Sometimes I receive emails from acquaintances I knew in my early years. They usually start by expressing their deep concern for me and what I went through. Each message like this is healing because validation and concern for my situation was something I desperately needed as a child. But their next questions are more challenging. “Should I have known?” “How did I miss the signs?” The answer has always eluded me. I really have no response.
I know I was an extremely anxious teenager and young adult. Even when my children were toddlers, I remember having panic attacks. Anyone who was paying attention would have noticed I was anxious. However, most people aren’t paying attention. That is why this work is sometimes referred to as “building awareness”. In addition, there are so many anxious people in the world. And in high school, I am sure I behaved like the average teen.
I was caught somewhere between hyper-arousal and dissociation. While I had a habit of studying every aspect of a room and the people around me, a threat (even a small threat) could send me somewhere else, almost as if I was day dreaming. And yet, nobody knew it. If I missed an entire lesson at school, I could teach myself the information at home. I was able to hide my dissociation because I am lucky to be book smart. My grades never faltered despite my dissociative nature. And nobody could see what was happening on the inside. To them, I seemed like a normal person, albeit a little stressed.
The constant analysis of my surroundings was my most prominent survival mechanism. It provided me with the knowledge that I was relatively safe, or not, but it also provided me with the information I needed to play my role. I was an actress. I had a role to play in each scenario and I could usually figure out my role within seconds. I did whatever it took to ensure that I was accepted as normal, and more importantly, that I was safe.
I realize now that I deserved an academy award for my performance … a thirty year performance in which I developed a series of masks that fooled the whole world. I became exactly who every person wanted me to be. And that was different for every person. My answers to questions were carefully pieced together to ensure that I responded in the perfect way. My house was spotless because I had learned that appearance mattered most. I dressed professionally all the time. I never showed too much skin so as not to appear like the slut I had been told I was. Of course, I also did not want to invite unwanted advances, since I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to turn them down.
I hit all the major milestones. I went to college and finished in four years. I landed that first job out of college. The pay wasn’t impressive, but I kept that to myself. I married the perfect man at the perfect age and bought the perfect house. To the outside observer, my life looked pretty good. But on the inside, I was falling apart.
Now that I am in recovery, there are some days that it seems impossible to come back to the real me. I get frustrated by my lack of self-understanding. But other times I can give myself a break. I realize that I have spent most of my adult life as an actor on a stage. I have never let down my guard. I have never stopped studying my surroundings and the faces of those around me. I have exhausted myself by evaluating and adjusting my behavior constantly to meet the needs of those around me. In case this sounds selfless, it wasn’t. I was only trying to stay safe. When I am willing to admit my constant efforts to hide who I am, it is not surprising that I can no longer access the real me.
I understand that most people wear a mask to some extent. We all grow up with messages about expectations from society. We all have an “understanding” of who we are expected to be. However, for many children, the message is consistent. It doesn’t change on a daily basis. It may even be possible to isolate the message in our psyche because it has been repeated so many times, eventually removing the mask that was worn to meet the expectations of others.
In my case, the mask had to change constantly. It would morph almost every day. And the mask took over my entire being. It was running my life. The mask was me. There was no original self left. It was buried behind years of soul destruction. Honestly, my original self seemed lost forever.
And so I continue to try to find myself. I remove one mask only to find another. I ask myself what I want and get an answer that doesn’t seem quite right. I find myself living in my logical mind, but struggling to understand what my heart wants. When I feel like I am getting close to a real answer, the confusion sets in and the panic returns.
I want to be whole again. I want to be the person I was born to be. I want to remove the masks … all of them. I want to resuscitate that part of me that seemed to die so many years ago. I hope it’s not too late. I hope I am not lost forever.