Discarding the Mask

(Graphic stories of handling pain ahead)

Mask statue2

As I step out more in the world, and dip my toe in unknown waters, I have realized I wear a mask. I need to work on discarding this mask.

I recall my Dad always telling me tears never helped anyone and to “knock it off” or “stop making a fuss”. These lessons started quite young with skinned knees, or even sucker punches from my big and not so gentle brothers. These lessons progressed to where I could endure amazing amounts of pain without making a sound, and barely a grimace. I learned to keep my face calm and still to hide the pain.

Climbing

I still shudder when I see those points on top (Photo credit: dailydoseofjoshy)

One day in middle school, I had the not so brilliant idea of riding my bike and walking my tiny mopheaded shitzu dog simultaneously. I wanted to visit my friend and let her little sister meet my doggy. I got about 20 feet down a fenced on both sides bike path when doggy when crazy and tangled his leash in my pedals. I was terrified to hurt him, and afraid to step on him, so I leaned over and grabbed the fence to stop us without putting my feet down. I was successful in stopping the bike and not squishing doggy, but I also succeeded in putting the poky twirly top of a chain link fence completely through my hand. it went through my palm and poked out on the top of my hand in the fleshy area between thumb and first finger. I tried to pull my hand down and realized it was stuck, and that I had to lift it off first before pulling down. I had to climb the fence a little to get enough leverage with my other hand to push the injured one up, while still holding the leash in that hand and balancing the bike on my other foot to keep it off doggy.

I knew I’d be in trouble and called stupid. So I never told anyone. I went home, calmly put away my bike, locked it up, unclipped doggy and hung up his leash, then went to the bathroom to treat my wound. Myself. Dad always used peroxide on us, so I dumped it in, and stared as it bubbled through to the other side. (sorry if that’s too graphic, but that image is burned in my memory) I controlled my breathing, by barely breathing at all. I rinsed it out with running water, and stuffed some gauze into a few bandaids and held it until the bleeding stopped and the throbbing began. Then I cleaned up all the blood drips from walking in the door down the hall to the bathroom. I didn’t want anyone to know I had been so careless and stupid. I was afraid he’d take my bike or dog away as punishment. Or punish the dog for hurting me, he often kicked that little fuzzball.

So by the time my brothers came home for dinner, and my parents were home from work, I was calmly doing homework and my workout in my room. I hid my left hand under the table at dinner. No one noticed, no one asked. I felt so relieved. I had gotten away with it. (yes I thought i got away with doing something wrong, not that I had an accident that may require medical attention) I think now, as a mom, and I can’t believe it did not get infected, or give me tetanus. I know it should have had stitches, as it kept bleeding for several days. I just packed gauze and bandaids in my backpack to change it at school. I even bought more with my own money so no one would be upset that I used it all up. The scar on that hand is so thick and just another reminder of how I grew up.

I was not allowed to express sadness either. I was “stupid” for crying whenever the pets died (which was often, way too often in my house), they were just “stupid beasts”. I saw ET in a movie theater as a small child, and saw adults crying all around us. I felt like crying, but the adults with me did not cry, so I did not either. My dad caught me crying one day after reading a book where the little girl’s best friend died (sorry don’t recall the title) and he laughed at me for “getting caught up in the silly, emptional, frivolous world of fiction” Didn’t I have enough sense to know those stories (those stories that I loved and read daily) are made up make believe trash and a waste of time?

I also learned not to show happiness, because he might find out why I was happy and take it away from me. I pretended not to love my pets, and ignored them when Dad was looking, to protect them.

So today, I still find myself resorting to this completely blank, emotionless mask. No one knows what I think or feel. I have to remember to smile. It is not automatic for me. Like someone passes and smiles, I have to think “Oh I should smile too” and then I do, and then I wonder if I paused too long, did it look awkward. Can they tell I’m not like them?

I’m finding my mask is dropping with my family, my new friends. But it is still in place most of the day, most of the time, and always there for strangers until I decide if they are “Safe” or not. But one day, I hope to discard that awful mask completely and let everyone know I am really a lively, passionate, energetic woman, not this robotic, lifeless drone.

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13 thoughts on “Discarding the Mask

  1. *hugs* It is impossible to explain to someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to have to be perfectly placid all the time. With some people, it’s best to keep the mask. Narcissists are everywhere.

    • I agree with Judy. I wonder whether instead of a mask we should call it a “shield” so that it’s not so much that we’re hiding behind it but that we’re protecting ourselves when needed.

      • I like Judy’s shield idea, too. With certain people and situations I think it’s a must-have, like armor.

        I’ve heard healthy boundaries described this way: we live inside protective fences and walls, but we get to control the gates and the doors, to determine who and what is safe to let in and what needs to be kept out.

      • The mask stays in place automatically because that’s what we had to do until now. It takes a while for the body to realise when it’s no longer needed. Years ago I used to share a flat with two other girls and we had one of those small fridges that are under the worktop. The door broke and you had to hold it while opening it, otherwise it would fall and make the most horrendous noise. For some reason we didn’t have repaired for ages. Eventually we found someone to repair it but for weeks afterwards we were still holding the door even though consciously we knew there was nothing wrong with it. It’s like the brain got the message but hadn’t passed it on to the body. I remember reading something somewhere about the body having a different memory from the brain, as in when you can’t remember a phone number but if you dial it your fingers remember. I suppose the human body is a lot more complex than they give it credit for and there’s still so much we don’t know about how it works.

      • Oh I like that. Yes muscle memory is very complex, what a great example with that broken door. Thank you so much for another way to think of it. That makes so much sense to me. My face has learned that blank expression and requires conscious thought to change it, but it gives me hope that I can learn a new habit then, just with practice, like with any other muscle. Just like typing too, my fingers know where to go before I actually know what words I’m putting together.

      • You’re welcome RTB, I’m hoping the same thing too. Face expression is an interesting issue. My parents hardly ever smile and if they do, the smile points down (if that makes any sense), one day I was looking at a photo album from when I was little to see whether it was just my parents who were like this, and to my horror I saw that both sets of grandparents and aunties and their husbands didn’t smile either. So presumably this was something that was being passed generation after generation without anyone even realising, and that the ones who had married into the family must have also come from the same type of families. I still find it quite hard to smile, especially for photographs, but I’m practicing so hopefully I can program a new memory into my muscles. Unlike the rest of the family, I ended up married to a guy that has a lovely smile (like Wesley’s in “The Princess Bride”), even though at the time I was not aware of any of these issues. I like to think that a part of me was already on the look out for a better way to live 🙂

      • My mom rarely smiles because she has bad teeth to hide. My dad smiled often, but that was his charming facade. I was often afraid of what he was planning when he smiled. As for relatives, on dad’s side I only recall smiling along with horrible laughter, at a dirty joke or at someone’s expense. Never knew many people who had genuine smiles, so I think you’re right that can make it harder for us to learn.

  2. I also have to remind myself to smile. I stay calm in the face of emergencies as well. Although I didn’t suffer through such traumatic abuse as you, somehow I learned that it wasn’t good to show emotions. I’ve come a very long way in that department, thank God. Keep writing…it helps.

    • Yes, writing seems to help me connect myself to my own feelings directly, rather than at a distance. I think many people are disconnected, and did not need major or chronic trauma to get that way, just becomes habit perhaps. I’m calm for my own emergencies, but flip out for other people’s.

  3. When thinking about my emotional states, I look at myself as a ball of energy. I think about whether or not a conflict or tough situation warrants the use of my limited energy source. Sometimes crying is a way of replenishing energy and sometimes it’ depletes energy, but the bottom line is that we get to decide how we respond to our emotions. This has really helped my emotional and physical state. Check out my three part series (more to come) on Energy and Emotion.
    http://abalancingactlifecoaching.com/2012/03/23/energy-and-emotion

    • Very interesting! Thank you for the link, I will definitely check it out. I try to think of my overall health and energy too, like me as a being, and it does help. And I know exactly what you mean about choosing how to expend our energy, and sometimes the wrong choice can be depleting.

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