always hot from walking to a building I’m about to walk into, and that heat catches up to me as soon as I stop moving. If I’m not in a properly cooled environment at that point, things get rough fast and I end up fully overwhelmed.
I’ve always ran a few degrees hotter than everyone else. In part that’s because I’ve built up a debilitating case of CPTSD, and that has presented itself most noticeably in an egregious amount of sweat that started to appear at some point after I hit puberty. I noticed pretty quick that it strikes exclusively when I’m socializing, getting ready to socialize or when I even think about socializing for too long: it couldn’t be more clearly a trauma-response if it came with a light-show.
So the heat I feel in public places is not necessarily all temperature related, but even still I’m always on the edge of overheating. Few things can push me so far past overwhelmed so immediately as being too hot in a building with forced heat.
And I can only reasonably (and legally) remove so many layers before things turn distinctly illegal. Anyone who is chilly can add another layer, a hat, a scarf… any of the items of clothing our species uses to deal with the cold.
I cannot pull the skin from my body, yet that is exactly what the burning sensation from forced heating provokes in me, like Herakles when his wife inadvertently poisons his clothes and he slowly burns to death from the outside in (she’d used a centaur’s poisoned blood collected as said centaur lay dying from wounds inflicted by Herakles; the centaur tricked her by telling her that she should use the ‘potion’ on Herakles to ensure that he would be hers forever, but he was obviously plotting a posthumous revenge).* Anyway, mythic apotheosis aside, since that is obviously not what I experience when I overheat in a forced-heating situation, everything just 🤬ing burns and the only thought in my head is to do whatever I possibly can to make that stop.
*. This is the subject of one of my favorite tragedies, Sophocles’ Trachinian Women.
For many years I did that undiagnosed-autistic-person thing to myself where I forced myself to pretend like it was me, like everything was my fault, and so I’d joke ‘Oh, isn’t my body such an a**hole?! ahaha!’ But no… the real a**hole is whoever cranked up the heat. I used to invest a surprising amount of energy downplaying these sensations to myself by trying to make myself believe the overwhelming hot flashes* were either (a) a difficult-to-diagnose medical condition, which I mockingly referred to as ‘hypo-glurckus-dirkus,’ or (b) not a thing to make anything of at all—but in either case the point was, never mind thinking about it any further.
*. Yes hot flashes. What else can I call them? Actually hot flashes are one way I’ve connected with so many menopausal straight cis neurotypical women, whom I adore (probably out of envy, if I’m being honest, for their family-centered lives, their husbands, their stability). I could call them ‘heat attacks’ because they are similar ito an asthma attack, but that is one letter away from cardiac distress, so… hot flashes.
Among so much else, the blissful (for me) freedom of being remote for two years taught me the critical importance (again, for me) of being in constant control of my environment.
Temperature is one of those things that can radically alter my day for the better or the worse, and at this point I’m all about creating a steadily centered environment around myself, having moved on from thinking there was anything wrong with me (which gets into another post, coming soon).
And isn’t this the foundation of ‘unmasking’ itself: that we choose to no longer fault ourselves for mere differences but rather work to make the world around us more inclusive?
‘Here I am,’ we’re saying when we take off the sociocognitive masks we’ve carefully sculpted over so many years, ‘Look at the #ActuallyAutistic person whose been underneath these burdensome mask I’ve learned to wear to try to blend in among you! Adjust your expectations. Make room for me.’
Anyway, I’m learning that a large part of unmasking involves prioritizing things that matter to me well ahead of whatever seems to matter to neurotypical folks but invariably amounts to mere formality or more unspoken tests when I’m supposed to have ‘made an impression’ in a certain way.
But unmasking is also an exercise in self-kindness. I’m not beating myself up at all for having ignored my own needs for so many years in the interest of ‘blending in’. It’s obvious to me that I did what I thought I had to do on the assumption that everyone had had to go through what agony I was enduring.
And now that I’ve made the decision to stand up for my basic right to control the temperature of my own home, I keep second-guessing myself and allowing into my thinking the idea of ‘overreacting’—that standard critique that I’ve heard so often from all quarters. I keep thinking, ‘it’s not really so bad is it?’ But yes it bloody well is so bad as soon as that heat kicks on. Like I said above, I’ve got all the registers, intake and outflow, duct-taped (but not sealed because nothing is sealed in this slumhouse), but a cinnamon-spice heat wafts into my space and then my skin is burning and I’m coughing and getting hot and there’s a film all over my face again that crinkles when my expression changes, like I’ve smeared an even layer of some kind of plaster across my face. I keep gaslighting myself, in other words, and then remembering that I was right in the first place. Unmasking is a process founded on, but ultimately more than, a single decision.
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