No one understands the mask I have learned to wear over the years. The one that was built in order to act in a way that was expected of me, rather than showing how I truly felt. The result has been that many don’t believe or cannot comprehend just how sick I was or still become at times. The bubbly, peppy, smiling person on the outside was designed to paint a picture that was in no way even close to showing how things felt on the inside. It was exhausting and to this day I still fight the need to put that mask on.
Where did the mask come from? Well, as a child I learned quickly to hide how I truly felt out of fear; fear that I would upset my parents, that people would think me strange, that I would be singled out as “crazy”. At the time I didn’t know this was consciously happening but as an adult I see things in a much clearer lens. I hold no one at fault as I truly believe it was a coping mechanism, built up over the years in order to try and protect myself even as I truly didn’t understand it, which most children wouldn’t.
As an adolescent, I began to wonder if perhaps there was something wrong with my thinking but didn’t have the knowledge or mental capacity to deal with it. During that time, I not only wore my mask but also learned how to mimic the reactions of others. I watched closely how those around me responded to various situations and would tailor my own response to what I deemed most “normal”. Sure, there were times when my reaction was genuine, but those moments were few and far between. I had learned to not trust my own reactions, my own emotions, my own feelings. Why? Well to put it simply, because of my trauma brain and the bad reaction of those who occasionally saw the real deal in me I felt forced to hide anything true and genuine about myself. You can only be told you are weird and strange so many times before you learn to fake it until you make it.
One of the reasons I believe that my illnesses took such strong hold of me in my early twenties was that my brain and body could no longer handle the lies, the masking, the mimicking. Faking it was no longer an option and yet still I fought to do so, which didn’t help my attempts at healing. I was well into my thirties before I began to finally embrace my true self; to listen to my gut and start to pull the mask down. And let me tell you, it was fucking terrifying! Everything in me fought to keep that mask firmly in place; the difference was I now knew it was there and became determined to peel it back layer by layer. Doing so was a lengthy process. In many ways I had to learn things that I should have discovered in my childhood and teenage years. While that feeling of freedom has been an amazing one, it doesn’t mean that the mask has totally disappeared. During a weeklong course I took on Indigenous awareness, we had to actually make and decorate a mask of our faces. I found the experience intensely emotional as I pondered just how much authentic living I had lost over the years by hiding my true feelings, my true thoughts. I felt sorrow and grief but also joy at being able to now live in a way which was true to myself. That colourful mask now sits in my living room and is a constant reminder of how far I have come.
When you go public and become an advocate, people expect you to not just talk the talk but walk the walk, and I’m okay with that. I strive for it each and every day. But what’s important to remember is that a mask built so strongly from childhood doesn’t disintegrate overnight. There are still times when I can feel it come back on; the difference is now I am consciously aware of its presence. It’s at those time when I must take an honest and hard look at myself so I can find the strength to once again be genuine and honest; not only with others but most importantly with myself. Living authentically has saved my life and brought me to a place where I can embrace my whole self; the strange, the weird, the beautiful, the strong……the real me!