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The Toll of Masking: The Social Disability Paradigm and the Need for Inclusion

My condition of social disability is not what it appears to be at first glance. It is an inherent quality of mine to be a nonconformist, constantly questioning the regulations, procedures, and norms in every situation. Realizing at a tender age that such a disposition may hinder my progress in life, I mastered the art of masking. However, as I grew older, it became increasingly challenging to conceal my true self, and in moments of vulnerability, I would exhibit behaviors that were deemed excessive by society, leading to my demoralization.

In fourth grade, a classmate subjected me to persistent name-calling, referring to me as "stuck up" and treating me with disdain. The emotional torment I endured reached a tipping point, and I eventually hurled a chair across the classroom. Unfortunately, I was punished for this outburst, and it marked the beginning of my journey to assimilate and conform in order to fit in.

The realization that I cannot recall much of my childhood was a haunting experience that perplexed me for years. It led me to question if some sinister event had occurred, causing me to repress those memories. However, through introspection and growth, I now recognize that my constant masking to fit in had rendered me absent from my own life. The burden of conformity had become so arduous that I had inadvertently forsaken my childhood, leaving me with mere fragments of memories to reflect upon.

Over the past 4 years, I have embarked on a journey of self-discovery, unearthing the facets that constitute my identity. It has been empowering to come across terminologies like giftedness, autism, introvert, and over-excitabilities that aptly capture how I exist in the world. However, the notion that behavioral health struggles are an individual issue persists in our society. The prevailing stigma and unabashed discrimination only serve to reinforce this harmful paradigm.

In my late twenties, I encountered a traumatic incident where a former boss subjected me to incessant bullying, gaslighting, and mistreatment. Despite my earnest efforts to address the matter by voicing my concerns to the human resources director, my pleas were coldly dismissed as lies, as indicated by their apathy towards the hardships I faced at work. Regrettably, this experience was not an isolated one and merely exemplified the multitude of challenges I have encountered throughout my 43-year journey in the social realm. In the aftermath of this ordeal, I sought refuge in alcohol as a coping mechanism to conceal the emotional turmoil that accompanied the burden of being different.

For a considerable amount of time, alcohol proved to be an effective tool for me, until it no longer was. It enabled me to numb the perpetual unease of functioning in social systems that were not designed for individuals like myself. It is challenging for others to comprehend the burden of continuously concealing one's true identity to evade being ostracized. The experience of having to constantly mask who you are, to suppress your true identity and conform to societal norms and expectations, can feel like a slow and agonizing death of the soul. It is a constant battle to present oneself in a way that is deemed acceptable and palatable to others, all while suppressing one's innate nature and desires.

This soul death is not just a metaphorical expression; it is a real and tangible feeling that many individuals with social disabilities, such as autism, can relate to. It can lead to a deep sense of disconnection from oneself and the world around them, a feeling of being lost and without a true sense of identity. It is important for society to recognize the toll that masking can take on individuals and to work towards creating a more inclusive and accepting environment that celebrates neurodiversity rather than forcing conformity. Only then can we hope to avoid this feeling of soul death and enable individuals to thrive in their true and authentic selves.

As I near the middle of my fifth decade on this earth, I find myself wrestling with a profound sense of hopelessness as I come face to face with the unyielding truth that the very same social impediments that have dogged me relentlessly over the years still rear their ugly head in my workplace. To add insult to injury, I now find myself being subjected to a new form of derision, which triggers memories from my childhood. Certain individuals in my professional circle have begun labeling me as "arrogant" due to my outspoken criticism of the systemic issues at play.

In a conversation with my partner, I shared how eye rolls affect my emotional well-being, especially in virtual work environments where they are highly visible and constitute microaggressions. However, my partner suggested that I should change instead of the environment, triggering me to raise my voice to be understood. My differing perspectives in workspaces are marginalized through microaggressions like eye-rolling, gaslighting, and lack of responsiveness, often perpetuated by those in authority. I firmly believe that expressing my unique perspective should not lead to eye-rolling, and I refuse to hide my true self to conform to societal norms. Through this heated discussion, my partner has started to understand my perspective.

Despite my best efforts, the feeling of being an outsider and experiencing daily social exclusion continues to weigh heavily on me as I navigate my work environment. The struggle to conform and mask my innate non-conformity has been a constant source of emotional and mental strain. Unfortunately, there seems to be no end in sight to this difficult situation. The responsibility of finding accommodations for the social disabilities present in the workplace falls solely on me, which only adds to the already heavy burden I carry. It feels like an endless tunnel with no guiding light in sight.

Unfortunately, my go-to coping mechanism that helped me to navigate these challenges in the past is no longer a viable option. I am forced to find alternative means to cope with the emotional turmoil that comes with constantly feeling like an outsider. Nevertheless, I am determined to persist and express myself in authentic ways, even if it feels like a constant uphill battle. I have found solace and a sense of belonging through social media and online communities, where I can connect with others who share similar experiences and struggles. It is through these channels that I find support and understanding, and I am reminded that I am not alone in my journey.

Despite the relief that expressing my truth and dignity through social media has brought me, it has not been without its challenges. Recently, I have faced criticism from certain individuals who view my expression as a personal attack against them. This reaction has led me to question the level of empathy and tolerance that exists in our society, as it seems that some are quick to take offense rather than seek to understand and empathize with others.

The social model of disability posits that disability is a product of the social, political, and economic structures of society, rather than a result of an individual's impairment or difference. This means that a wide range of identities can fall within the social model of disability, including physical, sensory, cognitive, and mental health disabilities, as well as chronic illnesses, neurodivergent identities, and others. The social model of disability is based on the idea that society should adapt to the needs of individuals with disabilities, rather than expecting them to conform to societal norms and standards.

In our ever-evolving society, the notion of social responsibility towards inclusion has taken center stage. Yet, it begs the question: are we, as a society, truly prepared to embrace this paradigm shift? As an individual who has experienced the psychological burden of social exclusion, I have a vested interest in this conversation. I find myself wondering, what is my role in this movement towards a more inclusive society?

However, the reality is that despite our best intentions, the journey towards social inclusion is far from smooth. As a person who has faced numerous challenges due to social exclusion, I am often forced to question my ability to continue advocating for myself and others like me, especially when it comes to addressing issues related to psychological well-being. It is challenging to fight for inclusion when the cost is continually putting oneself at risk.

Nevertheless, I am steadfast in my belief that I do not owe society conformity. Rather, I am beholden to my own authenticity. The burden of creating a society that values inclusion and diversity cannot fall solely on the marginalized. Real change necessitates the collaboration of individuals, empathy, and a readiness to heed the perspectives of others and tackle the deep-rooted prejudices ingrained in our systems. Only then can we hope to create a world where individuals are celebrated for their differences rather than shunned for them.

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