Earlier this year I met with a friend over FaceTime. Until that point, we had been talking solely through text. We had met virtually, found we had a lot in common, and enjoyed sharing about our businesses and life. After a few weeks of texting, we decided to finally do a virtual meeting.
What ensued was much of a blur for me. I can barely remember what happened. I call it the dissociated autistic performance state, where I unintentionally mask so heavily that I’m slightly dissociated from myself. I call it a performance because I am doing everything I can to make sure things are going well. I use the word disassociate because I am barely aware I am in the state, and neither is the person I am speaking with. I’m there, making things pleasant, laughing, and doing everything I can for it to be a “good conversation.”
It’s a beautiful performance. It’s so intense that I don’t even realize I’m doing it - I’m just focused on this very intense, very stressful moment. I really want the other to feel comfortable and for our conversation to go smoothly. It’s like all that pressure activated this state in me.
Most mental health practitioners would identify what happened as my nervous system being triggered and me going into a trauma response. I’ve chosen to create a separate word though, dissociated autistic performance state, because what activated this moment wasn’t caused by a history of trauma. It’s caused by how my autistic brain functions and copes in a neurotypical world. It’s caused by a lifetime of wanting to belong, and never quite getting there (you can read more about the differences between post-traumatic stress disorder and autism here).
About an hour into the virtual conversation, my friend’s internet unexpectedly went out. As they tried to figure out how to get it back up, I felt like I was catching my breath. When they finally got their internet back up, I suggested we just continue texting.
We discussed our conversation and how we each felt. My head was still processing what had happened. Our conversation didn’t feel good to me because it echoed experiences of my past where people didn’t feel real. I was so trapped in a dissociated performance that I couldn’t really connect. This was not their fault. They didn’t do anything wrong. From what I can fuzzily recall, they were quite pleasant and very nice.
And yet I felt exhausted, drained, and confused after our conversation. I also didn’t have the ability to articulate the experience as clearly as I am now. I couldn’t quite figure out the strange mix of emotions I was feeling or why.
When they asked how I felt, I knew I wasn’t ready to disclose how I was feeling. If it was a confusing mess of emotions to me, I knew it would feel even more confusing to them. Furthermore, when I am in an emotional recovery state, that is not the time to seek understanding and clarity. It is usually best if I take a break or get some sleep.
So I went to bed. I had nightmares through the night of people chasing me as I tried to run away. I was a missionary again in those dreams - a role in my life that once felt especially dissociated from who I am.
When I woke up, I was able to piece together what had happened in the virtual conversation. I knew why the conversation didn’t feel good - I had fallen into that robotic dissociation where everyone doesn’t feel real. For most of my life, people didn’t feel real to me. Furthermore, my inability to fully remember our conversation after a night’s sleep was another indicator I had dissociated in the moment.
Since learning I am autistic and enhancing my autistic self, this feeling has happened less and less in my life. It was scary to experience it again. It’s a place I don't want to return to. Probably why I was running in my dreams.
Furthermore, how do I possibly explain this to someone else?
In the past, before I knew I was autistic, I would feel incredibly guilty about falling into these states. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t damaged the relationship, and so I would overcompensate by checking in on them, making sure they were ok, and other fawning behavior. I’d throw the experience in the past like it never happened.
Now that I am more conscious of myself and what is happening, I would like to be more measured and intentional in my response. Given this is a friend I like and have experienced a genuine connection with, I would like to try to connect and speak openly about what happened.
As I think about doing this, I notice tears rising in my throat. The potentiality of speaking about this feels embarrassing. I want everything to go smoothly between us and I don’t want me to get in the way of a good relationship. I don’t want to add difficulty between us. I don’t want them to be scared of me, my emotions, my thoughts, - my autism. I don’t want to be the problem.
And yet, it is this very thought that gets me into a dissociated performance state in the first place. How will I ever genuinely connect and belong if I cannot share what I feel and experience?
I know I do not need to offer this level of vulnerability to everyone, but for the ones I do want to connect with, it is worth it.
Post Script: I spoke with my friend and asked if they would be willing to read this essay to fully understand what I felt. They happily agreed to do so and were grateful for my vulnerability. This experience enhanced our friendship and we remain close friends today.