The Anxiety of Many Faces

I am terrified of appropriation.

I don’t mean that in the sense of say using AAVE, although there is an element of that. I don’t mean that I’m scared to be called a hipster or a fake whatever. I’m not even scared of claiming my own at times, when I need to.

I am scared that my identities, who I am, the ways I define myself, are costumes. Illusions so clever, so complete, that I managed to fool myself as well as others with them.

I’ve mentioned this before when discussing my own gender feels. Life hasn’t stood still long enough for me to really examine my feelings further regarding that aspect of things. I’m lucky enough to have surrounded myself with a community who will support me no matter what my ultimate gender identity ends up being and if feel the need to do a thorough examination sooner rather than later, so for now I can wait. Or is this just the excuse I tell myself as I avoid my fear of taking on a label, an identity, until I am completely sure that it belongs to me.

To my knowledge, I’ve never taken on an identity that didn’t belong to me.

I’ve been curious about my past heritage, but I don’t think it entitles me to claiming those cultural identities and is rather an interest in knowing my history. I discovered my ADHD before diagnosis, but even if I was able to fool the doctors and the tests, I can’t fake my reaction to the meds.  There are enough people among my friend-list who would think nothing of tearing me to shreds, were I in the wrong, to act as a safeguard. I know all this.

I think it was just over a year ago or so that I asked my friends and network a questions that had been skirting at the edge of my thoughts for some time: Am I autistic? This isn’t the post where I want to talk about what led to me to that consideration, except to say that all the suggestions finally built up to a point where it was hard to ignore that this was a question I should ask myself. When I put the question out there, the response I received caught me by surprise: “Wait, you didn’t know?”

As far as many people around me were concerned, my being autistic was just a given.

That confirmation explained so much of my life that I was bowled over, and yet a year later I still get nervous whenever I make mention of autism in relation to myself. There are posts I want to write about what it has meant to me and the way in which I am able to understand my life in relation to this realization, and yet I hesitate. Why?

Ever since I was very young, I would unconsciously mimic people around me. My best friend at the time was a girl 5 years my senior, who shared my name. I remember my parents complaining that I did everything the same way she did. She didn’t like meat? Neither did I. She was scared of bees? So was I. They insisted that I did everything the way I did, that I enjoyed what I did, because she did too.

I remember rejecting that idea even then. I knew that I wasn’t copying her likes and fears, but I couldn’t explain what I was doing. I couldn’t explain that her fear of bugs helped me understand my feelings of discomfort around bees. I couldn’t explain that her dislike of meat is part of what made it possible for me to offer an accepted explanation for a revulsion for certain textures. People can understand: I don’t like the taste, a lot more than they can understand that I have a problem with the texture or even with the smell.

When talking to people, I unconsciously reflect their speech patterns back at them. Most of the time it is subtle enough that people don’t notice; word choice, verbal musical pattern, certain idioms or phrases. Many of these are socially influenced and so there is nothing unusual about encountering someone else who also uses them. Sometimes, such as in the case of accents, it becomes more obvious, but it often takes me a while to figure out what is happening. Usually around the time the person I’m speaking to realizes that I’m mimicking them.

After enough experiences of having people become embarrassed or upset thinking I’m mocking them, I’ve started mentioning to people if the conversations looks like it will last more than a few words, that as I singer I have a mimic’s ear. It was the only reasoning I could come up with, since I didn’t even know why I do it myself.

An example of the severity of this would be the summer credit exchange program I participated in during high school. I spent a month in Spain learning Spanish. While I will admit that it was more difficult learning a new language as a teenager then it has been as a younger kid, I picked it up pretty quickly. Out in the streets, I was conversant at a basic level. In class, however, my accent was as clipped and uncertain as everyone else’s. I couldn’t understand why I was having so much trouble with pronunciation when in the past it had been something I excelled at. I didn’t know how to explain that rather than pronouncing the word as I would, I was unconsciously repeating the influences of the teacher’s Canadian accents.

That is, until it was time for the final project – a short speech about ourselves written entirely in Spanish and presented to the teachers.

By the end of my presentation, both my teachers had their jaws on the floor. One of the first things they asked me was when I had managed to learn Spanish. As far as they were concerned, just the week before I was struggling as much everyone else with forming the words properly.

I had no answer for them. I couldn’t explain. After that the spell was broken and I was able to spend our last few days, chatting happily with the Spanish people we met, much to my teachers’ bemusement.

It happens with friends and partners as well. Without even meaning to, I take on verbal quirks of theirs. This could be anything from a specific phrase, to the way they say certain things, to the way they choose their words.

Sometimes with certain words, there is something about the specific mouthfeel of the word or phrase that makes me want to repeat it multiple times. I will say the word over and over again. At some point, I realized that this was strange and started pretending that it was just a fun word to say. I didn’t know how to explain that it just felt… right… to say the word several times for no specific reason. Since this follows on the heels of hearing the word, it can sound like I am copying what was heard, when it’s not quite the case.

Sometimes, certain words or phrases become contextualized in such a way that when I hear them, I feel the need to repeat them in a certain way, or to respond to them in a specific way. For example, when someone says “blarg” I often feel the need to respond to it with “honk honk.” Although I can’t even remember the reference, the response has become automatic.

My tendency towards adopting styles of speech is not just limited to those I talk to in person. On multiple occasions, I have driven Alyssa up the wall with my tendency to copy a London accent when I encounter it, on and off, sometimes for days on end.

On rare occasions, my mimicry will extend from the verbal to the physical. If I person has a tick of some kind, if I’m not careful I can find myself imitating the gesture – be it a turning of the head, a jerky movement of some kind, it doesn’t seem to matter. If something stands out about a person’s behaviors, I can find myself unconsciously replicating them.

Similarly, I might take on certain individual mannerisms without having consciously intended to. For example, a tendency to touch my teeth with my tongue when teasing people, not unlike what Rose from Doctor Who does. It’s not that I’m trying to be like Rose, but rather something about the mannerism resonates with me. I do it because it feels correct. The moment I try to consciously reproduce the action however, I become awkward and uncomfortable. I can’t seem to reproduce the movement even though I had done it just minutes earlier.

If I try to communicate consciously through body language, the same thing happens. When trying to use body language to signal interest, I become over focused on minutia, worrying about whether my feet are pointing the right way, or whether the way I am touching my collar bone looks silly and artificial. I feel awkward and that awkwardness comes out.

There are times when I relate to the world by being able to see something externally to myself and then being able to reflect it back. At times it can feel like I need to witness someone responding to a situation in order to fully understand my own response. After my house burned down, I felt the need to bring it up all the time in conversation. It might look like I was just trying to elicit sympathy, but there was a different desire driving me, though not one I knew how to explain. It was as though I was waiting for someone to react a given way to the news, and in that reaction, help me figure out exactly what it was I was feeling. Every time someone expressed sympathy instead, it felt frustrating as though my mind was saying “no, that’s not right… try the next feeling.”

I’ve used books in similar ways, experiencing a broad range of emotions and situations that I wouldn’t have otherwise come across, which in turn help me create scripts for different scenarios. Believe it or not, historical romances have offered me some of the best insight into the way other people think. Romance novels often focus on the way conflicts arise from miscommunications and hurt feelings, as well as deep seated anxieties and the way people interpret events through those same anxieties. Add to that Fantasy novels which often examine the nature of power, human ambition, greed, good and evil and so on, and you have a good retrospective of human nature. A useful tool for someone who had a hard time understanding why people do what they do.

When I started writing, I took the scripts that book gave me and refined them further. In developing characters for different stories, I was able to develop situational archetypes. At times, facing new situations, I could use those archetypes to guide my behavior.

I remember once, when the opportunity to go to a nudist resort for a day came up. The resort in question had pools and hot tubs and saunas, all sorts of amenities that I would enjoy. It was a family resort, specifically a place that was meant to be free from sexualization, but still at 16 (and now) I was self-conscious about my body – specifically in relation to my weight. I wanted to enjoy the resort, but worried about what it would feel like to have a part of myself I was ashamed of, on display like that.

So what did I do?

I channeled a character of my own creation. Kassandra was trained as an assassin and a concubine to serve as a personal guard and spy to her adopted father. To her, her body is a weapon and it doesn’t matter ultimately what other people think. She holds herself with confidence and owns all of herself; the good and the bad.

By acting how I believed she would in this situation, I was able to enjoy my time. I was still self-conscious, but I was able to ignore my anxieties and act as though I had no concerns. Having a character on which to base my actions made it easy to play the role of confident and unconcerned Ania. Enough so that others even remarked on the fact that it was rare to see a girl my age self-possessed enough to enjoy herself at the nudist resort.

I remember mentioning this idea to my mom, channeling the power of a character I identified with, and she brushed it off as just another ridiculous idea of mine and told me to just be normal. Still, having archetypes and scripts to rely on served a very useful purpose in letting me navigate society with less conflict. They were rules for a society which doesn’t make much sense otherwise.

Being able to put characters on or off like a costume didn’t feel that strange to me. My mother and father both take part in different dramatic pursuits: my mother a singer and an actress, my father a talented pianist who also plays the guitar and organ. Performance was no an unusual part of my life. This was even more the case since I felt like I couldn’t be me where my family could see. I was aware that while at home, I was playing a character, the one I had to play in order to avoid as much conflict as possible. Growing up, I had this image of myself, of who I would be when I was able to be myself. The real Ania.

Leaving home, however, was not enough to fully leave the social pressure of having to act a part. Everyone has these expectations of who you are supposed to be, and often it is not safe to disappoint them: good student Ania, good employee Ania, good daughter-in-law Ania, they’re all roles that require me to act in opposition, or at the very least, sideways to who I am. As a good daughter in law, I can’t defend my wife to the extent that I want to, I can’t be quite as vocal about my opinions on politics including social justice. Being fully honest about who I am could potentially put my wife in a more difficult position. My mom used to comment that I always seem different around other people’s families. That they had a perception of me that ran in opposition to what she saw of me.

So much of my life revolves around these characters and scripts, that sometimes it can feel like there is not real me underneath all of the characters – rather than the more difficult explanation that all of these characters ARE the real me, but simple different aspects of my personality. Like Koh the face-stealing monster, the faces I wear might have belonged to other people at a time or another, but they all belong to me now. I can switch between them at need, and some fit more than others.

When I begin to identify with something, like autism, like ADHD, like my wibbly wobbly gender, there is an element of mirroring, of reflection. It’s not that I try to be them, but I try on the feelings they describe and then feel shock as I realize that it feels familiar. That I’ve felt this before. I look at my own life through the lens of what if, and sometimes who I actually am becomes a little clearer. It’s like being at the optician, when they go through the various settings to test your ocular parameters and keep asking you better or worse? Or to choose between one or two, two or three, two or four. I kook at myself, at my memories, my history, my intrapersonal relationships, my whole life through the lens of certain experiences is like suddenly being able to see details I never saw before, being able to understand exactly what I am looking at.

To others it looks like copying. It looks like faking. But it is not, it’s just how I experience the world. But then again, what if I’m wrong?

 

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The Anxiety of Many Faces

2 thoughts on “The Anxiety of Many Faces

  1. 1

    Wow.

    So much of this is so familiar to me:
    ‘I discovered my ADHD before diagnosis, but even if I was able to fool the doctors and the tests, I can’t fake my reaction to the meds.’
    Me too; I didn’t want to believe the diagnosis but the stimulants acted as relaxants, which they only do for people with ADHD. They called it ADD at the time; it was the 1990s.

    ‘Am I autistic?…When I put the question out there, the response I received caught me by surprise: “Wait, you didn’t know?”’
    Me too; I didn’t believe it even though I fit the diagnostic criteria, all my friends said, “yeah of course” and then my *mother* says “Well, of course,” and starts telling me these stories about my infancy which pretty much clinch it. This was the 2000s.

    And I just read your gender thoughts (linked) and again it was incredibly familiar. Though I was *butch-phobic*, while still trying to avoid getting beat up — still an issue for men who are being even slightly femme — and this was the 1980s. I didn’t want surgery or hormones — I knew that — and I liked the male body I have just fine. But I spent years imagining being a woman, and imagining being in a body with a vulva, a vagina, and (when older) breasts. I managed to get my brain so gender-deprogrammed that I blithely used “son” and “daughter” interchangeably, causing embarassment when everyone laughed nervously and it took me a while to notice what I’d said…

    They didn’t have the word ‘genderqueer’ at the time. It was invented a decade later in the 1990s.

    Also, geez, invisible chronic illness; I’ve had weird shit which nobody even has short names for (though I think we’ve finally figured out what’s happening, finally) and the number of fights with idiot doctors and the medical system has been absurd.

    I’d never heard of you before today, and I’m quite sure you never heard of me either. Patterns echo, I guess, without any copying.

    1. 1.1

      Just a quick point of order:
      We ask that people avoid ability based insults because of the way they impact disability. So in the future please avoid using the words idiot, stupid, etc.

      There is a more thorough explanation in the Ableism Challenge post.

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