Last Friday afternoon, following four not-altogether-pleasant weeks signed off sick with anxiety and desperately in need of an endorphin rush, I made one of those rare, impromptu and slightly off-the-handle decisions. As a result, by Saturday evening, I found myself sitting in the audience at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, waiting to see Johnny Partridge’s one-man show, Stripped.
This isn’t a review in the average sense. Firstly, because I am in no way an unbiased critic – on the contrary, I have been following Johnny around the country for six years, and so can quite happily classify myself as a ‘fan’. And secondly, because I am far more interested in writing about the overwhelming connection the show has to the autistic community’s recent #TakeTheMaskOff campaign.
Stripped is all about Johnny laying himself bare in front of an audience – confronting elements of his life, the good and the bad, the pain and the joy, and the journey he has made in stripping away the layers (stage make up, parties, addiction) to become a more authentic version of himself. On stage by himself, with assistance from (the fabulous) Emma Lindars and some beautifully simple video effects, he absolutely lays his heart out, night after night, for the audience. A mixture of covers, mash ups, and original songs – including the heartbreaking Stop For A Minute, written for his late mum during her struggle with Alzheimer’s and sang now as a tribute, and a spellbinding ode to his 300 (or 322, on the day I saw it) days of sobriety – it is an absolutely beautiful show about human connection and allowing yourself to be honest about who you are.
There were several points during the show where I found myself holding my breath, terrified that, if I didn’t, an incredibly embarrassing sob/choke/wail would escape from my throat. After the dim spiral I had been on in the previous months, which I now recognise as a mixture of depression, and anxiety, and the last sputterings of autistic burnout, this show was exactly what I needed to see.
It’s incredibly powerful to see someone, particularly someone who has been in the entertainment industry for over thirty years (sorry if that ages you, Johnny), come to a point where they can peel back the face that they have put on – whether the fake ‘okay’ when someone asks how you are, or the smile you paint on in large crowds of people, or the person you become when drunk, or the image you cultivate for yourself over months, years and decades – and say ‘this is who I actually am’ in front of everyone. That he is able to do it after such an amount of time, in an industry so focused on superficiality, in front of a room full of people, night after night, was such an important lesson – that it’s never too late to take off the mask, and success is not contingent on keeping that mask in place.
As autistic people, many of us have masks. Many of the people that society has labelled ‘high functioning’ are only labelled as such because we have internalised the demands of a neurotypical society and learnt to operate on a subconscious script. This is our mask. The spectre of ‘normality’. The chain that keeps us locked in situations that hurt us. The weight that pulls down on our flappy hands, pins our tongues, and pulls up our lips to smile politely when all we want to do is put on a pair of headphones and hide.
We are, essentially, chameleons – able to blend in to a neurotypical society, mimic their actions, and pretend that we are one of them. In some respects, it has enabled us to do things that maybe we would not have been able to do without that mask. On the outside, it looks like a good thing. But, on the inside, it is slowly destroying us.
In Stripped, Johnny talked about throwing the best parties. I believe the word he used is ‘legendary’. He was known for them. And people loved them. Because, as he said, those people just experienced that party. But he was doing it every night. And it was destroying him.
That’s my mask. I’m funny. I’m sociable. My coworkers see me at work, for seven hours, and they see my facade – professional, calm, reserved. I am a good worker. A good colleague. And thats because they don’t see the effort that goes behind it – the planning, the practice, the scripting, the effort, the exhaustion and the resulting collapse at home, with my loved ones, when it all becomes too much to bear.
This was why I had been signed off work in the first place. I’d hit burnout. The complete shutting down of my mind and body in rebellion against the never-ending effort of appearing normal. Every single ‘symptom’ of my autism became heightened – my sensory experience, my struggle to understand social cues, my inability to filter emotions, the fight to process information and instructions, my anxiety – and I found myself unable to function. My body and my brain had given up completely. Holding the mask in place, for all that time, had finally become too much.
I know that this comes as a surprise to some people. They didn’t see it. That’s because I’m good at what I do. I’m good at masking, pretending and playing the part. And the more successfully I inhabit the role, the more I am expected to do so. I create my own vicious cycle. I mask so well, that it becomes nigh on impossible to let the mask slip; they know the mask, they hired the mask, so where would I be were the mask to drop?
This the reason I was sitting in the audience of Stripped on Saturday night, tired, fragile and absolutely bawling my heart out (or one of the reasons, anyway – if you haven’t seen him before, Johnny is excellent at eliciting a teary, snotty, hicupping response). I had reached my limit, and it felt good to know that I wasn’t alone.
When Johnny told us that the current series of Celebrity Masterchef (which he is in at the moment – go and check it out!) is the first job he’s ever done sober, I thought back over the past six years. Of all the things we have seen him in, all the times we have spoken, all the times we have cheered him and supported him and hugged him. All those moments over all those years, and I’d had no idea. And in that moment, I knew how all those people felt about me. When you’re good at hiding something, it’s only to be expected that people will be pulled into your charade.
I try not to be cross with people for not noticing – instead, I try to educate them on the subtleties of what to look out for, and to try again to readjust (if not completely remove) my mask to show them just a little bit more. To work towards creating a world where I can I have what I want, where I can achieve my goals, keep my friendships, but without my emotional and physical energy being the currency for those things. I want these things to be available without having to put the mask on in the first place.
And that’s another reason why I am so glad I booked that ticket and put myself on that train and made sure I was in that audience. It wasn’t just that I needed something good in my life. It wasn’t just that it made me feel less alone in my feelings. But it was that it reminded me of the power of living your truth. It was about the importance of stripping away the articifical layers, even in a world that tells you doing that will be harmful, and the fact that you can change the world, in even the smallest of ways, and by using whatever plaform you have, to enable others to lower their mask without fear of repurcussions.
And that’s what this is about. That’s what the whole #TakeTheMaskOff campaign has been about.
It’s about saying: if you can take off your mask, then please take off your mask.
It’s about saying: if it isn’t safe for you to unmask, then we will use our platform to fight for you to be able to do so.
And it’s about saying: together we will create a world where we can all strip off our masks without fear.
Johnny is bringing Stripped to London! It will be on at the Pleasance Theatre Trust in Islington on Sunday 7th October. Get tickets HERE.