“‘If you want to say something and have people listen then you have to wear a mask. If you want to be honest then you have to live a lie.’—Banksy.
Once upon a time, I believed a lie that I had to live behind a mask to survive and was afraid to show my true colors to anyone, myself included. I didn’t like myself and assumed others wouldn’t, so I wore it out until it became unbearable. Today, I don’t mind if you don’t like me or understand me, though I wish you did. I don’t mind if you think I’m strange or I make you feel uncomfortable, though I wish I didn’t. As my mother says when people challenge her unique way of being, ‘What others think of me is truly none of my business.’ I say this now with confidence, despite spending years masking and accommodating who I felt I needed to be in this world, to the point of questioning whether I was worthy of living in it.
Masking is artificially performing behavior deemed to be more neurotypical or hiding behavior that might be viewed as socially unacceptable or atypical. For too long, assimilating into the world around me was more important than feeling at home in my own skin. I didn’t fit in anywhere so I masked everywhere, doing my best to appear normal, until questions surfaced within me, growing from a whisper to a thunderous roar. ‘What is normal? Who decides what the appropriate behavior or energy level at any given time should be? Why would I want to change who I am to fit into a culture that demonstrates violence against difference in so many ways?’ Systemic inequities stifle human potential because our culture benefits the status quo, the privileged, and the ‘normal,’ while the most vulnerable struggle to survive under a weight put upon them by a world that rarely values difference unless it can be exploited.
I want to help create a new, better world that values people beyond their productivity and celebrates their full being. I share my story with the hope that anyone who’s felt like this realizes or remembers they’re not alone. There is a community that celebrates you and a culture that would benefit from you dropping the mask and allowing the world to experience your divine individuality. In the wise words of Marianne Williamson, ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.’ I know it is a privilege to be able to unmask safely, and it’s easier said than done, but this is my journey of unmasking and embracing my neurodiversity in a systemically neurotypical world.
My name is Felipe Forero, though I’m also known as Pablo Prince, a name I chose for myself years ago while developing my artistry as a singer/songwriter. Choosing my artist name was a way of honoring my roots while claiming an identity that eluded me for so long, like a baptism to the creative energies that have always guided me. I was born in Bogota, Colombia at the height of a civil war fueled by the most notorious drug trade of all time, led by Pablo Escobar. At the same time, Pope John Paul (Juan Pablo) led the Catholic church, so when my mom wanted to name me after her beloved pope, she was sad that so many people around her felt it was a bad idea to give a newborn that name, and so Felipe was born.
My other mom, my stepmom, would always remind me, ‘You know you’re my star…my prince,’ and my dad has always shared his love for The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I’ve always associated this story with our relationship, so years later, when I felt compelled to choose a name of my own while still recognizing my parents, Pablo Prince was born. After years of subconsciously masking, well before I was even aware I was doing so, I adopted an identity free of some of the fear that didn’t serve me. This allowed me to develop my artistry in peace; the difference with this mask being it was one of my choosing and protected me from something I didn’t yet understand. Either I was born this way, or somewhere along the way my brain developed in a way that made simply existing an overwhelming experience.
Beyond my basic mental health challenges, including chronic anxiety, depression, and attention disorders, I often struggled with the minutiae of everyday life. There are unspoken expectations of behavior, from the standard tone and length of a conversation to the correct amount of eye contact, to the abstract keystones of a long-term friendship; there are rules to being human and it’s assumed everyone should know and adhere to them. Not to mention, in my case, wanting to constantly tap, flap, or rub my hands together as part of my normal expression and emotional self-regulation, commonly known as stimming. I quickly learned this behavior was strange, that it should be contained, and, if possible, eliminated.
This idea wasn’t usually perpetuated with ill will or intent, but rather subtly and subconsciously in a million little ways, or microaggressions. ‘He’ll grow out of it,’ they’d say…I didn’t. I began to only stim in the privacy of my bedroom or the bathroom and treated it like a dirty secret that I’d hopefully grow out of, along with my attraction to boys and all things deemed feminine. I eventually embraced my sexuality and began identifying as queer, reclaiming the term to its righteous use. This was possible within a culture that was beginning to welcome differences in sexual orientation, though conversations around mental health were not yet widely normalized. I unconsciously suppressed myself to the point I didn’t even know who that was or what I wanted.
As a child, I wanted to be a singer and dancer, but let my insecurities and the cultural baggage of being the only boy dancer in my small conservative town scare me out of it. In high school and college, I wanted to be an actor, since movies were my escape from this world and I was good at pretending. In my early twenties, when yoga and meditation helped me manage my mental health, I wanted to share these life-changing tools with the world and thought I needed to become a teacher. I always did what felt like the right thing to do while continuing to hide my perpetual stimming and dreaming of becoming the artist I saw in my mind. I began writing music to channel my emotions and hula hooping to channel my energy. I taught yoga and meditation until I figured out what I wanted to do with all of my creative energy.
It wasn’t until almost ten years after giving myself a name that celebrated being different I discovered I was autistic. I was taking a break from recording my debut album in 2019 when I stumbled upon a stand-up comedy set where the comedian spoke of their child’s autism with a kindness and candor that brought me to tears. While no two autistic people demonstrate the same qualities, as they described their child, it felt like they were describing me. ‘They flap and jump when they’re emotional, avoid unnecessary eye contact, and have the wildest imagination ever…they’re basically me at my best!’ they said joyously. I suddenly saw how it was deeper than my superficial mental health challenges, but rather a fundamental difference in the way my brain processed everything.
There wasn’t enough yoga or meditation in the world to cure my need to stim, to make me comfortable with extended eye contact, or to rid me of the rage that came from fixating on the injustices of the world or the immeasurable joy that came from fixating on something I loved, my special interests. I bet most people can say they recognize feelings of discomfort surrounding everyday life, but not everyone feels overwhelmed by them in ways that can affect their wellbeing, quality of life, and relationships. I recognized that I was tremendously privileged in my abilities, including my ability to notice my needs and advocate for myself. I spoke to my therapist, who agreed with my assessment, and took all the self-diagnostic tests I could find, which further confirmed my suspicion.
‘This makes so much sense,’ my therapist said. ‘If I’d known about the stimming, we would have noticed this sooner!’ I was added to a waitlist to receive an official diagnosis, a lengthy process with my healthcare, and I’m still waiting. Thankfully, online resources are abundant and this is a community that welcomes self-diagnosis, considering the widespread lack of access to mental healthcare services. In the last two years, I have connected with many like-minded people who are normalizing neurodiversity, mental disabilities, disorders, and differences by simply existing. The fluidity of language gives people the autonomy to choose what works for them, what doesn’t, and how they prefer to speak about themselves. No two people will identify in the same way, neurodiverse or not, so I recommend releasing a firm grip on the language as you learn about neurodiversity.
Finally, I see how everything in my life has been informed by my neurodiversity, that my autism is inseparable from every aspect of me and it can be celebrated like any other part of my identity. The name of my upcoming album and its lead single is ‘Freedom,’ because it represents a proclamation of freedom from all the forces that no longer serve me. ‘Never gonna hold me down, nothing’s gonna shake me now, now one’s gonna stop me now or take away my freedom,’ I proclaim in the chorus. I know to truly be free, I need to drop my mask and trust I’m good, in all my hand tapping, hula-hooping, radically artistic, autistic glory. This will be a lifelong challenge, but one I prefer to the challenge of masking.
I hope more people will find there’s nothing wrong with them and they’re not alone in their differences. For generations, autistic and neurodiverse people have been ridiculed, disenfranchised, and forgotten, while large organizations claiming to uplift the community often do more damage by stigmatizing and disregarding the voices of actual autistic people. That said, we must uplift each other and ourselves simply by being true to ourselves. Though it may seem daunting in a world littered with naysayers and neurotypical expectations, we must remember there are more of us who want to create a better, kinder, more just world where no one has to hide behind a mask…unless they choose to.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Felipe Forero, AKA Pablo Prince, of Los Angeles, California. You can follow his journey on Instagram and Twitter. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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