If it seems I’m distant, maybe I am. It might not be intentional, although at times it is. Sometimes I need to get out and talk, to give voice to the darkness swirling around me… but I’m too afraid to ask for your time. I understand all too well that you have a life, a job, a family, commitments. And those are important, no question. But they’re more important than me. I feel like I talk about this garbage over and over and over and it gets boring to you. That it’s exhausting for you to see and hear me walk this path over and over and over with scarcely a sign of progress. I feel like it’s a burden to you – that I’m a burden to you. I’m enough of a burden to enough people as it is. So I isolate. I sequester. I make and fake excuses of busyness or tiredness. I fade out. I act. I hide behind a carefully crafted persona. I wear a mask.
Not just a mask. Not just any mask. The mask. The bane of my existence and my Savior. The air in my lungs and the poison in my veins. A slim facade of strength that eats away at my core. Somehow I can exist behind my persona, my mask. I can face the world behind a phoney face, an outgoing personality and the ability to deflect or derail the conversation away from myself. It drags me down and kills me the more I hide behind it. It saves my life as it drowns my soul. There are times where it has become such a part of me, like a second skin, that I even fool myself. Pulling my face from behind the mask is painful in an almost physical way, like slowly pulling off a partially healed scab accompanied by a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s embarrassing that I need to rely on it. The thought of removing it from my life completely is terrifying in a way that I can’t describe – yet the mere thought of doing so is liberating too. That liberty, that glimpse of freedom, that waft of independence is as terrifying as walking down the street stark naked, or as frightening as jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. It’s a glimmer of light in dark, sealed room – no doors, no windows, no hope of escape. It’s the scent of pure, clean, fresh mountain air, brisk and cold with hints of wildflowers in the middle of a dark, polluted city.
The thought of pulling the mask away from my face and letting it fall from my fingers is tantalising, so close and so tempting it nearly makes my mouth water. I catch myself daydreaming of what that sort of freedom could possibly look like. But then fear takes over and I retreat again. I withdraw, and slowly skulk behind my mask. Surely I’m not worthy of saving. I doubt I’ve got the strength for that sort of attrition. It’s not worth the effort, I think, to push clear of the cobwebs and inky blackness and quicksand. It’s easier, it seems, to die here – slowly consumed by the false identity that protected me for so long – than it is to force its weight from my shoulders, stretch sore, tired muscles, and strive for every shred of enlightenment and peace I can possibly grasp.
You see, you have to understand that I’m not like you. I’m broken. Fractured in a way that may never be fully healed. The pieces that make me me don’t fit together properly anymore. You see, there’s this thing in deep inside that lurks, pacing, waiting for the right moment to break free of the restraints that bind it. A monster, a usurper, a snake, a leech, a vulture, a rat. Anything can unleash it – a minuscule thought, an unintended slight, a passing glance, an odd inflection in a conversation. Anything at all can shatter the locks and loose the chains of illusion that keep it bound. I’ve gotten far better at controlling it, and my surroundings, to minimise these moments. It’s exhausting, always being alert. Always being aware. Always looking for possible triggers, and possible retreats. It’s like living in a constant state of paranoia, but still they happen, and they can happen with little if any warning. The smallest circumstance can be the thing that sets it free. A glance. Something out of place Something in place. A noise in the background. Silence. A sudden noise or burst of activity. Flickering lights. Bright lights. Air pressure changes. Wind. My socks Yes, even my socks can be the thing that does me in,,, and lets it out. Within seconds I can go from ‘ok’, from normal, from (relative) peace – to fighting like hell not to have a meltdown, from biting lips or tongue and swallowing spite fueled rage, from drowning in dark thoughts of pain, destruction, of death, from spewing the darkness within and spreading it wide, because this thing wants only destruction, darkness, misery. This misery does indeed love company – for the sole purpose of spreading the poison, which adds to the misery, which spreads more poison, and fuels even more misery.
Rage? yes – something I experience far too often, although it’s not the only symptom. It definitely is one that is triggered most easily, either by external circumstances or internal monologues But there are others too:
- Rage, as previously mentioned.
- Frustration (this one often accompanies Rage. It can become difficult, if not impossible, to tell if the rage sparked the frustration, or the frustration triggered the rage – much like the proverbial chicken and egg. This is a rapid downward cycle, one I have incredible difficulty breaking out of until I can escape the current situation or surroundings, or reduce as much sensory and social stimuli as possible;
- Dark, brooding Anger – think of a pressure cooker, slowly simmering and building pressure, as opposed to the rapid and explosive Rage;
- Irritability (commonly seen with his cousins Rage and Frustration – an unholy trinity that quickly exhausts me on every level and tends to trigger outbursts);
- Moodiness/melancholy – think of a damp, chilly, overcast, miserable fall day. Nothing in particular is wrong, or bad (or good for that matter) but just a brutal case of the blah’s;
- Emotional instability (rapidly cycling between happiness and rage, for example);
- Tense muscles – sometimes cramping tightly and painfully in place;
- Sweating and feeling flushed (similar to having a fever);
- Goosebumps so intense they actually hurt, they’re physically painful;
- Nausea; Light-headed dizziness;
- Loss of breath and/or tightness in my chest;
- A racing pulse that thunders and pounds. Sometimes I’m honestly surprised that others can’t hear it, and that I can hear people talk over the racket;
- Weak bladder;
- Dry mouth;
- Tingling “pins and needles” sensations in fingers and toes; and finally
- A complete lack of focus – either because I can’t complete a thought before going completely blank and numb, or because I have an incredibly overwhelming number of thoughts competing, colliding, overlapping, backtracking, and screaming for attention all at once.
Imagine for a moment what that’s like. Pick a random number between 4 and 12 . From the above list, chose that many symptoms. Close your eyes and picture a whole day – 24 hours straight – where at least one of those symptoms is occurring for any moment you’re not sleeping (and yes, these symptoms also disturb and/or interrupt your precious sleep). Maybe they’re so intense it’s the only thing you can think about. Some are subdued, barely noticeable in a normal daily routine. Sometimes 2 or 3 or 4 are happening simultaneously and intensely. Sometimes one will slowly morph into the next, never lingering on any one in particular, never holding long enough to pinpoint exactly what you’re experiencing at that moment, and never more than one at a time. Maybe several will hit you out of the blue like a freight train and then vanish just as quickly; you’re left feeling a numbed state of surprise and shock in its wake. It happens so fast, like a thunderclap out of a clear sky, you may momentarily wonder if you’re actually still awake, or if this is just another dream. Then you’re not sure if you want to wake up from a dream and realize life is even harder, or if you are too scared to sleep because the dreams make everything even darker, more foreboding, more intense, more isolating. Now, attempt to live a normal life. Do your best to hold it together, and not give in to the chaos. Fight the urge to lash out – and friends, family, co-workers, a complete stranger. Fight the urge to just completely and blindly lose control. To release the pent up, incoherent but overwhelming blast of emotions on the nearest person that may or may not have blinked one too many times for your liking… all the while not knowing why this keeps happening, and not being able to completely control it, or make it go away. Not always knowing what will trigger it, or (conversely) calm it, settle it, bring it back under (the illusion of) control for an undetermined period of calm and rest.
You see, I’m broken. Fractured. The pieces don’t fit together the way they should anymore. In some ways it’s all I’ve ever known. In some ways every day it’s like waking up to complete stranger.
When they’re together, it’s like a washing machine gone crazy; thrashing around, rattling, thumping, thrashing, jostling, shaking, bumping into things, knocking things over, causing damage, inflicting chaos. They’ve caused an untold amount of damage, of frustration, of hurt, of anger. And not only in me but in relationships around me. People I value. People I trust.
They’ve taken hobbies that once I loved and dulled my interest in them. They’ve stolen hours from my days, and days from my life just listlessly and aimlessly staring at my phone or laptop, gazing out a window, or even blankly staring at nothing at all. They’ve made me afraid of absolutely nothing. That is, there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of, and yet I feel incredibly afraid. They’ve made things like standing in a line an exercise in remembering to actually breathe, allowing myself a bit of extra personal space, and keeping tight control of ‘other’ bodily functions, lest I have an ‘accident’.
I’m broken. Fractured. From arm’s length there’s little indication of anything wrong, so carefully I’ve crafted my persona and Mask. Sometimes, even arm’s length is far too close for my comfort — physically or metaphorically. It’s so very tempting to keep all at a comfortable distance – and sometimes that means the further the better. I’ve gotten very good at masking it from all but a select few who know me well and can read behind the mask I cling to.
But using the mask and hiding behind it also feeds it, it fuels the darkness, it makes it stronger, hungrier, more unpredictable. So I fight back the only way I know has helped and runs counter to anything and everything the illness is screaming at me: By living. By reaching out. By fighting the urge to keep everyone at arm’s length and instead pulling people in close. By candidly showing them the cracks and broken parts, pointing out the flaws and touching the scars. By talking about it, and writing about it. By engaging others with similar experiences. By trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t know anything about mental illness, but wants to understand anyway. By continually working with myself, and on myself, growling, learning, trying my best to maintain a normal life. By learning how to see and count the victories in my daily life, no matter how small and insignificant they may be to the rest of the world, to focus on those wins instead of the flaws that I so easily amplify in my mind. By exposing myself to challenging situations to prove (to myself and others) that I can do it. Yes, sometimes I realise I can’t, that I may be in over my head – and then I have to figure out how to “back out” and do it quickly. Sometimes a “quick” grocery shop will leave me breathless, exhausted, sweating profusely, and rapidly approaching “meltdown” levels of stress and anxiety. Yes, sometimes I’ll have to leave my place in a line to use the restroom, knowing full well that I’ll just have to return to the end of the line, and battle my anxiety, my nerves, my insecurities all over again, for that much longer. Sometimes it’s working on positive physical and mental habits. Sometimes it’s gritting my teeth and grimly refusing to let the darkness consume me – as tempting as that is some days.
I’m fractured. Broken in ways some people can’t imagine. I catch myself wishing I were whole again , the me I used to be, to be the me I used to know . Yet, ever so slowly, I’m realising my broken pieces are still, in fact, me. That I am still me. Somehow, even though some of the pieces don’t fit right, and others are missing completely, I’m also discovering ‘new’ pieces of me. And in a way I feel more ‘me’ than I have in a long time. Not the ‘me’ I was, or thought I was , or thought I should be. Instead, I’m slowly learning to accept the me that is, rough edges, broken bits, and all.
So here’s to the broken ones, the fractured ones, those who are barely holding things together: sometimes the only way to get to the light is to wade into the darkness. Not as a prisoner, not passively submitting and complying to its gravitational pull, but with grim, stark focus.
Like a gladiator.
Like a warrior.
You’re stronger than you know. And I’m pulling for you.
The Darkness won’t know what hit it.
5 thoughts on “The Mask”