As I made my final preparations for DragonCon this year, it took me a while to decide which of my hand-painted face masks to wear. I meticulously prepared masks that protected me from COVID, but there was one kind of mask I couldn't wait to shed.
Pretending to be neurotypical, or “normal,” is a common behavior among people living with mental illness. I’ve read a lot about “masking” a variety of diagnoses, and as soon as I saw the term, it made sense. It’s something I’ve been doing my entire life as I’ve navigated life with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Over Time, I Learned to Mask
When I was a kid, I was extremely loud. I was so excited to share my positive obsessions (a term I like to use to distinguish between obsessive thought patterns that make me happy and the ones that cause anxiety or compulsive behaviors) and that excitement bled into the volume of my voice. I would practically shout every little thing I found interesting. Everything seemed so urgent, and I felt the need to interrupt others and share my newest idea or discovery. But whenever I told people about my interests, I was told I was annoying and "too much" — that I needed to go away.
I have vivid memories of learning how to share conversation space with others, how to tell when people were not interested in my interests and which topics I should stick to that most people would be interested in. Over the years, I learned to value each little scrap of conversation about something I loved — every “what are you playing/reading?” even if I knew I should answer like a “normal” person with only a sentence or two.
I still get the impulse to monologue about my favorite things in the loudest voice I can muster, but I stifle these reactions. I know that most of the time, my family and friends don’t care about what I care about — or they are willing to put up with my “quirks” to a certain extent.
My positive obsessions run as deep as my negative ones, and as someone who has successfully been able to switch most of my focus from the negative ones to the positive ones, it feels like I have an endless well of passion that must always have a lid.
Always, except at fandom conventions.
Fandom Conventions Offer a Safe Space
From the moment I get there, I feel like every one of the rules to help me fit in dictated by my therapists, parents and teachers no longer apply. There, I fit in perfectly.
I realized this when, 15 minutes into my first-ever convention in 2015, a stranger recognized my outfit from an obscure video game. Her response to seeing my mostly-duct-tape costume was to squeal (remember your indoor voice, I remembered everyone telling me), run over and hug me (think about the person’s boundaries). She rattled off a dozen facts about the character she was dressed as from the same game (the other person might not be interested) and invited me to a photoshoot taking place later that afternoon (they might be trying to escape the conversation).
She’d broken so many rules, and yet, in the picture she asked to take with me, I am laughing and hugging her back just as tight.
That moment, and the days I spent hanging out with her and my new group of friends afterward, cemented a powerful love of conventions. After all, I took my cues from the girl who first found me; when I made my way to the group, I wasn’t shy telling everyone about my favorite scenes from the game and laughing too loud at people’s props and asking for dozens of pictures. And I was one of many, instead of feeling like the strange girl who has to keep herself in check at all times.
In This Environment, I Have a Chance to Thrive
At conventions, I carry around heavy or bulky props to show off my sense of humor. I am a whirlwind of energy, dancing at Lord of the Rings-themed parties, rushing from one photoshoot to another, jumping up and down to get an autograph from a favorite celebrity, smiling so hard that my face hurts. I talk too much and too loud and still manage to make lasting friendships.
I have never had a desire to break rules like doing drugs, drinking underage or staying out past curfew. But I get such a thrill out of breaking the rules of being “normal” at conventions. I get a rush from not having to censor anything I say or how I say it — and seeing my behavior work socially, rather than making me feel like my real self is “wrong.”
I’ve gotten picked for trivia games out of a room of hundreds of people by being the loudest volunteer or jumping while raising my hand. I’ve been the first person to rush onto the dance floor and never lacked a partner or group to dance with. I’ve shouted the name of a character and run across a crowded hall to embrace a total stranger, and just like at my first con, I’ve made friends who think — like I do — that our extremely strong passions are a good thing.
At DragonCon, no one “puts up with” me. I bother no one, and no one bothers me, as we do so many things that are frowned upon in a neurotypical and “polite” society. I unite with others through the depth of our passions, and it's incredibly liberating to express these passions wholeheartedly when I take off the mask I hate to wear the most and let my genuine self have a few days in the sun.
Michelle Cohen was diagnosed with OCD at three years old. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness through blogging and an upcoming book about her experience with mental and physical illness.