~ Trigger Alert! ~
It’s funny because I actually hate wearing masks, claustrophobic with scratchy edges, eyeholes positioned carefully to be in the wrong place for me blearily staring out without the safety of my glasses underneath. It was cool to use masks in our drama work at school, I’d wriggle out, try and find some other role for myself. The cheap, white plastic faces that the others delighted in, high art at its very best, just meant fear and induced panic to me. I was never cool.
You see part of the problem is that I already was wearing a mask. Some paint their faces, an inch of slap, to hide behind and to pretend that they’re something that they fear that they might not be. Others create intricate masks, masks that allow them to play a role whilst hiding the reality beneath.
I don’t know what role I was hoping to create. I think it was generic ‘normal’. I don’t remember consciously creating the part nor do I remember the moment when I first donned the mask. But now it accompanies me everywhere, I don’t go out without it. I even forget that I am wearing it.
This mask allows me to be, relatively, cool and collected. This mask gives me a veneer of confidence, a quiet assurance that I try to pass off. It permits me to function in a demanding world without a barrage of questions, without exposing myself to the pain, threats and dangers that everyday life poses.
I got so nervous about going out; I felt somehow that I had no right to be out and about, I was embarrassed by being out and about, that I used to force myself to greet strangers in the street. Don’t worry this was perfectly normal behaviour for everyone else; I grew up in a small, friendly town. Eventually I built up the confidence to ask questions in shops, I would force myself to walk in and find something to ask about. Asserting my right to be present in their shop.
I was talking to a friend the other day. She hadn’t realised that I was shy. I am, painfully shy. I hate talking to people; will do anything to avoid it. I only do it for the sake of politeness; I have mastered the art of small talk. I have even mastered the art of small talk without looking like I am being tortured. I do it to fit in, I do it to be ‘normal’, I do it because it is expected. When I have to go out to something social, my stomach churns with nerves, never mind butterflies it is an entire fleet of Wellington bombers. And not in rubber boots either, hobnailed ones.
My nerves got so bad that I once developed a stutter. I’ve suffered with panic attacks for over a decade.
But life has to go on.
I got through the stutter by pretending that I was performing a role. I could speak in public by pretending to be someone else.
I guess that that is where the mask partly comes from. But there were other expectations too. Expectations that family, culture, society all impress upon you. You try not to let anyone down and to do that, you have to become someone or something else.
Otherwise most days I wouldn’t be able to function.
Now I am so used to wearing it that I forget that I am wearing it. The role I have unwittingly created is also a burden to me. It is a responsibility to keep it up, to maintain it daily. A responsibility and a struggle. I can’t just crack now because everyone knows the other me. I can’t burst into tears for the slightest reason. I can’t ask for help. Because with this mask on, I am in control, everything is under control.
But it isn’t.
So what do I do? I have no choice but to keep on wearing the mask, to continue with my daily performance. An artiste pandering to some expectant audience. I have become the mask. I don’t know if there’s anything underneath anymore. Or if, maybe, that fragile shell is all that is holding me together and then I don’t really want to risk taking it off either.