Or, How I Stopped Performing and Embraced my Queer, Autistic, and Non-binary Authentic Self
by Brady Hummel (they/them)
I also made a Spotify playlist to accompany the piece:
If, as Hugo wrote in Les Misérables, “to love another person is to see the face of God,” then I think to love oneself is to see the divine within.
Yet, from the earliest moments of our lives, invisible winds push us towards predetermined courses, well-traveled, and continue to blow throughout time to keep us from deviating from that path across the channel. We’re categorized, saddled with weighty expectations, told “do this, don’t do that,” “you can’t be that, you should be this.”
And so, as we grow and learn how to use our legs and our mouths and our brains, we’re taught to stay within this box of what’s acceptable, what’s respectable, what’s natural, what’s right — and to be afraid of anything and anyone who lies outside of it, especially if we see any of those things in ourselves. That, it’s implied, is the most terrifying thing imaginable.
For so long, I was afraid of stepping outside of those boxes, of not being accepted, of being “othered” and facing the consequences that follow. I wasn’t strong enough to fight those atmospheric jet streams, so I constructed internal mechanisms to hold down myself, my authentic self, to allow me to follow the charted course ahead of me.
I held back a lot of myself and didn’t show it to others. I crafted masks, perfected my performance in the mirror, picked up new techniques by observing others. I spent an incredible amount of energy to play that role, to meet those expectations, to appear “normal,” to counteract and push down the thoughts, feelings, experiences, and needs I naturally felt.
Over the years, I performed so consistently, so well, so convincingly, that even I believed the act to be true — when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see any makeup, no cracks in the mask, and no humming sound or giveaway of the intricate machinery of control and repression that I had to build to support my performance continuously operating within me — at least for a while.
In 2020, though, the world seemed to stop and, for the first time, I didn’t wake up every morning and face a day on the stage. I was alone in lockdown and, without the need to perform because there was no audience anymore, the cracks began to show in my masks, and I began to feel that internal infrastructure of control start to fracture and collapse.
I retreated, like a monk to a lonely mountain temple, and looked inward to reflect and investigate, to search for that almighty and mysterious holy grail: authenticity.
Through this monastic journey, with all of its highs and lows, its challenges and its triumphs, I’ve finally stepped away from the stage, taken my final curtain call, and walked out of the theater without the masks and costume of a “normal” straight, cis, neurotypical man.
No, I know now and finally accept that which has always been true, that which has always been within me, but that I had forced into dark exile for so long:
I am queer.
I am non-binary.
I am autistic.
Standing here now, with so much behind me and almost entirely different identifiers than I had at the start, I feel like I’ve finally, after 26 years of life, tapped into my whole authentic self and broken down the internal machinery of repression that so forcibly held it down and away from others — and even myself.
Though my identifiers are different, I don’t feel like a “different person;” I finally feel like I’ve shed all of the artificial masks I’ve performed with all these years, leaving only what has always been there since my first breath, plus a newfound feeling of strength, confidence, acceptance, and power.
I feel a sense of power because I’m at a place where I’m comfortable sharing my story. I wouldn’t have been able to get to where I am today without others having had the courage and power to share their stories and experiences, which served two primary roles in my journey: first, they held up a mirror to allow me to see the reflection of an authentic part of myself that I hadn’t been able to see on my own; and, second, they made me challenge my own internalized homophobia, transphobia, and ableism (which our culture socializes us towards) and break down my own assumptions, stereotypes, and misunderstandings around sexual orientation, gender identity, and disabilities.
In the narrative that follows, I hope that I can help others in the same ways that I was helped along my journey. If just one person reads my story and sees their reflection in the mirror, if just one person reads this and changes the way they think about identity and are more understanding, accepting, and compassionate towards themselves and others, then I would have added my link to the chain that stretches through generations of those who have worked to de-stigmatize being “different,” being yourself, and loving yourself.
We only see these things as “different,” “unnatural,” and “bad” because our society and culture place unrealistic one-size-fits-all expectations on individuals and deploys those atmospheric jet streams to do everything possible to keep people along that predetermined course.
Sure, it was tough to fight those prevailing winds and break off of the original navigation path. And, after breaking off into uncharted territory for the first time, I felt adrift on the open sea, in search of a new direction. It was terrifying and unsettling and uncomfortable. But I cannot describe the feeling of now being free to steer the vessel of my life in the direction and way that I want to.
For anyone who is on their own personal growth journey, please know that, for all of the fear and anxiety and discomfort and change you may be navigating right now, it’s all worth it in the end to be yourself and love yourself.
I started this preface with a quote from Hugo’s Les Misérables, and I’ll end it with another one that I’ve started to tell myself for the first time in my life: “I have been loving you a little more every minute since this morning.”
Our culture is built upon a concrete foundation of dualisms: either you’re a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, straight or gay, normal or weird, accepted or rejected. Our entire way of engaging with others and the world around us is through categorizing what we see into one or the other of these dualisms. And from our first moment of life — and even before that now, with gender reveal displays and gendered nurseries and clothing and toys, blue for boys and pink for girls, G.I. Joe for boys, Barbies for girls — we’re categorized and assigned specific expectations for what and who we should be. Girls should be passive, nurturing, sensitive, and subservient, while boys should be aggressive, competitive, unemotional, strong, and dominating.
And those expectations are enforced — by parents and family, by peers, by teachers and other adults, by the stories we’re told, by the language that we use.
I’ve always known that I’m different. I’ve never really cared about the same things that other people my age have cared about. I prefer to read books or be alone in my own world (staring at clouds, daydreaming, listening to music, playing guitar) than go to parties or play sports. I’ve noticed and heard things that others didn’t, seen patterns that others couldn’t — my Pop-Pop always attributed that to “a lifetime of observation.” I would feel really intense emotions and could feel other peoples’ pain like my own, became enraged at any injustice, but I always thought that was because my parents and grandparents raised me well to know right from wrong. For a while, I just chalked it all up to shyness and introversion — and, as I grew older, to depression and anxiety, “chemical imbalances in my brain.”
Many times throughout the years, whenever I showed these authentic parts of myself, these deviations from the norm, whether with my family, my friends, my teachers, my colleagues and bosses, I was called out and criticized for being “too sensitive,” “overreacting,” “too much of a loner,” “not masculine enough,” “too feminine,” and, at times with a sharper point, “wuss,” “pussy,” “gay,” “fag,” “panzy,” “girly.”
Message received: I needed to hide my authentic self and fit into those cultural expectations prescribed to me at birth in order to be accepted.
And so, I began constructing towering and imposing internal machinery of repression strong enough to hold down any and all authentic feelings, expressions, wants, and needs, which allowed me to put on my mask and costume and get onstage to perform the character who lived up to those expectations that my authentic self never could approach.
Over the years, after continued performances day and night, I honed my craft so expertly that, eventually, I couldn’t even tell that I was performing at all. The mask had become so ubiquitous and convincing that, when I looked in the mirror, I thought it was the real me staring back.
To summarize a long (and somewhat mysterious, as no one in my family has really ever wanted to talk too directly or in too much detail about it) story, my father didn’t have a father figure of his own in the early years of his life. When my older brother and I were growing up, I could almost feel that absence and pain in the way my father approached his role with us.
I intuitively knew that his measure of being a good and successful father was to shape one of his sons into his spitting image: liking the same things, thinking the same way, approaching life and the world in the same way. I don’t necessarily think this is that unusual, as our culture expects (yet fails to really provide any training or support to) the father to be the example of what a man should be to his sons, to impart that which the sons need to live up to that example as they grow older so they can then have sons of their own, and the cycle continues.
I think, early on, my father and brother knew that he would never be able to fit that image — my brother had some health issues when he was younger that hampered his ability to play sports, and he was always creative and imaginative and compassionate like our mother. So, being the only other one among us, and, being sensitive to my father’s experiences and benchmark for himself in that role, as well as loving him and never wanting to disappoint him — as I think most children do when they’re young — I felt the mantle fall to me to fit that spitting image and not let him down.
He used to play hockey, run track, and be competitive in everything when he was in school, so I did, too.
He went hunting and liked to shoot guns, so I did, too.
He was strong and unemotional, so I was, too.
He valued an unwavering work ethic and a ceaseless pursuit of excellence and perfection, so I did, too.
I molded my mask and performance around him, even though, deep down, I preferred watching sports over playing them, I liked being outdoors and in the woods but not the violent and extractive activities in them, I’ve always needed my alone time to rest and recharge because if I keep going full-steam ahead I’ll “overheat the engine” and burnout, and I’ve always responded better to positive reinforcement than to endless constructive criticism pointing out what I needed to do better.
To help refine my performance — and to protect myself from rejection — I spent so much energy observing the people and circumstances and expectations around me, writing scripts in my head to navigate those treacherous and unexpected waters, and tediously choosing my words and actions and tone and body language and facial expressions to not be misunderstood, or worse, to fail in my performance.
Every time I wasn’t convincing enough, or, really, anytime someone was just rude or mean or condescending to me, I took it as a shortcoming of my mask and act, something to work on, a moment where the performance fell short, where I wasn’t accepted. I never reacted with anger or hurt, even if, in retrospect, I had every right to respond that way. No, it was always something I was doing wrong, showing that I wasn’t living up to those expectations, that I needed to try harder.
Parents never know when they might say something in a moment of emotion that metastasizes into the phrase that their child co-opts, internalizes, and echoes to themselves on a loop throughout their lifetime. For me, it’s always been “Oh, Brady, you’re always so sensitive.” I took the biting tone of their words and sharpened its teeth over the years as I repeated it to myself in my darkest moments.
It’s only now, after 26 years, that I realized that I never became less sensitive — I just turned that sensitivity away from myself and my authentic feelings and emotions towards the feelings and emotions of those around me. I became an expert people-pleaser, working so hard to make sure that nothing I did in my performance ever upset or confused or hurt anyone else.
I always extended herculean compassion to others, even those undeserving of it, and left none for myself. Even the slightest look of confusion or discomfort on someone else’s face would make me lash myself, curse my imperfect performance, double down on the energy I was investing in living up to the expectations.
I couldn’t bear to let anyone down — except for myself. I spent more time beating myself up for even a minor failing and honing my scripts and masks for the next performance, in hopes of finally getting it just right, instead of on the things that made me happy, that made me authentically me, that made me feel good about myself.
No, nothing was ever good enough, and any minute not trying to do better was a minute wasted — and another failure. How could I slow down and rest, I told myself, when there’s still so much work I need to do yet to perfect the performance?
Day after day, year after year, it took its toll. No matter how exhausted or unhappy I was, I had to keep putting on the mask and costume and get up on the stage — no days off, no time to recharge, no time to take care of the person behind the character.
I eventually broke when I was 15. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but my performance had dragged me into a deep and dark depressive episode where, for 18 months, I suffered in silence, unable to stop performing, unable to acknowledge that I needed help, and unable to ask for it. There were many nights where I contemplated getting one of the guns from the cabinet in the corner of my bedroom and, crying, taking my final bow and walking off stage. End scene, cut to black.
I couldn’t see a way forward for me: I knew I couldn’t be my authentic self and be accepted; I knew I could never live up to those expectations I had been trying so hard to meet; I knew that, if I kept performing that role, it would kill me.
Thankfully — and I really do thank them everyday of my life since then — I had others around me who saw that I was in a bad place and supported me as I got help. We moved the gun cabinet out of my room. I started going to therapy. I stopped playing sports. And, slowly, I started to break down that part of the internal machinery of repression that I had built to the specifications of fitting my father’s spitting image: the competitive and aggressive athlete, the big and manly hunter, the hard-working and perfectionistic breadwinner, the “strong silent type.” Those were the most toxic parts of the expectations burden I carried, the ones most antithetical to who I am authentically, the most difficult ones for me to perform.
As I began to move out of those dark moments of my life, I needed to renegotiate and reframe my performances to try to avoid ever finding myself back in that all-consuming darkness, to try to chart a path forward that I could survive and live through with some degree of balance.
I replaced those most toxic components of my performance with some aspects of myself that didn’t fly in the face of what was acceptable as a straight, cis young man: I embraced my nerdiness and intelligence and excelled in school; I didn’t feel the need to be exaggeratedly gregarious and allowed myself the time and space I needed to be alone and recharge; I taught myself guitar and started exploring jazz, classical, and more eclectic types of music.
The majority of that internal machinery that I had constructed years ago was still intact, just with some minor renovations here and there to cut out the most toxic components and let out a few authentic expressions. Yet, the core of the system remained the same: I still held back my authentic self and performed for the sensitivities and approval of others. Only the specific scripts and masks and costumes I used had changed.
Growing up in central Pennsylvania, where I never lived farther than a mile away from a cornfield for the first 22 years of my life, I didn’t see a lot of queer people. And most of the examples I did see on TV or in movies were such a narrow, stereotyped caricature: overly feminine, hypersexual, flamboyant, and gossipy. Reinforcing one of the dualisms so central to our culture, I thought you either had to be straight or gay, one or the other. I knew that I had always been attracted to girls, so, therefore, I had to be straight, I thought. Questioning one’s gender in that environment was unthinkable: I was born a boy, so I must be a boy. Simple as that.
So, as I was still trying to figure out what this new iteration of my performance would look like, I remember having feelings come up of “I like that, maybe I could wear that,” or “That seems really cool, maybe I could do that, too.” But the time-sharpened internal machinery of repression would immediately shoot those down and eulogize them:
Earrings and jewelry? “Gay.”
Tighter pants, shorter shorts, cardigans, and artsy shirts? “Not masculine enough.”
Long hair that I can style in many different ways? “Too feminine.”
With those thrown out as categorically out of the question, given who I was supposed to be and the role I was supposed to perform, I started trying to find a middle ground, somewhere between the authentic expressions that were forbidden and the soul-crushing stereotypical masculine presentation (read: bland grey or black sneakers, boot-cut blue jeans, athletic t-shirt or conservative button-up, short hair). If I can’t present the way I really want to, I thought, then at least I’ll find my own style that is still “acceptable” but doesn’t make me feel like I’m a dress-up doll.
I played around with bow ties and scarves, more layers to intentionally build an outfit, lots of “smart casual” looks. Even though it felt good to not have to fit myself into that (boring) archetypal look, I could still tell that I wasn’t wholly comfortable, still wasn’t wholly myself.
I think it was because of this sort of middle ground that I found with my presentation that, when I went to college, there were a number of times where people would tell me that they “always just assumed you were gay.”
There certainly were more queer people in college than there were around me when I was growing up, and that increased visibility helped me to break down that cultural stereotype of being gay as being flamboyant, gossipy, and hypersexual. I became friends with queer people, got to know them, and got to see that it was completely natural — and, honestly, in a lot of cases, really beautiful; so many of the queer relationships I saw in my friends’ lives were so much healthier and more intimate than the heterosexual relationships I saw and experienced.
While I had broken down the stereotype and assumptions about queer people I had been shown growing up, I was still really taken aback whenever someone told me they just assumed I was gay — just because I have a sense of style, I’d tell myself, doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily gay, and people are wrong for correlating the two together as a package deal. I was still stuck in the dualism: if you like girls, you’re straight, if you like guys, you’re gay. I was dating girls, so I must be straight.
One of my earliest friends at college was gay — he came out to me early on, and I told him that I appreciated him telling me, that it didn’t matter to me either way, and it wouldn’t get in the way of our friendship. He and I connected on so many things, and it was so easy and comfortable to be with him, so wespent a lot of time together. He brought me into his friend group — which any introvert can attest is like a Heaven-sent gift — and I felt like I didn’t have to perform for him.
Since I was young, I’ve known that I can be a little intense. I have a pretty far-flung array of interests and passions, I can talk about them all in-depth and ad nauseam, and I’d rather talk about serious things like politics, religion, mental health, and trauma than have to engage in superficial small talk.
In most of the relationships with people in my life, I don’t really show that side of myself that often because it was reinforced to me that most people weren’t the same way, that that wasn’t “normal” to go that deep that quickly.
But he was that way too, and he met me there in the depths, and we created a space in our relationship where we could have those types of conversations with each other. We could talk about anything, and we’d often have long and deep conversations for hours into the night, just the two of us.
I had never had that same level of emotional and intellectual intimacy with anyone else before, even with past female romantic partners. That internal mechanism of “oh, we’re just friends” started to break down under the intimacy and the weight of my feelings.
We would tell each other about our dating lives — he helped me get through some tough breakups with girls, and he told me about other guys and his experiences in our school’s queer community. He talked about his own journey and struggle with acknowledging, accepting, and coming out about his sexual orientation, which helped me to see that, rather than some monolithic embodied stereotype, or worse, boogeymen, queer people are people too and just love who they love. They only struggle more about it because our culture so heavily stigmatizes and marginalizes them, their experiences, their authenticity, their happiness.
I got angry. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to openly and freely love whomever they want to? Love is such a rare and potent experience that, at its purest, can enrapture the soul. Who are we, any of us, to deny it to someone when they find that priceless gem?
So I qualified myself as an ally, but I still wasn’t really questioning my own sexuality — I was only just starting to feel the internal machinery start to jam and lock up. Though I knew love was powerful (while I was also unwittingly experiencing that power at that time), I still thought of it in the traditional way our culture frames it, the Relationship Escalator: meet, date, get married, buy a house in the suburbs, have kids, grow old together, happily ever after, the end.
With that cultural expectation in hand, I had both a checklist for what love is and a roadmap for what a relationship should look like and how it should grow. Our friendship didn’t fit that image, so, therefore, it must not be love. And even with female romantic partners I’d had in my life to that point, I felt like I had to fit those relationships into that mold, forcing each of them into a neat box rather than letting them grow organically and take the shape that they naturally would. That idyllic picture started breaking down after each of my previous relationships kept ending in a similar way, and when my parents divorced during my junior year.
Just as I began thinking about what love really looked like, felt like, my friend told me one night, in tears, that he had been in love with me since soon after we first met, had been struggling with it for three years because I “knew” I was straight and wasn’t questioning my sexuality, and wrestled with two unthinkable options: tell me and risk jeopardizing our relationship, or stay silent and never know what would have happened, what could have happened.
I was crushed for him, being in that position, in front of me, sobbing and shaking — such a terrible burden to secretly carry for so long. And I cared for him so much that I didn’t want to disappoint or hurt him. But I knew, in that moment, that I wasn’t able to meet him on that higher plane of love — I didn’t have the maturity, the self-awareness, the time, nor the vocabulary to recognize the love I did feel for him, had always felt for him, through the disorienting fog of the repression, stigma, and confusion.
We were in an impossible position. Even though our feelings for each other didn’t change, the emotional intensity and energy required to navigate those waters took a toll on both of us, eventually burning us both out entirely. We were forced to take the only, albeit tragic, next step available to us at that moment in our lives: without a way forward together, we both went our separate ways.
And so I hobbled through the rest of college like I had been shot through the heart and was bleeding out. I graduated, moved to Atlanta for a job, and started that daunting and terrifying period of transitioning to “the real world” and trying to build the foundation for my life on my own.
Those first few years after college are always a challenge for most people, no matter what that specific next step looks like for them. But my first three years post-grad came with multiple different and simultaneous learning curves — and not a whole lot of support or a clear path forward for many of them.
First, I moved from central Pennsylvania, where I had lived my entire life to that point in a very familiar type of social environment and with my whole family close by, way down south to the heart of a major metropolitan city. Just on that front, with endless traffic and lots of different types of people and so much going on all the time, that was a marked change of pace for me to get used to in Atlanta.
And being a Yankee in the South — not knowing that I would eventually become what’s called a “Damn Yankee”: a Northerner who moved to the South and stayed here — meant navigating a place with a very different historical, cultural, and social context than what I had known back home.
On top of that, I didn’t know a soul when I moved to Atlanta. Almost no one from my school (at least not during my time) moved there, so I didn’t have the luxury that other kids I graduated with had when they moved to big Northern cities and had a built-in group of people from college in the same place as them.
I’ve always known that I was introverted and could come off as intense to people on first blush, so it’s always been an uphill battle for me to make friends, no matter the circumstances. I really appreciated first making one friend who I really connected with who then introduced me and brought me along to events with their group of friends, so that I didn’t have to start at the bottom of the hill every time just to try to get some social interaction when I needed it.
But I didn’t have anyone like that when I first moved to Atlanta. And, even though I tried and tried, invested in people, stayed patient and hoped that it would eventually happen, I never found that person there. I felt like a Northern suburban yokel in a foreign land, alone.
Third: my first job out of college was about as untraditional as I could imagine. Most of the people I graduated with got some type of corporate job, where they had a lot of structure: they know what their job responsibilities are, they know how much they’re going to be paid, they know how long it should normally take for a promotion or raise, they know what the normal trajectory for someone in their role looks like, they have supervisors who guide them and peers to get drinks with after work.
I didn’t have any of those things.
I was an independent contractor and had to start my own LLC even before I graduated in order to work for the firm. I was the youngest person there by at least ten years; my colleagues were all mid-career professionals with clear definition on what type of work they did and did not do, had second incomes from their spouses, weird schedules around their kids’ soccer practices and dance recitals, and a preference for the flexibility and loose structure of being an independent contractor — many of them had worked in corporate PR and intentionally wanted an arrangement that wasn’t that, understandably so.
Our monthly compensation was determined by billable hours — which I learned quickly that you can be sitting down and working and getting stuff done for eight hours a day and still only be able to bill four — so each month’s check varied based on what client work was available and how much I was able to maximize my billable hours that month. We all worked remotely, so I only saw my colleagues in person (if we weren’t working on the same client team) every couple of months and could go weeks without hearing from or seeing my boss. And there were no clear “lanes” or responsibilities that I could find stability in — for a while, I was just a ready set of hands getting pulled into different client projects each week, or sitting around not able to bill hours because no one was bringing me into projects.
I don’t mean to say that my experience was terrible and was a mistake — I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today in my career without the invaluable opportunities and learning lessons that I had in those three years.
But the ever-present discomfort and instability of that role — of being a 22-year-old but expected to perform like a mid-career professional; of needing to make sure that my boss, my colleagues, and my clients saw the value that I could provide rather than just seeing me as “the young college kid” so that they kept giving me work so that, at the end of each month, I could pay rent and buy groceries and pay my student loan bill; of feeling like I had to continuously “optimize” my performance in order to maximize my billable hours, since every hour I wasn’t billing had a price tag attached to it, and not let myself take breaks or set boundaries — all of it triggered the instinct to perform that I had crafted and honed throughout my life to that point and amplified it up to another, more intense, and more precarious level.
Because of all of those factors and pressures, my survival month-to-month hinged on how others saw me and interacted with me. If they saw me as “the young college kid,” I wouldn’t get as much work, or it’d only be a one-off project rather than consistent hours as part of the client team. If a client didn’t like me, there was no guarantee that there would be another client or an equal amount of work available within the portfolio to fill the gap if I was dropped from an account. And, if I set boundaries with colleagues and clients (like, if you email me after 6pm, I’ll get to it the next day), they might see me as some entitled Millennial who wasn’t a serious member of the team and wouldn’t give me as much work as before.
So I morphed my character and performance to this new situation, but it doubled-down on the same things that had been central to my performances before: extreme people-pleasing, minimizing and holding down my feelings and experiences, not setting boundaries, and ignoring my mental health needs. In every circumstance, whether it be an email response, a phone call, a work project, a client meeting, whatever, I consciously filtered my performance and actions to make sure that I didn’t give my audience anything to make them see me differently.
When one of my colleagues berated me for not knowing how to write copy for email campaigns, asking how I ever got into PR and marketing if I couldn’t do basic things like that already, I took their comments to heart and really felt like I was a failure and a complete idiot who had been an imposter from the beginning and it was all coming to light now. (In reality, copywriting is its own specific skill set, and you can be a good writer but never have had to write that way and it not go well when you try.)
When another one of my colleagues tried to give me “constructive feedback” by saying that I overthink and over-analyze everything, that I’m too sensitive and needed to “toughen up,” that I need to respond faster to emails and calls, I took it that my performance was failing and that I needed to tweak the act and mask in order for others to like and accept me, even though I was hiding my authentic feelings and trying to override the way my brain naturally works.
And there were a number of times where I, say, wanted to wear a cardigan over my button down to a meeting but caught myself and thought, “well, I’m meeting with a bunch of South Georgia forestry guys, so maybe the cardigan is not right,” or “I’m going to be on a construction job site and I don’t want the guys to laugh at me or judge me,” and I’d put the cardigan back on its hanger in the closet.
I had to work twice as hard: once over in actually doing the work itself, and twice over in maintaining the performance.
With all of those learning curves compounding on each other all at the same time, and with my need to perform in order to have others accept me, there wasn’t a whole lot of room to process the confusing collapse of the relationship I had in college, or to explore my sexuality or gender identity, or to process the other traumas in my life and break down that internal machinery that had ruled my life for so long.
For those three years, I was in survival mode, just trying to get through the insecurity and instability and perform well enough to be able to pay rent and buy groceries.
And, not surprisingly, I burned out.
There came a moment in May 2020 where I paused, took stock of the life that I had been trying to build, and realized that so much of it had collapsed in such a short period of time.
In the six months leading up to that moment, I had gone through a really messy and difficult transition out of my previous job, built and launched my creative audio agency the week that COVID really registered in the collective American psyche as a disruptive threat, been trapped in my tiny apartment in an old building that was falling apart and becoming an unhealthy place for me to be, looking out at a city that I couldn’t really see myself being able to stay in (and one where it seemed like I was the only one taking the mask and social distancing guidelines seriously), and my girlfriend broke up with me out of nowhere in a really hurtful, manipulative way.
I felt alone. I felt abandoned. I felt broken. I felt like everything that I had built over three years had collapsed in less than six months. “The best laid plans of mice and men go awry” or something.
In a way, though, I also felt like this was a clean slate, an opportunity for me to take some time and space to process and heal from what had happened during that six-month collapse, as well as the things that had happened to me in my life as a whole, and really figure out what I wanted the next chapter of my life to look like.
I had known for many years that I didn’t want my life to be what it was like growing up, with a performative marriage and a big house and a yard in the suburbs, the ideal happy nuclear family. And I knew that I needed to change from what those three years in Atlanta were like, as I began to realize, in hindsight, that a lot of the things I had to go through, a lot of the people and environment around me, the level of inauthentic performance borne out of survival, all were not things that I wanted.
Because I had seen, throughout my life, where that road of meeting someone else’s (or society’s) expectations of who you’re supposed to be can lead. I knew that I had to do whatever it took, no matter how scary or intimidating or challenging or painful or insecure or mysterious, to keep myself off of that road.
So I entered into what I had started to call my “personal growth journey,” which felt like a safer moniker than the one that had originally come to mind and felt more appropriate to me: my “monastic period.”
I don’t think I was the only one in that situation at that moment when life as we’d known it shut down in response to COVID’s fast and indiscriminate spread. With nowhere to go, no trips to take, no morning commute to the office, no meetups with friends, and raging insecurity and unquenching existential dread, it felt like a tailor-made situation to retreat into myself and focus inward to ask “big questions” like, “What do I want my life to look like?” “What do I want my work to look like?” “Where do I want to set down roots?” “What types of people do I want (and not want) in my life?” “What do I value in those relationships?” and the biggest one of all, “Who do I want to be?”
We all went into lockdown in order to weather through the pandemic. Working through these questions, which felt like a similar threat to my health and survival, didn’t come from a place of needing to productively use that time in lockdown— as some are calling a “pandemic sabbatical.” I was in survival mode and did what I had to in order to emerge into that next chapter intact and able to live my life.
After resigning myself to this journey ahead of me, I decided, most pressingly, that I couldn’t stay in my apartment for another year. It was too small, inefficient in really critical ways (like no central air conditioning in downtown Atlanta…and having to hoof up many flights of stairs whenever I left or came into my building), and falling apart, with mold in a lot of places, stories from neighbors of windows falling in, and a sewage leak in the shared laundry room that took our landlord a week to actually acknowledge and start addressing (which was the final straw for me).
Looking around on Zillow, I saw that any place that was just livable (read: had central air and wasn’t falling in on itself more and more with each subsequent minute) was going to be at least twice as expensive as what I had been paying before — way out of what I could possibly afford. Since all of the roots that I thought I had been planting over three years in Atlanta dried out, I realized there was nothing really holding me there, so I started to think about other options.
That doesn’t mean that my time in Atlanta was a failure. Those years weren’t wasted, even though things didn’t work out in the end, even though I struggled for most of my time there and the roots I tried to grow withered. I learned so much there, I grew so much there, I was stretched outside my comfort zone so much there, that I wouldn’t be able to be where I am in my life without each and every one of those experiences, good, bad, and ugly. Our lives are a compounding question, and each new thing that enters them and each new page that we turn builds on all that came before it.
But, as the saying goes, “you can’t heal in the same environment that broke you.”
Part of the ethos I decided to hold myself to for my personal growth journey, taking to heart lessons I had learned from my experiences and observations in Atlanta, was that I wasn’t going to chase opportunities or make snap decisions just because something comes up and is the first available option. I decided that I wanted to be more intentional in the way I make decisions.
So, instead of just saying, “well, wouldn’t it be cool to live in XYZ,” I started reflecting on the places where I had lived and visited throughout my life and what I had liked and disliked about them and came up with a list of criteria for what I wanted in that next place.
I loved how rich the sense of community was in Hershey and Carlisle. I loved being able to walk down the street and talk with my neighbors. It was easier to engage and find the people and spaces that best fit me.
I loved being able to go out my door, get on my bike, and go wherever I wanted in Carlisle. Nowhere was out of reach, and I could go from the bustle of campus to a quiet neighborhood in one direction, or a sweeping cornfield in the other direction in under 15 minutes either way.
I loved having a ton of outdoorsy spots really close by in central PA, where a hiking trail or fishing pool or serene spot away from everything and everybody were all right there — not an hour’s drive through insane traffic.
I loved the diverse array of neighborhoods in Atlanta, each with their own distinguishing culture and scene, where I could start the day working at a coffee shop in one neighborhood and end it at a bar in another neighborhood and feel like I was in completely different places altogether, like I’d traveled at light speed to the other side of the world.
And I loved the melting pot of people in Atlanta, where I knew there were other people like me there (even if I didn’t ever find them), and where it always felt like things were moving and happening.
No place up North that I had visited or lived in had checked all of those boxes, even though it would be closer to family and more familiar territory.
But I had remembered visiting friends in Chattanooga and absolutely loving it. My aunt and uncle had retired from Pennsylvania to Tennessee and were about 20 minutes outside of the city, so I stayed with them for a couple days in the summer and investigated — sometimes you can love a place when you visit but it’s completely different to move and live there; New Orleans comes to mind as a case and point, or so I’ve heard.
Chattanooga passed the test and checked all of the boxes, so I found a place and made the move, which, during a pandemic was even more stressful than it already is in normal times. But it was all worth it to get to an environment that was a much better fit for what I needed and would allow me the space and time for the personal growth journey ahead.
Moving to a new city during a pandemic, when everything’s closed down and where I didn’t really know anyone yet, did the hard work for me of eliminating distractions and minimizing the constant barrage of interactions where I needed to perform. I was alone, secluded, and could finally step off the stage and take my mask off for what seemed like the first time in my life.
To say it was liberating would be revisionist history: it was terrifying. No bright light in my face. No audience in front of me. No expectations and critiques of my performance. But the performance was all I ever knew, and without it, I thought, who actually am I? What did my face actually look like under the mask? What were my thoughts and feelings like without having to filter and curtail them for my audience?
I was alone with that realization, that terror, but not isolated. I was lucky enough to find a therapist who could virtually meet with me after everything seemed to collapse in my life in Atlanta in May. I think having someone to talk to and help is only half the value of therapy — it also provides a consistent space to work through things yourself where you’re safe and supported.
There were so many times in session when I would come to a breakthrough or realization on my own, talking and verbally processing, where journaling or getting caught up in the thoughts in my head hadn’t opened up yet. And having a session marked on the calendar each week meant I couldn’t procrastinate or give up on this journey I was on.
I knew from the start of therapy that there were a few things I needed to work through — top of the list being relationships, processing what happened with my friend in college and the recent breakup with my girlfriend in Atlanta.
Little did I know that that was just the tip of the iceberg, the part that I could see above the water, and that there was a lot beneath the surface, out of perception’s sight, that needed attention. But that’s how these journeys normally unfold: as you create the space and focus and support to start working through things, as you begin to get your arms around the iceberg, more and more of it begins to reveal itself to you.
I think our souls move through four different stages symbolized by the four elements, continuously cycling through them at different intervals throughout our lives.
We feel rooted and settled in the earth, content with where we are and the shape and trajectory our life is taking.
Then, all of a sudden, a fire ignites and burns the earth that held our roots, that supported us and gave us stability and comfort. In the destruction’s wake, we go through a process of self-immolation when we navigate the storm of emotions as we deal with the loss and void.
The fire’s ashes are then blown by the wind, and we are astray with the broken pieces, trying to figure out what happened and reflecting on how to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Once the temperature cools, we become like the water, open, kinetic, inviting new things and new experiences as we continue to the next phase of life.
When, finally, we find new earth to set down roots, once again, finding stability and balance.
After that sudden breakup in Atlanta, I really went through the fire. “What happened? How could everything be going well for so long, then all of a sudden implode?” As I reflected back, I metaphorically put myself in a theater, watching, as an unrelated observer, the film of the moments of our relationship.
And it slowly dawned on me: I was trying to fit the relationship into the mold I thought relationships should take, rather than letting it take the shape and tone and form that it organically drifted towards, and that I had done this not just in this most recent relationship but with all of my romantic partners before.
I had been playing into the archetype society had vetted me to perform, rather than being authentic to my truest self. And no intimate relationship like that can ever last if it’s all built on a performance — no matter how life-like and convincing your mask is, no matter how finely-tuned your script is, eventually the audience will see through the performance.
That realization sparked another. I had been in the self-immolation phase since the emotionally exhausting end of the relationship with my friend in college and had just tried to ignore it for years. The flame was too hot for so long that I didn’t have the strength or courage to even approach it. But, since I was already in the flames with my most recent breakup, it organically connected the two fires, like a prairie burning on either end, where it’s only a matter of time before they meet and become one all-engulfing wildfire.
I had realized that I had never had a relationship so compatible, so fulfilling, so emotionally intimate, so compassionate as the one I had with him. But, because that relationship didn’t fit the mold of what I thought a relationship was and should be, I didn’t consider it in that category of relationships at all, calling it “just best friends,” even though it had nearly all of the components of what I want in a relationship.
We were performing as friends, but really, we were in love, that once-in-a-lifetime kind of love that we hear of in mythology and classic literature — and, as I found out later, all of our friends had known the whole time, and I was the last one to find out. I just hadn’t been in a place where I could break out of the expectations I thought I had to fulfill, the role I felt I had to perform, the strict criteria of what a relationship is, that goddamn dualism, to see that we actually had it, right in front of us.
I couldn’t recognize the love, and eventually, we lost it under the weight of the performance.
It’s hard for me to believe in soulmates, no matter how many rom-coms I see — I think there’s more than one person in the world with whom I am compatible. People flow into our lives with a crash, then ebb away, leaving a mark, an imprint, a void. But it’s hard to banish the thought, that question in the dark, lonely hours of the night: does that kind of intimacy, of love, come more than once in a life?
I don’t think I’ll ever get over that. It’ll always be a scar, forever with me, every once in a while getting hot and itchy to remind me that it’s still there, that it will always be there. As Baldwin wrote in Giovanni’s Room:
“Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils.”
Saying that phrase to myself, “I was always in love with him,” shattered the internal machinery of repression I had built around what relationships are and should be, and it freed me from my lifelong performance of having to be straight.
Because I wasn’t. I never have been straight. I just shut that part of me very deep down in the darkness. And finally saying “I am bisexual” and accepting it introduced a new sun into my universe, engulfing it in fresh light and clarity.
Like a lot of people, cooped up at home, isolated, lonely during the pandemic, I spent more time online. At first, I had scoffed at TikTok, thinking it was immature and a waste of time because it was just high school kids doing dances and stupid trends. It didn’t fit my expectations of what’s valuable, what’s productive, what’s worth my time and attention — and in that way I was, I admit it, an elitist Millennial.
Through TikTok, though, I found increased visibility for queerness that I had never before been exposed to. There were creators being authentic, talking about their experiences and journeys, answering questions and breaking down stereotypes, showing that it’s okay and amazing and beautiful to be queer, to just be yourself. I learned so much about sexuality and social justice and empathy and self-compassion from them. And, for the first time, I saw people rejecting gender norms and just being themselves.
Going back to those early experiences in my life of being called “too sensitive” and feeling like I had to hunt and play sports, even though I didn’t really enjoy them, because that’s what boys do, I always knew that I didn’t fit that traditional mold of masculinity. But I always felt that I had to confine myself to it because I was born a boy, that I had been placed in this box and told that I had to stay in it, that I couldn’t get out of it.
It was only through seeing other people on TikTok challenge the gender binary and show that those types of restrictive boxes, “boy vs. girl,” “man vs. woman,” didn’t really exist at all, that there’s a huge open middle ground that’s completely normal and valid. That really challenged my performance, tearing down that message of “you can’t be this, you have to be like that.”
The more I reflected on my definition and performance of masculinity, I realized that that traditional mold of masculinity fit me like a baggy hand-me-down sweatshirt: it didn’t really fit me, I didn’t feel comfortable in it or enjoy wearing it, but I felt like I was obligated to wear it and act like I liked it, lest I upset those who originally gave it to me.
But learning about and seeing non-binary people, who don’t fit into either the traditional box of masculinity or the traditional box of femininity but who occupy a middle ground where you can have some masculine aspects, some feminine aspects, and some androgynous aspects in a mixture that’s unique to you — that really resonated with me.
It shook the foundation of that internal machinery of repression that I had built, even more than questioning my sexuality had, because it said “You can be who you are, completely removed from all of the classic boxes that are deemed ‘socially acceptable,’ and be completely valid and whole and accepted.”
If I wanted to grow my hair out and experiment with wearing it in a number of different ways, I could.
If I wanted to pierce my ears and wear artsy dangle earrings, I could.
If I wanted to branch out of traditionally masculine stuff and start wearing tighter pants, bolder shirts and tops, cardigans and jewelry, I could.
If I wanted to get big visible tattoos, I could.
I didn’t need anyone’s acceptance or approval. I didn’t need to mute myself in order to make others comfortable. I could present myself how I wanted to, how I felt comfortable and seen. I could be me, authentic me.
And so, the Tower of Jericho fell. The internal machinery of repression finally crumbled and collapsed.
Its destruction left me with feelings of liberation — and feelings of complete upheaval. Everything that had governed my life, dictated my performances, even told me that I had to perform in the first place, was dust, torched by the fires of self-discovery, self-awareness, and self-acceptance. But the wind had carried me to new and foreign lands. What did all of this mean? What does my life look like now?
So many experiences throughout my life had hardened me, had formed tough scar tissue, had caused me to construct strong defensive walls. With everything stripped away, without the audience calling for me to take the stage, now that I was living my own life for myself, I needed to reclaim what was left of that softness, that sensitivity, that had always been within me. But after so long of either covering it up or toughening it up, could I even find it? Was any of it even left? And what would it look like to get back in touch with that part of myself again?
I think it was fortunate timing that all of those questions rose to the surface in the midst of the “dark winter” of the pandemic, when I didn’t have to go out and see people and act like the fundamental underpinnings of my life hadn’t been uprooted. Having to go out and put a good face on either would’ve completely torn me in two, or at least made it more difficult and take longer for me to navigate those existential questions and this new terrain.
I needed to create the time and space to ride the waves of emotion throughout this journey, sometimes just staying in bed and removing the expectation of “being productive;” this journey is productive, I kept telling myself, and feeling these feelings and not repressing or ignoring them like I used to do is what will help deliver me safely home on the other side.
On the days when my emotions weren’t a storm battering against my sails, and when I had energy and focus, I dove into researching, learning more, trying to answer the questions I had, trying to chart what my new life would look like.
Thankfully, I was introduced to Trello in college, and anyone who has known me since knows that I organize my entire life on there, all separated into different boards and cards with checklists and links and notes. I’ve learned over the years that typing out excerpts from something into Trello is a really effective way for me to retain and process information. So, naturally, I built a sprawling digital infrastructure to help organize and guide my research, and I spent hours and hours reading sources on sexuality and gender identity and expression [see Resources section at the end of this piece] and typing away in Trello, gathering more and more information.
And the more sources I added and filled out, the more I saw myself in them and reinforced the awakenings I had had. I gained more clarity on what the gender binary is, the history of third genders (or at least recognition of gender on a spectrum) in other cultures, and what it means to be non-binary.
This broader rejection of gender norms in my own identity and expression made me also revisit my sexuality — the bisexual label still implied the gender binary, from which I was in the process of removing myself, so I began using “queer” instead. There are a number of other applicable and valid labels one may use that don’t imply the gender binary, but for me, “queer” encapsulates how I feel — I am who I am, and I love who I love — without over-complicating things.
And so, over a couple weeks, taking the days furiously typing away into Trello along with those in bed processing everything, I became more and more accepting and comfortable and confident in this new, more authentic life I was building.
Then, one day in January, I was making lunch and scrolling through TikTok when a video came up on my For You page of a woman, about my age, talking about her experience of driving and how it’s affected by her autism: having a lot of anxiety about driving to new places, having to budget more time in case she misses a turn or can’t find parking, and having to take a few minutes to compose herself and lower her anxiety before getting out of the car.
“Huh,” I thought to myself, “I have a lot of those same experiences with driving too, but…I’m definitely not autistic. Like, it’s just a general anxiety thing.”
Then I started watching more of her videos, talking about how, at 27, she’s now just realizing how she’s been masking and compensating her sensory overload issues, her constant burnouts, her struggles in social situations, and other things so effectively that she’s basically hid her autism so well and “passed” as neurotypical even to herself for her whole life.
The more videos I watched, the more I saw myself reflected back to me, and the more I panicked. I went from “No way I’m autistic, I’m 25 and I have a job and an apartment and I don’t bang my head against a wall,” to “This is just a coincidence, I’ve known I’ve had depression and anxiety and that I’m introverted, but that doesn’t mean I’m autistic,” to “Oh my god, this explains so much, maybe I’ve just been masking and compensating as part of my performance for my whole life and I’m now just realizing it because I’m not performing anymore.”
It felt like the iceberg I had been working to get my arms around on this journey had just revealed a new, previously submerged layer that I needed to work through.
I called my mom, the only person I could think of who wouldn’t immediately dismiss what I was saying.
“Okay, now hear me out,” I said, and told her the whole story.
“Brady, I don’t think you remember that I worked for a couple years at a school for autistic kids.”
She was right — I had completely forgotten about that. So, she wasn’t just a person who I knew who wouldn’t scoff at what I was saying; she also had background understanding and experience with people on the spectrum and would be an informed sounding board.
“And there were a number of times, I remember,” she continued, “where I saw a report come across my desk that made me think of you. You’ve always had your quirks and challenges, even though you’ve been able to handle them really well. But I always wondered if you were somewhere on the spectrum, honey.”
I nearly dropped the phone from my ear. It was another moment of clarity, of my true reflection in the mirror sharper and more in view. “Whoa, I probably am autistic, then.”
She suggested I look for some medically certified tests online that help gauge your level of ASD traits, and I found the RDOS Aspie Quiz, the Autism Spectrum Quotient (ASQ) test, the Ritvo Autism & Asperger Diagnostic Scale (RAADS-14), and the Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire (CAT-Q).
On every single test, I scored way above the threshold for ASD and had higher-than-average scores in compensation, masking, and assimilation.
I both couldn’t believe it and felt like I had known my whole entire life.
This was a big wrench in what I thought would come next on this journey — before my autism self-diagnosis, I felt like I was beginning to emerge with my new queer and non-binary identity. Now there was a new factor thrown into the mix that I had to take a step back to explore and integrate.
Needless to say, I needed some time and space to process all of this new information and recover from the whiplash of that sudden realization.
But the next day, January 6th, didn’t grant me that.
The live images of the Capitol being attacked, of an attempted coup against our democracy, and the fear and uncertainty of what was happening and what it all meant, it was all so much on its own for anyone paying attention that day to have to respond to and process. I was already on my heels from my autism self-diagnosis the day before, so it felt like a double whammy, a one-two combination that put me down on the mat again.
Like a lot of people after the attack, I was paralyzed, glued to the TV non-stop for days, an entire week, doomscrolling on Twitter for updates and breaking news, trying to find answers. I felt like I was not only uprooted and blown astray by the wind in my own personal sense of identity, but that the roots and stability of everything around me were also torn asunder.
Everything within and without seemed to be in chaos.
The waves of depression were too strong, and I submerged.
On the one side, I was beginning to question if everything I ever did, or in every way that I saw myself throughout my whole life, was just masking and performing on an even deeper level than I had already explored to that point. With my sexuality and gender, I had always sort of felt like there was part of me that I was hiding, that I could still feel its presence even under the dark hand of the internal machinery of repression.
But with my autism journey, it seemed like there was a completely separate and unconscious apparatus that I had constructed to so thoroughly mask my autism that even I didn’t know it was there, that even I didn’t know that I was performing at all. And whenever I caught glimpses of it, I would just chalk it up to depression, anxiety, introversion, or quirkiness.
But now that that menacing apparatus appeared, like Brigadoon from the fog, I was thinking, “Is my entire life just one never-ending performance? Has anything ever been authentic in my entire life?
And on the other side, I was seriously concerned about the threat of violence throughout the country. The temperature had been rising, rising since before the election, and it felt like 1/6 would finally ignite it.
And while I now live in a relatively blue and progressive city, it’s still an everyday occurrence to see big trucks with “Trump/Pence” and Three Percenters stickers and “Don’t Tread On Me” license plates.
Now that I identify as queer and non-binary — and was in the process of changing my presentation to where that was pretty obvious to anyone walking or driving by — I began to worry about what my new authentic life would look like here, and the possible threats and concerns that come with it. Will someone yell at me — or worse — while I’m out walking my dog, or at a restaurant? Am I just “othering” myself to the point where no one will accept this new, more authentic me? Will I always have to be afraid and have to make the tradeoff of security for authenticity?
Part of me hates to admit that, because I had never had to think about those types of things before in my life. For so long, I could avoid those types of concerns by passing as a straight, cis, neurotypical man and claim all of the privileges attached to that identity. Just being able to avoid having to worry about my safety or how others might perceive me for so long is a privilege until itself — so many people don’t have that option to just ignore those types of concerns and pass as a more “socially acceptable” identity.
But I had seen the cost of passing firsthand, and, in my calculation, it outweighed the benefits. Living an inauthentic life was not an option for me anymore because I knew that I couldn’t keep paying that cost and survive for much longer. That realization made it crystal clear for me: I’d rather pay the cost of being authentic and potentially being “othered” than pay the exorbitant cost of continuing the performance.
After that, I felt more confident in the trajectory I was charting for myself and the changes I was making in my life, even if I still didn’t fully understand them yet.
Once I had reached that moment of relative stability and momentum after the events of 1/6, I jumped back into my research, now focusing on sources on autism.
It didn’t take long to shatter the common stereotype of “You don’t look autistic” because I’m not non-verbal and don’t bang my head against the wall and am able to live independently. I learned that autism and other neurodivergences aren’t a specific set of behaviors or attributes — at their most fundamental level, they just explain how some peoples’ brains operate differently than others. It’s like computer operating systems: some run on iOS, while others run on Windows, but they’re all still valid and functional, even if they look and run a little differently.
While there isn’t a strict checklist that you must fulfill in total — and if one characteristic doesn’t fit, then you must not be autistic — there are lists of common traits that autistic people exhibit in their own personal and unique combination, and no two autistic people share the exact same mix of characteristics. Reading through those lists of common autistic traits was like a medium repeating a secret to me that I had never ever told another soul about:
“You find joining in conversation difficult.” Check.
“You find that others don’t understand how you are feeling and say that ‘it is hard to know what you are thinking.’” Yep.
“You find it difficult to maintain eye contact when you are talking to someone.” Oh yeah.
“You enjoy consistent routine and schedules and get upset or anxious should that routine or schedule be changed.” Big time.
“You have a very strong reaction to sensory stimuli, such as textures, sounds, smells, and taste.” I’ve always been sensitive to loud noises or loud spaces, which is part of the reason why I wear my noise-cancelling headphones a lot.
“You notice small details, patterns, smells, or sounds that others do not.” One time I was recording a live event for a podcast and I could hear faint background music in the mix. When I told the PA operators about it, they said that they couldn’t hear it but, after really listening in on the headphones and turning the volume up, they eventually heard it, too. “I guess you’re in the right line of work,” they told me. That stuff happens all the time.
“You like operating solo — both at work and play.” Absolutely. Being my own boss and working from home is such a better fit for me than having to go into an office or being part of a huge organization.
“You have increased empathy or immense care for people or animals.” I just keep hearing, “Brady, you’re just too sensitive” through my whole life, so yeah.
“Sometimes you have a hard time identifying and describing your emotions.” I always thought everyone struggled with this, that everyone always had multicolor emotions — partially happy, partially sad, partially a mixture of a ton of other mysterious things — and struggled to respond to “How are you feeling?” I’d discovered through my research that this is called type II alexithymia and that, no, not everyone has a reduced capacity to cognitively appraise their emotions like I do.
“You feel like you need to be intentional in how you communicate so as to not be misunderstood.” 100 percent. I spend so much energy making sure that I’m being as clear as possible, choosing every single word and phrasing each sentence in the best possible way, because there have been so many times throughout my life where I have been misunderstood and I then have to work so hard to try to make the other person understand that I eventually burn out. I think this is one reason why I’m a professional communicator and storyteller, because I’ve had to really develop and hone those skills out of self-preservation over the years.
“In conversations, you normally tend to ask questions of the other person to avoid having to talk about yourself.” That’s me to a T. As I’ve been reflecting about how I could be autistic and be in podcasting and be such a confident interviewer, I think, again, I’ve been honing those skills of asking thoughtful questions and directing conversations for my whole life in order to avoid getting into positions where my performance could be challenged or falter, and that’s exactly what an interviewer does.
On and on the lists went, and I kept seeing myself reflected back more and more.
At first, I really struggled with accepting that I am autistic. Early on in my research, I felt like I was an imposter, seeing clouds in my coffee, having changed my identifiers already and imagining other things in me that weren’t there at all. I dreaded the prospect of having to go through the long and expensive process of getting an official medical diagnosis — since I had been able to mask and compensate so effectively that I didn’t even realize it, it’s not unrealistic to think that that process could lead to a determination that “You don’t look autistic.” And, I admit, I was worried what people would think — would they immediately judge me? Pity me? See me as someone who’s defective, broken, helpless?
[Sidebar: Thankfully, as I found in my research, there’s growing acceptance of the credibility of self-diagnosis in the autism community and that not everyone needs to or should go through the long and difficult and expensive process of pursuing an official medical diagnosis. People who, after doing research and learning more about ASD, self-diagnose as autistic, are just as valid as someone who secures an official medical diagnosis.]
Deep down, though, I mostly felt relieved. Finally, something that explains so many of the experiences and emotions and challenges I’ve had to deal with for my whole entire life! And there are other people like me!
I’d performed a role that I thought would let people accept me, but I always felt like I was not like everyone else — not to sound elitist, but more like an alien from Mars. Realizing that I am and always have been autistic abolished that for me, showed me that I’m not the only one, and that it is okay to be who you are, even if that’s completely different from everyone else.
And it explained why I felt like I always had to work so hard in my performance, and why I was constantly caught in the vicious cycle of performing and burning out, performing and burning out, over and over and over again. Being able to find a label — autism — opened up connections to resources online that outlined things to add and keep in mind in my day-to-day life to adapt to the way my autistic brain naturally operates, like:
- Have more structure in my daily schedule: morning routine, morning work time, lunch, afternoon work time, dinner, relax and decompress, evening routine
- Use the Pomodoro technique (four 25-minute focus blocks, each followed by a five-minute break, and a long 30-minute break at the end of the fourth cycle) with my work and writing to help me avoid hyper-focusing and burning out
- Begin using new apps: Tiimo to help with routines and time management throughout the day; Google Tasks to help with small things to-do day-to-day; and myNoise.net for ambient noise to help me focus and sleep better
- Allow myself to stim when I need to and add in new things to help me do that, like an under-the-desk bike peddler and creating a Spotify playlist with music that I can stim to
- Take CBD oil every day to help manage my anxiety
- Set more boundaries around calls and meetings, like: Build in 15–20 minutes before a call/meeting starts to get ready; Build in 30 minutes after a call/meeting to decompress and prepare for the next task; Phone calls unless it’s critically important that it include video; No unscheduled/impromptu video calls or FaceTime calls; If someone needs to get a hold of me, text me before calling; No meetings before 10am to allow me to go through my morning routine and start my day off right; and, Have agendas prepared ahead of time for meetings/calls
My autism self-diagnosis also helped me contextualize and understand habits and experiences that I’d had throughout my life that had helped me adapt and navigate my autism, unbeknownst to me, like:
- Fidgeting with my hands when I get overstimulated
- Throwing a ball against a wall when I’m stressed
- Always following the exact same routine, step by step, each morning and evening
- Putting everything on Trello to keep me from forgetting things and getting overwhelmed by a lack of structure and clarity
- Constantly listening to music all day long to help balance my mood and navigate my emotions
- Getting anxious and uncomfortable in big crowds and in places where I feel overstimulated or over-extended
- Over-thinking and perseverating on some things for a long time
- Having a hard time switching tasks or jumping quickly from one thing to another
Seeing these things in a new light and intentionally adding in new things made an immediate difference for me.
I felt much more balanced and even-keeled, rather than always fluctuating between performing and burning out.
I was able to focus more at work and on my creative projects.
I felt so much more energized all day, rather than feeling like my energy reserves continue to drop with each passing minute.
I felt much more comfortable in communicating with others because I finally understood how my brain works and why I’d struggled so much in the past, and I was able to put up boundaries that helped keep me away from things and situations that I know are triggering for me.
I finally felt like I was back to where I was before in my journey, feet back on solid ground, with an understanding and acceptance of who I am, and the performance and masks stripped away to where I could just be my authentic self.
And now that I knew who I am deep down inside, I began making changes on the outside.
I had been growing my hair out for a while, but I finally felt confident and comfortable enough to start experimenting with new and different ways to wear it.
I got my ears pierced and started wearing more artistic and creative earrings in different styles that, before, I had thought people would laugh at as “too feminine” or “too expressive for a man.”
I spent a lot of time on Poshmark and Etsy and made a commitment to myself that I would invest in updating my wardrobe to clothes that I wanted to wear, that made me feel more like me, without filtering them with concerns or insecurities about what people would think. With each new item, each new outfit I create, I get an indescribable wave of emotion, like a rush of blood to the head:
I don’t have to perform anymore.
No more masks.
No more hiding myself.
I know who I am.
And, with that, I realized what I’m worth.
In the past, during my performances, I would work with people or be friends with people or be in a relationship with people with whom I couldn’t be my authentic self, telling myself that it’s better to have some people in my life than nobody, than to isolate.
No more — throughout this process, this year of transformation, I’ve grown to appreciate solitude, to accept that I’m naturally more drawn to it than to constantly being surrounded by people, and that I would rather stay in that solitude than have people in my life with whom I couldn’t be my authentic self.
My time is valuable, my energy is valuable, and my mental health is much, much too valuable for me to compromise the high standards I hold for people to be able to be in my life — I’ve seen what the other side of that coin looks like, and I will never allow myself to get in that position again.
I was lucky in many ways in that regard. As I began coming out to my family and some close friends, the authentic me was met with acceptance and pride and love. Even though each of those conversations was terrifying and exhausting, just by the definition and nature of the content and not because of the other person, I grew more and more comfortable and confident after each one.
I think revealing these kinds of changes to others who have known me through the performances, through the masks, and still being received with love and compassion makes it much easier to then face the rest of the world and proudly proclaim, “Here I am,” knowing that the love and support of those who I most care about are there with me.
Now, with two shots in the arm and a physical mask on my face instead of a metaphorical one, I’m slowly getting out more and engaging in the beautiful community here in Chattanooga, having emerged from my so-called “hermetic period” much more in-tune with who I am, more balanced, more peaceful, and more excited than I can express to not have to get up onstage anymore and be able to live this sacred life ahead of me, for however much longer, as me and not as someone else.
I know that this isn’t the end of my journey. I am, just as we all are, never-ending works-in-progress, masterpieces that are continuously accumulating brush strokes, taking on new shapes and colors, finding new depths of meaning and expression. I find out more and more about myself with each passing day, and I don’t think that will stop until I have no more passing days left.
So this is but the turning of a chapter in a long story, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
I’ve always turned to writing to process what’s going on in my life. Joan Didion described it well: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.”
Throughout this entire journey, at some point nearly every day, I’ve sat down at my 1965 baby blue Olivetti typewriter, the mast and sail that carried me safely through the rough waters I’ve traversed. The absence of a screen, and the satisfying staccato of the keys, and the stack of physical paper growing all help me mentally differentiate work (sitting in my apartment and typing on my laptop) from writing (sitting in my apartment and typing on my typewriter), and the words flow out.
Writing this piece has been both clarifying and cathartic. I partially wrote this for myself, for the intrinsic value of the creative act itself. But I also partially wrote it to share it with others — even though my experiences with sexuality, gender, and ASD are uniquely mine and not representative of everyone’s experiences, there’s still incredible value in sharing them.
I know for a fact that this story wouldn’t have been possible, that I never would have been able to get here at this point in my journey without others having the courage to share their own stories.
In a direct way, those creators on TikTok, the authors of the articles I read in my research, they all played a role in holding the mirror up for me to see myself. And, in a more indirect way, everyone who has come before us and pushed our culture to be more accepting by living their authentic lives have made it easier for us to follow their example.
I feel a strong obligation to add my link to that chain, to tell my story, in hopes that others, even if it’s just one person, can get some value out of it in their own personal journey. Because telling stories reminds us of our humanity, and what it means to be human, and that’s how the world changes.
And the world certainly does need to change. We need to abolish our collective prison in the mind, where we need to conform ourselves (and expect others to conform) into a box that our culture arbitrarily deemed “right,” where we go to great lengths and measures to contort ourselves, censor ourselves, repress ourselves, and put on a mask and climb onto the stage.
Because life is the most precious gift of all, and robbing ourselves (and each other) of it is the greatest tragedy imaginable.
If you’re reading this out there on the open seas of your own odyssey, please know this:
You are not alone, and what you’re going through, whatever it may be, is leading you towards calmer, more peaceful shores ahead. The process of becoming ourselves is a lifelong journey that never ends until it all ends, and along the way, the waves and tides shift and move, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes violently.
That’s what life is. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. And allowing yourself to find and hold onto that beauty within, by being everything that you are, is what makes the odyssey worth enduring. Because you are Life, and I am Life, and we all deserve to bask in the cool breeze and warm sunshine.
Stay true, and know I love you as I love myself, my real, ever-becoming, authentic self.
If you want to learn more about the themes of this piece, here are some resources and social media profiles that were helpful to me in many ways throughout my research process:
- Keith E. Edwards, “Man in a Box — The Traditional Definition of Masculinity”, 10/10/12
- Brian Heilman, Gary Barker, and Alexander Harrison, Promundo Global, “The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the US, UK, and Mexico”, 2017.
- Keith E. Edwards, Ph.D dissertation, University of Maryland College Park, “‘Putting My Man Face On’: A Grounded Theory of College Men’s Gender Identity Development”, 2007.
- Mihran Nerseyan, The Body is Not an Apology, “Is Healthy Masculinity a Lost Cause? A Non-binary Person’s Thoughts on New Masculinity”, 10/2/17.
- Elizabeth Boskey, Verywell Mind, “What Does It Mean to Be Nonbinary?”, 11/16/20.
- Kylin Camburn, GLAAD, “9 young people explain what being non-binary means to them”, 7/14/19.
- Meredith Talusan, Them, “This is What Gender-Nonbinary People Look Like”, 11/19/17.
- Liam Strong, Promethean, “On Why Nonbinary Individuals Can Still Have Beards, and Should”, 4/21/20.
- Human Rights Campaign, “Coming Out: Living Authentically as Transgender or Non-Binary.”
- Padma Nagappan, San Diego State University, “He/She/They: Why Gender Pronouns Matter and What it Means to be Non-Binary”, 11/7/19.
- They Is My Pronoun, “Why Would Someone Use a Gender-Neutral Pronoun?”, 4/25/18.
- They Is My Pronoun, “The Honest Mistake: On Being a Pronoun Beginner”, 4/26/17.
- Alex Hanna, Nikki L. Stevens, Os Keyes, and Maliha Ahmed, Scientific American, “Actually, We Should Not All Use They/Them Pronouns”, 5/3/19.
- Them (Instagram)
- GLAAD (Instagram)
- Out Magazine (Instagram)
- The Advocate Magazine (Instagram)
- @blackfluidpoet (TikTok)
- @saint.josie (TikTok)
- @kendalexis (TikTok)
- @mx.deran (TikTok)
- @rainbowhistoryclass (TikTok)
- @thejeffreymarsh (TikTok)
- @mcspaceburger (TikTok)
- @they.them.ri (TikTok)
- @sonialazo_ (TikTok)
- RDOS Aspie Quiz
- Autism Spectrum Quotient (ASQ)
- Ritvo Autism & Asperger Diagnostic Scale (RAADS-14)
- Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire (CAT-Q)
- Disabled World, “What is: Neurodiversity, Neurodivergent, Neurotypical”, 3/15/21.
- The Spectrum, “Autism signs and characteristics: checklist for adults.”
- National Autistic Society (UK), “Autistic fatigue — a guide for autistic adults.”
- Dora M. Raymaker et. al, Autism in Adulthood, “‘Having All of Your Internal Resources Exhausted Beyond Measure and Being Left with No Clean-Up Crew’: Defining Autistic Burnout”, 11/2/20.
- National Autistic Society (UK), “Meltdowns — a guide for all audiences.”
- Anna Remington and Jake Fairnie, “A sound advantage: Increased auditory capacity in autism”, 9/17.
- Michael Lyvers et. al, Psychology of Music, “‘Music is my drug’: Alexithymia, empathy, and emotional responding to music”, 1/9/20.
- Rory Allen and Pamela Heaton, Music Perception, “Autism, Music, and the Therapeutic Potential of Music in Alexithymia”, 2010.
- Rebecca M. Jones, Science Translational Medicine, “Music tunes the brain in autism”, 11/7/18.
- Jamie Freed, Asperger/Autism Network, “Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Asperger/Autism.”
- Anna Fay Hermandson, Tiimo, “The Masters of Masking: Autistic Men Who Mask”, 6/11/20.
- Lucy Anne Livingston, Punit Shah, and Francesca Happé, Lancet Psychiatry, “Compensatory strategies below the behavioral surface in autism: a qualitative study,” 9/19.
- Lucy Anne Livingston and Francesca Happé, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, “Conceptualising compensation in neurodevelopmental disorders: Reflections from autism spectrum disorder”, 10/17.
- Lucy Anne Livingston et. al, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, “Good social skills despite poor theory of mind: exploring compensation in autism spectrum disorder”, 3/26/18.
- Laura Hull et. al, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, “‘Putting on My Best Normal’: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions”, 5/19/17.
- Tara Haelle, Neurology Advisor, “The Consequences of Compensation in Autism”, 4/18/18.
- Vicki Swan, The Mighty, “How a Lifetime of Masking My Autism Has Affected Me”, 11/6/18.
- Steven K. Knapp et. al, Autism, “‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming”, 2019.
- Cat McGill, The Mighty, “Teaching Myself to Stim as a Newly Diagnosed Autistic Woman”, 3/6/19.
- Natasha De-Freitas, Tiimo, “The Pomodoro Technique: How to get things done, help your focus, and maintain your energy”, 2/11/21.
- Job Accommodation Network, “Autism Spectrum Accommodation Ideas.”
- The Autistic Life (Instagram)
- Life in Autism World (Instagram)
- The Depression Project (Instagram)
- @lafilledani (TikTok)
- @erikaheidewald (TikTok)
- @ellaellaw (TikTok)
- @eizawolfe (TikTok)