RSD, Masking and Me

Hi, my name is Jenn and I have ADHD.

I didn’t always know I had ADHD, in fact it took 26years of my life to find out this information. And a lot happened in that time where I lived undiagnosed and “unaware” (I always knew I was different but how?)

I am 35 now and still learning even 9 years after my diagnosis. There is a lot to unpack, process and I often still find I do not quite have the words I need to articulate what exactly I am feeling and experiencing.

In February of this year (2020), I deep dived into learning about Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. I read a few comments about it in a support group that had me thinking – I knew on some level, I experienced this – but the more I learned, I realized, I just outright have RSD as a co-morbidity, or trait or symptom of living with ADHD.

Just having a word or acronym or a ‘clinical description’ of what RSD is and how it can affect an individuals life, was a revelation. So many things I experienced throughout my life where I was told I am “over-reacting” “being too sensitive” “reading into it” “over thinking”, which is the type of language that is already harmful and ableist anyway – I often thought, no surely, everyone feels like this to some degree. I know my ADHD does make me more sensitive and I react to criticism or take it personally – and have a hard time letting go. But the painful feeling, how long it lasts and how much all those negative messages exacerbated that feeling over time – I finally had a word for it.

Even if those feelings were not always a “logical” reaction – I still felt them and it was real and it is painful for me. It made me feel less alone and “crazy” for feeling like that – because I finally understood – of course a person living with undiagnosed mental health (or diagnosed) for all their life, navigating that, plus the neurotypical world – feeling different and being told that I was, or being ostracised for those differences – is going to result in RSD!

Just having that small bit of information, almost dulled the blow a little, it was “rational” in the way that it was truly something I am experiencing and I am not the only one. Even with my ADHD symptoms, I am still astonished how many people are just like me, because I have felt alone and unable to share a lot of those feelings for so long – I was ashamed to even say I was having such a strong reaction to criticism and opinions of me in my life. And the constant echo of those reactions – telling myself it was wrong to feel that way some how..

In the last couple of months however – Especially while running my Facebook page and reading more and more about my peers experiences – I learned another new term. Masking.

Through out my life, I’ve experienced imposter syndrome too – I downplay a lot of my strengths because of my anxiety and confidence has been low even though I am qualified or experienced in whatever I was feeling that way about. But the knowledge of RSD and Imposter Syndrome – still didn’t explain some other things I know I experience and do – there is still this nagging thought for me that “I just don’t know what is going on, or how to fit in”. I know that living with my neurotype I am going to often “act out” and throughout my life, I have been told my “behaviour” was wrong and was disciplined as such.

This resulted in a lot of social anxiety, which turned into avoidant behaviour. Not only that but this year – I noticed my ability to cope with social situations, especially when I am expected to behave “neurotypically”, I was having less and less energy for it. And needing more and more time to recover. I just figured, maybe I am depressed, maybe this is another presentation of my anxiety, is this just simply RSD?

Then I saw a TikTok video by a woman with Autism, talking about what Autism actually looks like in Women/Girls. She was talking about Masking. It clicked. I do that! And it is exhausting.

It is so exhausting in fact that it impacts my ability to work, to interact with family and friends, and sometimes even my own partner who I live with full time! I don’t want to be like that – and honestly Masking seemed to be it. I think every one has a type of “Mask” they put on – say in the professional sense, of course your are not speaking business jargon in a suit when you are interacting with your friend at the mall who you are having a coffee catch up with – but you do at your office job, right.

I realized, a lot of behaviour and things I learned about Neurotypicals, I mimicked in order to fit in. I am often the silent or quiet one at first, or would withdrawal completely because over time I was told that I was loud, excitable, too talkative, too intense and so on. I also noticed once I warm up to people I am more myself. I put this down to shyness and later RSD. But it isn’t always like that – I think part of the reason why it took so long to get diagnosed with ADHD, and not just because women fly under the radar when they have inattentive type but because also I appear so “high functioning”, to some people I even appear to “have my shit together” and that I “don’t seem ADHD”.

I also seem to be a chameleon of sorts, I watched a lot of reality TV and movies and have taken my cues from them. And in social situations in order to fit in, I would adopt and study my peers so I looked more like them. I would repress urges to do certain things that I have now realized I didn’t acknowledge I was repressing. I know this to be true because when I am at home, or alone, I really do feel like I am myself.

Neurotypical brains seem to understand this “hidden rule” of social interaction, for me, I spent a lot of time observing and trying to read people (often getting it very wrong) – I realized so many of my actions were me masking. It would give me burnout. I would be at home so overwhelmed and overstimulated that I would just have “unreasonable” meltdowns.

When I first went for my ADHD diagnosis. I lived with someone who has aspergers (what it was called at the time). I related to them a lot, not in the way they personally presented but just the struggles and the little “quirks” that seemed to be exactly me too. So I initially thought I was on the spectrum. I know for certain, I am ADHD, predominantly. But now with this knowledge of Masking – I realized, I may be a little more on the spectrum than I ever thought. And that brings me to today.

This is where I am starting off, by sharing and articulating these feelings and my learnings about Masking and ASD and all it’s presentations. I still have not discussed this with a therapist or a GP because I want to take the time to explore this myself, really find myself, under all those layers and masks and coping, so I can have the language to explain when I do talk to a medical professional about it. I am finding peer correlation, very beneficial, because it helps me be aware of how ASD and ADHD co morbidity presents in myself and in others.

My other feelings on this mind blowing news is, again, I feel a bit cheated. I have 9yrs of ADHD diagnosis under my belt but at 35, and learning I may also be autistic was sad. I still today grieve a lot of my child hood and adult interactions, situations and experiences from having a undiagnosed and untreated psychiatric disorder. But also that I have never really been myself, or able to express who I truly am. And I don’t want to live my life, masking, repressing myself, hiding myself and always trying to please others and make them feel comfortable when I am often so uncomfortable.

I hope by sharing this insight of my own lived experience may give clues to those who are also experiencing this and do not have the words to explain what is happening for you inside. I think there is a lot of over lap between RSD and Masking. They almost seem to go hand in hand when you are told not to behave a certain way by others, or even that society is telling you that being you, is wrong some how. And I have felt that way for way too long. So as I have said in other blogs, I am going to continue to live my life being unapologetically myself. I don’t need to hide or explain myself to others. Their opinions of me, actually do not matter. What matters is what I think of myself. And I am proud of myself for looking into this and embracing this as my truth. And I am excited to learn who is Jenn! I want to get to know her, she sounds amazing! With all of her quirks.

Further Reading:

RSD / Rejection sensitive dysphoria info links:
“Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) is extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life. It may also be triggered by a sense of falling short—failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations.”

Self test:

Masking info links:
“Masking or camouflaging is artificially ‘perform’ social behaviour that is deemed to be more ‘neurotypical’ or hiding behaviour that might be viewed as socially unacceptable. The motivations for masking symptoms of autism includes fitting in and increasing connections with others.”

Published by Jenn has ADHD

Jenn Parker, New Zealand. ADHD Advocate and Peer.

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