I Am an Imposter Posing as Neurotypical
You wouldn’t know anything is different upon meeting me. My slight lisp and deep voice wouldn’t give me away, nor would my walk, my smile, or my eyes. I follow the social script well when you ask me how I am, responding with curiosity if you are well too. You might feel like there’s something you can’t put your finger on though; behind the curtain is… something. Is it shyness? Is it deep and dark? Am I human at all? Am I a machine, an android made of an almost perfect algorithm?
Well, not all questions are easy to answer, and like the layers of an onion, every one anyone attempted to peel back holds tears.
I could feel the invisible hand tightening around my throat again. My legs and arms were heavy. My palms prickled with sweat while I kept trying to swallow and keep an aura of engagement, of calm.
From the darkness, I watched with the 10 or so other people as the couple in front of the glaring lights filmed their scene of the week. I was finally acting; performing in front of people but able to find myself in front of cameras, and since the start of the year had been between workshops and plays to grab at every bit of knowledge and experience I could. The faith and elation that carried me to the car after the first workshop night cemented my belief that I was finally on the right path to something I enjoyed.
After receiving our “The Following” scene and breaking it down to find the truth of the scene (who is saying the truth or lie? What is the purpose of this scene?) we had to take turns performing the scene of the motivated, dark and violent female character putting her power on the hesitant young male character. We would come to the middle of the circle and “cold read,” performing the scene like it had been mentally chewed on for weeks. Coming to the center of the sets of eyes watching, gauging, taking mental notes on how to impress with their debut 30 seconds in front of one of the most influential people in the city.
Already used to an audience, I did my part as best as I could then left the “stage” (a powerful character doesn’t just hang around at the end), I sat down, relieved it was over, and I could actually enjoy watching others now. Afterward, as we all left the studio, the casting director came by and murmured to me, “Very good job, very impressed.” And then I floated to the car.
Now I’m waiting in the seats, in the darkness, looking over the cameraman’s shoulder at the too-close-for-my-liking shot, close enough to see every micro-expression, every flitter of lost dialogue and coming out of the scene, veering off script, every fiber of nerves. Every mistake. All your vulnerability.
My chest was lead. I was struggling to breathe. They can’t know my secrets.
I have spent my whole life expertly crafting a persona. Like one you might use creating an email or your sickly sweet phone voice. Years upon years of observing, watching intently, too intently. A particular craftsmanship has stitched together my public mask so you think I’m one of you. But I’m not. I’m autistic.
I’ve trained like an Olympic athlete, day in and out. I’ve internally dug my knuckles into my back to make every interaction outside of my home seem normal. Natural. Effortless.
“Hey, how are you doing today?”
I am already smiling, always polite. “I’m good, how are you?”
“Good/Great, thanks/thank you.”
I pretend to fumble with my wallet but I already am ready to give you my card or cash. “Have a great day.”
“Thank you, you too.” (“You too, thank you,” doesn’t flow as nicely.)
Every interaction is planned out. Every day.
Returning home, I’d drag my feet to my bed, drop everything that doesn’t need to go into the fridge, take my shoes and pants off, then flop into my desk chair, the mask ripped off and thrown aside as I’d suck in a tired but relieved breath. It’s done. I take in another breath as my muscles twitch before, finally, relaxing.
The bad days are longer — more people, more crowds, more interaction. I run to the bathroom, peek into each one for a clean stall and sit down. My hand holds my chest as I fight my breath into becoming even. Closing my eyes, I race through the interactions to keep continuity for when I go out again, holding my mask up to see if there are any cracks. They’re deep, like the ones on an old harlequin mask; some new and flaking, some old and deep. I smooth them over as best I can as I give myself another minute. My eyes prickle, burning from all the eyes I’ve had to hold in mine. I look up to the light and blink away tears, take a deep breath and stand up. They don’t know who I am, and they won’t believe me anyway. The Commedia dell’Arte must continue.
Before, I said I was autistic. When I say that, I mean I’m unofficially diagnosed. If you know a self-diagnosed autistic person — especially female — they have meticulously researched autism through forums, social media, and medical research and have come to their conclusion. It isn’t like someone having a bad week believing they have major depressive disorder. It has been years of feeling — knowing — something is different about them and going on a search for their own diagnosis, and to find their own answers and, hopefully, peace.
I was that person. Stacks of paper piled on my desk as I printed out every questionnaire, every checklist an autistic female has made, highlighting points and keeping the stack to show any medical professional that could try to point me in the direction of a diagnosis. My “Shark Tank” pitch for some answers in my life fell on unlistening, untrained ears. I’m too old for most people to see, if only I was a child. I’m female, if only I were a male. Females don’t “get” autism. They can communicate, sometimes for minutes or hours, they look into your eyes, laugh, and hug. Every doctor, psychiatrist, and psychologist I’ve had the courage to look in the eye has said the same thing. My pitch wasn’t good enough. Again.
I’m just a shy, quirky girl, nothing is wrong with me, it’s just purely my unique personality. The mask I have spent my life creating has, consequently, betrayed me. So beautifully, masterfully built that even people close to me stare with a raised brow of skepticism. They’re not even believing my pitch.
Am I a fake, a phony? Do I even exist? Am I a myth? Or am the rope in a tug-of-war for my own contentment? Maybe I’m all these things, that’s how I’m an imposter; I can navigate your world without truly belonging while trying to grab onto a world that only exists in my dreams.
This story originally appeared on Behold! A Mythical Creature.
Getty image by lambada.