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  • Writer's pictureZoë Benham

Learning how to unmask…

It was a giggle with a girlfriend last year when we were discussing my diagnosis that we both decided how good we are at masking.


The psychologist who diagnosed me, bless her, had written in the report that we had a rapport during certain aspects of the assessment as we had similar interests, but did suspect a level of masking. 


However after the assessment and before this report I had phoned my friend to say how awkward it was, 5 really long hours, the woman who did it was a weird little goblin, her voice went straight through me and I’m pleased I never have to see her again. 


I am that good at masking. I was simply nodding with an interested expression to be polite, mirrored her chatting away and did whatever I could to get it over with as quickly as possible. I’ve had it drummed into me from such a young age to be polite, it’s second nature to panda to dull conversations from people with stupid faces. 


There must be so many people who think I like them when I don’t, I try to hide behind sunglasses and AirPods pretending I don’t see or hear people when I’m walking through town, pretending the streets are my catwalk but sometimes that’s not enough. It’s nothing personal I just really dislike humans, I don’t like to fit into someone else’s narrative and it makes me feel uneasy how often people are unkind behind each others backs and all smiley to their face. It makes me feel really uneasy, as though everyone has a hidden agenda or motive.


Working in hospitality for nearly a decade taught me how to be chatty and friendly. ‘Zoë go sit at that table for 10 minutes while taking their order as we need to delay it going in the kitchen.’ Or go ‘piss glitter’ (was my fave) on table 11, because we’ve run out of roast beef and you need to up sell what we do have left.

Working in hospitality taught me how to talk to all types of people, it helped me create a social mask, a character of myself that I could slip into behind the bar and detach myself from when I left.


However, those times are long gone and in recent years I have evolved. Or have I digressed. I’m not sure. But what I do know. Is that I am trying to be my true authentic self and say goodbye to the mask.


The question I ask myself now… 

Is this something that I really want to do or is it something I have been conditioned to do? 



A very socially acceptable thing to do, people love it, I tried to love it, pretend to be as excited for overpriced steak as everyone else but nope. Give me pizza in bed in PJs or some chicken nuggets any day. Everyday. Please. I remember the first time my husband took me out, to Cote’s and ordered steak and Rosé, I didn’t tell him that the wine tasted like pissy flowers and steak is just steak hun, what’s the fuss about?! I have slowly over the last 11 years phased them out of my life. He still goes for steak. With other people. Who also like steak. It’s a much better scenario. Me and him have the occasional McDate with some McNuggets, which is the McEnergy I’m all about.


(You know now I’ve started adding Mc in front of words I want to do it with McEverything!! - concentrate Zoë back to the McBlog!!)


Learning how to unmask has been easier than to know WHEN to unmask, which should be all the time, but normies don’t always make it a safe place to be my true unmasked self. 

This is a challenge I am facing, finding safe people and places where my unmasking isn’t mocked, punished or humiliated.


Food has always been an issue for me, which I now know is called ARFID, recently I saw a friend for a hot chocolate and an exhibition, my oldest friend actually, who when I ordered cake and didn’t eat it, she just pointed out they had takeaway boxes and didn’t mention it at all after when I packed it and carried it around.

However, an extended family member who knows I dislike eating around people, because I have put pizza in my handbag when leaving her house, also a lamb chop wrapped up after a BBQ to take home, feels the need when out for a big family dinner to shout across the table and announce, Zoë, aren’t you eating? Totally exposing me and I had no option to respond in my coolest sass, no I’m just here to party and wave my drink about. 



It’s now that, I no longer put myself in those situations where I am vulnerable to be bullied for my quirks or have to force myself to drink to find the confidence to be there or to fit in.

If I have the urge to have a drink, I know it’s because I’m anxious and I now avoid those places or people, or I make adjustments to make it calmer for me.

I have very few humans I genuinely like to be around, I share hot chocolate dates with them. 

Throughout my twenties I definitely used drinking and alcohol as a way to hide my social awkwardness. It calmed the business inside my head, it made me feel more confident and I couldn’t let my guard down without it.

I hardly, very rarely drink now, perhaps a cocktail on a beach or beside a pool as a treat somewhere or if I’m childfree somewhere random but it’s not something I include within my everyday life or part of socialising anymore. It has taken a lot of therapy since my diagnosis and self discovery to realise along with other things I wasn’t drinking while going out, I was drinking in order to be able to go out, let loose, my hair down, chat away, go wild, when really that wasn’t who I was. Or who I wanted to be. That goofy Zoë was always there, but over the years she had been suppressed and created a mask to follow society’s norms.

Zoë was actually silly and shy with a dark sense of humour that only a few select people got to see, I realised this at my own wedding party, where I wanted the ground to swallow me up, people kept wanting to talk to me and I just wanted it to be over. I regret massively not eloping in Thailand on a beach with no one else there as that was what I really wanted but my husband wanted a bigger do in England, so I foolishly committed to being Queen of Social Awkwardness at my own event. Cringe. Lesson learned, I will protect my inner peace better in the future. 

As the years have rolled by I realised if I was socially awkward, nervous or hadn’t seen someone for a while, I would have to have a drink to relax into the conversation and situation. There were so many occasions I inappropriately had a drink on arrival somewhere to get into character and act normal - I mean, it’s insane! I’m annoyed at myself for not picking up on this sooner. 


I now stick to my guns more and follow my gut, no matter how odd or unsocial it may seem to others.


A (plain) hot chocolate and a stroll round an art gallery is a bit of me, photography, travel and tattoos, those are things that I’ve always loved, probably will forever. An abandoned building, deserted beach or peopleless places is as rock n roll as it gets. 

Woman with mask


I think Christmas is stupid. I do it for the children, but I wouldn’t celebrate it if it weren’t for them.

It is bizarre that chocolate eggs should only be eaten on Easter Sunday?! We buy and eat them whenever they are in the shops.

Pancakes are also allowed all year round as standard.



I no longer answer the front door if I don’t want to. I sit like a psycho and watch people stand there on the ring doorbell and do absolutely nothing. Or I just completely ignore the noise and pretend it never happened as I would rather not know. Hiding under the safety of my duvet, in a cloud of squish in Care Bear aesthetic.

People turning up on the doorstep unannounced should go straight to burn in hell. 

When I get my highlights done at the hairdressers, I now have the confidence to say, ‘I hate having my hair dried and please don’t massage my head. Let’s just hurry up and get it over with, thank you please’. 

Or also request the quietest times, when I’ll be the only one in there, multiple hairdryers and chitchat ugh, my head explodes! 

I can openly say, no, that environment isn’t suitable for my autistic children about an event and if a friend pops round to drop something off and I’m not up to face humans because I’m having a hermit day, I can say without feeling guilty that I’m in, leave it on the doorstep and be on your way. 

When I don’t understand a text, I respond with rephrase please, instead of guessing or not understanding sarcasm. 

I will never like sarcasm. 

What does it mean? Is it a joke? Are you being cruel? Are you pretending to be unkind in a joke, but really you hate me? Is that what you really think? Make it make sense!

After instructions are given I now ask them to be written down or to confirm with my husband, because while they were talking, I was definitely listening, smiling and have my attentive eyes on but the second I walk away my mind goes blank as if I’ve been zapped by that pen in men in black. I often still just nod and agree, my fake agreeable face is spot on, when really I had no idea what the fuck they just said it what is going on.


I haven’t yet mastered telling someone they are sitting too close, I would much rather sitting opposite than side by side, if someone is sitting too close it feels as though I can’t breathe.


Omg - how do I tell a cab driver not to talk to me? I was in one the other day to London and she spoke non stop. My brain was frazzled before I even started the day. 

I’m still trying to not over share when I feel awkward and randomly blurt stuff out. 

What is that about?!


I tend to just to go silent now instead of correcting, responding to negativity is something I activity avoid. I try to pretend I haven’t noticed because whatever I respond with will no doubt exacerbate things. 

I hate drama. Issues. Bad energy.


Sometimes it feels as though when I walk down the road everyone is staring at me, other times I have main character energy and humans are SIMs players botting about the place. 


I need to work better on escape plans when strangers start up convos. Must try and make myself look more unapproachable. Saying that, I must look like a drug mule because I get stopped every time at airport security, perhaps they can see the internal screaming and panic behind my eyes. 


I have had pets. Tried the whole fur baby thing. But now I can say, I genuinely don’t like animals, I prefer to eat them. 


When I have a lot going on, I prioritise, too many objectives get on top of me, usual tasks will move to the bottom of the list, I will definitely forget to text back or a birthday and not even feel guilty about it. 


As my journey of unmasking continues, I feel often that the normies don’t make it easy, the perplexed look or disapproving eyes, they don’t make it feel safe and my inner voice mocks me, yup you’ve weirded them out again Zoë.


And oh my god, I’ve only just realised that not everyone has an inner dialogue, how lonely must your day be?! Sometimes mine pops out randomly and I say a sentence, word or sound not meant for human ears, but oh well. 


Dexter is my favourite crime series, released in 2006. It just popped up on Netflix again so I’m watching it from the beginning, still just as good as I remember. It’s not the best crime series and I was never too sure why it was my favourite but it has been for nearly 2 decades. There was always something about Dexter that I really liked, when having children I named our youngest after him. When I first started watching Dexter in 2006 I didn’t know I was autistic.

I didn’t know I would have multiple children who are also neurodiverse, I didn’t know then, what type of life I would lead and what adult I would grow into. Now in 2024 rewatching Dexter everything seems to make sense. The first few series and episodes are all about Dexter masking who he is, learning and pretending to be normal, that was it, that is why I felt I had such a bond to Dexter and why he was so important to me as a young adult.

As the series continues his internal dialogue narrates the show and keeps him company just as mine does with me.


Blood spatter aside, throughout the series you see him mask, mimic others, pretend to be normal, try to be like everyone else, attempt to fit in, to belong, to not stand out but always, unravelling somewhere along to way. 


I feel seen. 


I am not fully unmasked yet, I am still getting to know and love me. I am still challenging my conditioned behaviours and reassuring myself it’s okay to be me. It’s wonderful and brilliant to be me. I’m iconic. My own hero. Best friend. 

I have made adjustments to my social circle, wardrobe, home and lifestyle, creating my own world where I’m free to be me. 

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