The Masks He Wears
My active little boy with dark hair and expressive green eyes couldn’t speak until he was four years old. He suffered from a profound speech impairment. But he was intelligent and figured out how to mimic what other people were saying. He fooled many of us, including his pediatrician, with his echolalia (repeating what other people were saying). This was the beginning of a lifetime of imitating and pretending so that he could mask his discomfort and challenges.
By the time he was six, he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s and a learning disability. The developmental pediatrician who diagnosed him had these parting words for us, his parents.
“Watch out for death by a thousand paper cuts. Protect him and love him at home. Make home a safe refuge for him. He will be bullied mercilessly and every single instance of a hurtful word or action is like a paper cut to his sense of self. One or two can heal but he will get to be 17 or 18 and be emotionally hemorrhaging by a thousand paper cuts.”
Only time would reveal how prophetic his words were.
So, we set out with IEP (Individualized Educational Plan- USA) in hand to give our child every opportunity to excel in school. In kindergarten circle time, he pretended that he knew what the teacher was instructing by watching what the other kindergarteners were doing and following their cues. At recess, he followed kids or played on the periphery of whatever game they were playing, alone and always a step or two behind. He was both a sensory seeker as well as an avoider. He couldn’t keep his hands to himself but he hated music and loud noises. In elementary school, when the teacher played background Christmas music, he was so disruptive that the teacher moved his desk outside the classroom. That was not acceptable to us so we decided to bribe him. If he could sit in class listening to music, he would earn video gaming time during the weekend. He pretended that he liked music for the sake of video gaming. In fact, he would beg the teacher not to turn the music off so he could earn more video gaming time. We came to regret that bribe but it demonstrated his ability to tolerate distress for the sake of a reward.
He didn’t know how to handle himself in social situations. Speech and social therapy taught him some skills to help him with social interactions. He masked by using canned phrases when he met people. His conversation was mechanical and contrived but it earned him the love of adults and older folks who appreciated his politeness and old-fashioned manners. He learned that he had a talent for mimicking voices. He started using different voices when he talked to people. When we were in the car, he turned into the “human GPS” and guided me in a James Earl Jones voice. When he watched cartoons, he spoke like Donald Duck or Goofy. As he got older, he started using different voices and accents to speak, such as the Godfather, the Russian and German accents, etc. He loved the attention this talent got from people.
He was phenomenal at ad libbing. He had people rolling on the floor laughing with his acting antics. As he got into his teenage years, he started dressing oddly for the weather and the occasion. He would dress in formal wear, including a 3-piece suit complete with a top hat, a metal cane and a monocle! He dressed up like Elvis at a group outing and stayed in character the whole night. He wore winter clothes in the summer and summer clothes in the winter. He said he liked to be different from everyone else. The girls whom he desperately wanted to impress didn’t give him the time of day. He became obsessed with character games like Dungeons and Dragons where he could create fantasy worlds and transform himself into other characters.
In all of the masking and pretending that our son had employed since preschool, I suspect he never developed a true sense of identity. Identity answers the question Who am I? I have read that Identity consists of a sense of self that is consistent across all of the various spaces in which someone moves. The core of who someone is remains persistent at home, school, social events, etc. Identity also includes a sense of worth. Our son was a different person in different settings. Like a chameleon he attempted to adapt to various settings and people; never successfully fitting in because he would miss the social cues, say or do the wrong thing or do the right thing at the wrong time.
He was bullied mercilessly in elementary and middle school. It breaks my heart when I think of what this did to his sense of worth because, not only do we have an internal sense of worth, but it is also heavily influenced by external factors. Thankfully, in high school he found like-minded boys, most on the Autism spectrum, who thought he was hilarious and embraced his idiosyncrasies. He found a niche in STEM clubs and competitions. This was when he truly seemed most like himself. He was so proud of his accomplishments and seemed relaxed. He didn’t have to put on a mask and pretend to be someone else. We thought that he had finally found his identity and sense of worth. We couldn’t have imagined how fragile and susceptible to outside influences he still was.
In his Senior year of high school we saw the anxiety and panic rising in him as the time to leave his safety net at home approached. He was terrified of growing up and going to college. We told him college could wait and he could work full time. He chose to go to college and live at home. At college he didn’t have his tribe. Though he excelled academically, he was lonely and felt lost in the big campus. Two girls who were social justice warriors taking a gender study class befriended (targeted) him. He was quickly welcomed into the Rainbow-Unicorn clubs at university and found his new identity as the clownish queer friend.
I won’t retell the story of the entrapment by the queer/trans cult because the same sad story has been told many times by too many parents. One thing about this journey to hell that stands out in our mind is that his therapist, after having spent several months doing therapy with our son, picked up a clay mask he had next to him and said: “Your son is wearing a mask. This is not who he is. I don’t think he even has true gender dysphoria. His pretending to be a woman is a phase. Autism plays a huge part in it. I don’t know how long it will last but eventually the mask will have to come off”.
We were glad that he had seen the same thing that we, and everyone who has known him his whole life, knew about our son. He is acting a role in the play of life. This latest role playing may be his swan song, but will cost him more than he knows. It has already cost him his college and career plans, his health, his lifelong friends and family, whom he has cut off. He is sacrificing it all for the sake of the attention and applause of those who don’t know him or care about him. But like all acting roles, the gig will eventually be up and when the mask comes off, we will be there, as we always have been, loving the vulnerable young man who has been cut by a thousand paper cuts.