Recently, my fiancé and I started pre-marital counseling, which has been an odd transition for me after 8-plus years of seeing counselors individually. We are supposed to work through things like “how will you raise your kids” or “what is your approach to money management”; yet, our conversations haven’t been able to address those topics quite yet. We have had to talk to death a challenge we are currently facing. While a necessary part of the couples counseling process, it has been painful and unpleasant. But it has also led to some pretty astounding revelations.
Last night, my crippling fear of masks was the revelation of the hour.
Not masks like Halloween masks- albeit I will be the first to tell you that I am truly terrified of costumes that cover peoples faces- but the masks that we create and wear to protect ourselves from other people, from hurt, from ourselves. For years, I wore a mask. Every day, I worked tirelessly to make sure that no one would see the real me- the girl struggling with depression and anxiety, who felt like she couldn’t keep herself glued together no matter how much primping took place. I wanted to be the perfect daughter, sister, student, sorority woman, employee, friend, sweetheart. Mental illness isn’t perfect; it is messy. My mask covered that mess.
Until January 28th, 2016, when I decided to publicly take off my mask and toss it aside. That day, I promised that I would be authentic and real. I committed myself to sharing stories in order to help others see that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. I gave up the mask and it was scary and painful, but so worth it. Yet now, over a year later, I have found myself wearing a mask once again… pretending to be someone I am not. I find this mask suffocating and cruel. I want to fight it. Everything in my body is telling me to rip it off and throw it away with spite and anger.
But I can’t. Because this mask isn’t for me. It is for someone else. Sometimes we are asked to wear a mask in order to help others… like when visiting a sick friend and bringing cheer and smiles when all we want to do is cry. It may sound counterintuitive, but there are times when pretending is the best way to be authentic. Deep, meaningful love and tremendous care for others may mean gently settling into a part, a role, a place, a mask. It may be uncomfortable. It can bring great sadness.
That is the gamble that comes from sharing your life with others. There are days when you must wear a mask for someone else… to ease their suffering or to make their life better. But that doesn’t mean that you lose yourself behind that mask. My revelation was that, although I hate wearing a mask, there is so much freedom in being able to decide when and where I will wear it. You have the control to decide the fate of your story, to decide who get to be apart of it and who gets to know it. That freedom is liberating. It is cleansing. While we all must wear masks from time to time, know that the decision to embrace that mask is yours alone.
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
-Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter