When I was three I had my first halloween costume. It was a plastic Cookie Monster costume with a plastic mask. I was very excited about trick or treating. I put the costume on over my clothes and then the mask on my face. When I looked in the mirror it was a different story. I was terrified and wouldn’t wear the mask longer than it took for my mom to take a picture. I don’t know if I was afraid because I didn’t understand that it was me behind the mask, or I couldn’t breathe. I was a tiny child and the mask was huge. Whatever it was I refused to have the mask on my face. When I got a little older my feelings changed. I loved wearing the Cookie Monster mask. I loved being someone else.
We all wear masks from time to time. They can help us do what we need to do to survive. They can help us to hide. They can be there to protect us, to shield us from consequence, to help us come out of our shell, to be someone we are not or to help us safely be our most authentic self.
I have worn a lot of masks in my life. I had the “Corporate America” mask. It kept a roof over my head but it filled that head with illusions that life was enough. That I was happy sitting still at a desk all day. I had the “I’m perfectly healthy” mask that helped me survive living with an illness on my own. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was sick. I didn’t want people to think I was vulnerable. I was afraid if they knew at work I would lose my job. Then there was the “I’m perfectly happy” mask that hid the greek tragedy from years of heartbreak underneath. I wore the “I love New York” mask for 11 years until it slid off on Chambers Street and West Broadway from the rush of tears that came with the realization I didn’t love it anymore and didn’t want to live there.
There were some masks I had to wear for myself. Sometimes we have to trick ourselves into thinking we are something we are not in order to make positive changes. So we can make it through a rough patch. I also had the “Alias” mask. It helped me to stand up for myself safely. It helped me make new connections and accomplish goals. “I’m not afraid” was the most helpful mask. I’m not afraid to move to New York. I’m not afraid to do this play. I’m not afraid to tackle this illness. I’m not afraid to be by myself. It was very convincing. “I can do it” was also a well used mask. Especially when I was sick. I can go to work despite being awake all night. I can work two jobs 80 hours a week even though I’m exhausted and just want to sleep. I can find the money to pay my medical bills. I can give myself this shot even though I’m scared of needles. I used those masks to make the most of my life. To have experiences I will never forget or just get through the day.
I also have masks that work against me. “I won’t give up” is one of those masks. Sometimes it is helpful when I need to keep going. Then there are times when it is ok to stop, to find a new path or start over. It is always the last resort to take off that mask. Most times someone else has to rip it off.
After I moved back to Nashville the masks started to slip off one by one. I don’t need so many anymore. The ones I do need are not as drastic as they had been in the past. I am able to have my real personality in my job. I’m able to be myself more in my life. Slowly but surely I’m removing the masks and hanging them up on the wall to remind me of who I had to be to get to who I want to be. It’s a little scary to be unmasked. Sometimes I feel exposed. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Even if I am the one that took off the mask. But it’s getting easier. I’m becoming more comfortable with people knowing who I really am. It’s not as exhausting as having to put on a show everyday. It’s helping me to live a more fulfilling and happy life.
What masks are you wearing? Are there any you need to take off? Are there any you need to put on?