Chelsey’s story: Discovering the real me beneath the masking

Chelsey Flood | December 2021 | 8 minutes

In this blog, Chelsey talks about alcohol and autism and the impact that a late diagnosis had on her life and drinking.

I am sad about all the time I lost, not knowing I was autistic. Who might I have been with more guidance and support? However, there is hope. I have a relationship that deeply fulfils me and am discovering the real me beneath the masking.

"I have a relationship that deeply fulfils me and am discovering the real me beneath the masking."

It was learning of the autistic female’s tendency to ‘camouflage’ and ‘fly under the radar’ that made me wonder, was I autistic? I was 37 and reading a leaflet about how girls work hard to mask their difference in order not to draw attention to themselves. I recognised that I’d been doing this my entire life.

It started early: watching what the other girls did and doing my best approximation. And it never stopped. It takes a lot of energy to read the room and act acceptably, with little understanding of the rules of engagement. To change yourself to fit every new group you are trying to be part of takes strength and flexibility. It takes away your spirit and gets in the way of forming a stable sense of identity. I wrote about this sense of lacking:

“I pictured myself as a teenager, scrambling to fit in. Aware of a strange blankness inside where other people seemed to have preferences, opinions, and ideas. I watched the humans intently and learnt from them, like an anthropologist or an alien (or an alien anthropologist). I copied my friend's clothes, mannerisms, and interests, but I could never lead. They had an ability to improvise that I was lacking. I was always on the backfoot.”1

Things are better now but as an undiagnosed autistic kid, it grew more difficult each year to keep up with my peers. I didn’t realise I was masking, but that explains the bewilderment that was the soundtrack to my life. The metaphor of the swan sailing along smoothly while webbed feet scrabbling madly fits. Except, picture a sweet duck, going in circles.

"After some serious mental health issues, a friend encouraged me to go to the doctor, which nudged me towards healing."

By 11, I was drawn to alcohol and other substances. I was first in the queue for all the innovative ways kids find of getting high before they have easy access to alcohol. I had access to booze early, too. My family were drinkers, and it was clear alcohol was an essential part of life.

The lightest touch of peer pressure and I was ready to try the concoction my friend had made - Castaway mixed with Diamond White. Blastaway, she called it. And we did! It was life changing - I could join in! To enjoy myself with a group of cool kids. To talk to people. I shifted from a well-behaved girl to a bad influence, initiating new recruits to this wonder-pop I’d found. Alcohol was personality-enhancing social currency. By 13, my drinking had become problematic. Run-ins with older boys and the police meant that the playfulness of earlier drinks were MIA. Nights often felt frightening and brutal. At age 17, my alcohol and substance abuse were derailing my education.

My mum stepped in and helped get me back on track. I made it to university where I struggled, but also made good, kind, and creative friends. I stopped taking drugs and found a degree I loved. After graduation, things nosedived again. I missed the structure of studying and found myself unqualified for any job. What jobs were there for people who couldn’t talk to people without alcohol?

I will just have to become an alcoholic; I wrote in a diary from that time.

Drinking seemed to be the one thing I could do really well. Well, drinking and writing. I committed myself to being a writer because I didn’t believe I could do anything else. And I mastered it. At 27, after finishing a booze-fuelled masters in Creative Writing, I got a book deal with Simon and Schuster.

In 2013, I published my first novel, Infinite Sky, and I wish I could say that finally I found my footing. But the truth is that the new world I’d entered was impossible to keep up with. After some serious mental health issues, a friend encouraged me to go to the doctor, which nudged me towards healing. A year or so later, I went to AA and got sober. It would be five more years before I was diagnosed autistic.

I’m sad about all the time I lost. Who might I have been with more guidance and support? I write about this in my newsletter, Polite Robot, and I’m hopeful for the future. I found a job and relationship that fulfil me and I’m trying to discover who I am beneath my life-long masking.