We all have masks. Even the most transparent of us, those who wear our hearts on our sleeves, can find ourselves in a position where the truth is not appropriate to share. Sometimes, it is a conscious effort, this mask we put on. Telling people that you are just fine can relieve you from the awkwardness that happens when you trust them with your real thoughts.
But what if maybe you're not that upset? Or maybe you are too angry for words? Maybe you just don't feel anything at all. Sometimes, I think by not sharing something, you are sharing too much. If you're too quiet, people make up their own stories to explain your actions or lack thereof.
My mom has been bipolar ever since I can remember. She is also a hoarder. Both of these things were undiagnosed until about 12 years ago when things finally came to a head. She was always very cheerful and energetic when we were out and about at school and activities. People thought she was charming. But back at home, it was a house of cards.
My childhood was spent keeping secrets. We were never allowed to have friends visit our house. I think the only relatives ever let in were my aunt and cousin who had similar issues with keeping more than they could handle.
My sisters and I became very good at making up stories. (OK, lying.)
We were always instructed to tell people that my mother was ill (which ironically was the truth -- it wasn't as much physical as it was mental) and therefore we couldn't have visitors. That wasn't really the whole story. Only a few very close friends were privy to my mother's manic outbursts and the living conditions in our house. It was simply much easier and less embarrassing to lie to everyone else.
All during my childhood, my sisters and I would try to fix things. I remember always dreaming about winning the lottery and spending all on fixing up our house. In the beginning, my aunts would tell us to listen to our mother and help her out. We did. We'd throw out trash and she'd bring it right back in the house! It took many years of banging my head against the wall to realize that you cannot and will not -- never ever -- change anyone. Change must come from within. If you don't want to recognize there is a problem, you will never get out from under its trap.
I left after college and never, ever, contemplated a move home again despite my mother's pleas to come home and "pay rent." I felt a great deal of freedom in my tiniest of apartments where people could visit any time without any shame or excuses.
As crazy as this sounds, I think that the funny part is how I learned so much about how NOT to be from watching my parents. I loved them dearly, but I didn't like them very much. I should be clear -- they were both very intelligent, funny, and caring people. They gave us a roof over our heads, they paid for our education, they took us on vacations, they did what they thought was best to raise us to be fine young ladies. Unfortunately, they had some serious monsters that they couldn't tame on their own. All of those wonderful things they did will always be clouded by my memories of their instability, anger and insanity. I would argue with them and try to talk some sense into them -- and my mom would try to end the argument by screaming that I OWED her respect. The more she did that, the more I came to the conclusion that anyone can birth a kid -- respect is earned through your actions during the toughest of times, especially if it involves exposing yourself to kill your demons.
I think one of the biggest lessons I took away from my childhood is that if you can identify a problem, you have to try to fix it. Ignoring it will not make it go away, it will only make it get worse. This is particularly true with health problems.
You could look great on the outside but your body and mind may be ill. This affects how you see other people, how you treat them, and it shapes your family dynamic.
You can't keep a mask completely on and pretend that you're OK with things that aren't OK. My dad did that for years and he died not fully realizing how much we loved him despite the fact that he enabled my mother but not forcing her to get treatment. He did no one any favors by accepting her as she was. Now that she's medicated -- we can see the person he fell in love with years ago.
If you pretend everything is OK on the outside and bring your hell home to your family, your mask will eventually crack. My mother had two switches. Either everyone was to blame for everything in her life -- or everything was fine and dandy because she believed in the Lord. We never knew which mask she was going to wear -- would she be praising us or cursing us? Eventually, her positive mask broke and it was impossible for her to pretend that she was fine.
We've been dealing with some serious health issues in our household. I realize that I don't want to wear a mask, but sometimes, I just can't express how things are. It's not like I'm deliberately holding back -- lord knows, I'm one to share. (Hopefully not TMI!) But sometimes, things look good on the outside but in reality are pretty shaky in the inner circle. Other times, they look worse than they really are. I feel great most of the time. However, there are times when stress causes me to buckle. I don't look sick, and yet sometimes I am. I certainly don't want people to view me as incapable of doing anything.
People say that I'm a really positive person. I wonder if I really am, or if I'm just lying to myself. I don't want to be a constant complainer yet I don't want to pretend everything is OK when it isn't. And you know that it's true -- we all have issues -- and there is always someone who has it better or worse than you do when you make the inevitable comparison.
I can only hope that I am sharing in a way that shows empathy for those also experiencing trying times. And that by being careful with my masks, only taking them out when really appropriate for the audience.