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The Masks We Wear

A pair of hands holds a black mask, the symbol of who society believes they are. The actually person stands out of frame. Afraid to expose themselves to the world without their mask.
The masks we wear give us the illusion of safety at the price of our humanity.

My childhood home was the epitome of what happens in this house stays in this house. We didn't discuss my father's affairs, resentment, or abuse outside or even inside the house.  My mother’s existence was the biggest land mine of them all.  Why had she gone away?  Where was she now? Those were all questions people asked but we were instructed that the answers were nobody's business, not even ours.  No need to discuss the alcoholism, drug addiction, identity theft, and credit card fraud that kept her out of our orbit and in the hands of a system that finds Black women worthy of being disposed of instead of helped. One can only imagine what could have been if we weren't so preoccupied with the opinions of others.

But what others thought mattered so we discussed nothing and I learned to keep who I am close to my chest. My mental health was attention seeking, not an actual cry for help. And when I did share outside of my home I was punished for it. Either at the hands of my father or at the hands of the same system that chewed my mother up and spit her out. “You’re going to be just like her”, they’d say.  So I bottled it all up and stuffed it down.  Because in the gaps of what wasn’t discussed, I learned that the worst thing I could be was the kind of Black woman my mother was.  I buried my pain in vodka and orange juice, long before I knew what a screwdriver was, and put on a mask to survive.  Like Elsa in Frozen, maybe that's why that movie always brings me to tears, I taught myself to conceal who I was and willed myself not to feel in an outward capacity.  The storm raged inside, but as long as no one knew the severity I was safe.  Or at least that was the lie I told myself. It worked for so long.  So many years buried and now it's all out. I'm on a frozen mountain trying to have my let it go moment but no matter how hard I try the flurries won't fall from my fingers releasing me from the torment I've carried for decades. 

My therapist requested I spend 30 minutes a day letting myself feel and connect with the chaos in my mind. I don’t do this every day for reasons.  Most of them are fear-based, but it is what it is.  In those moments that I do let myself connect, when the world is quiet or the music of my youth fills the room, I find my mind goes through the Rolodex of trauma this body has collected. I float in between memories from my formative and adult years like a spectator with insider knowledge.  

The well-crafted cage I kept my emotions in cracks and the sea of emotions rushes out as I remember my brother outside the bathroom door begging me to open it and not hurt myself. I was 14 and he was about 11. We were alone. We were always alone. Neither of us was equipped to deal with mental illness. Yet there it was, every single damn day asking us put down the toys of our childhood and pick up weapons we didn't possess to fight a battle we didn't know we had been enlisted into. 

We waged war silently, behind closed doors, without a life raft because what happened in our house stayed in our house. And as far as my father and other "well-meaning" adults were concerned my behavior was only for attention. As an adult, I've apologized for the horrors my brother witnessed while I fought my mind. He told me an apology wasn't necessary.  We needed parents and they were nowhere to be found, so we survived the best way we could. Remembering his words when my mind plays our childhood memories should ground me in reality, it should allow me to open my hands and let the trauma go, and yet… there it sits. There are no flurries, no ice storms, no sentient snowmen looking for warm hugs. 

Ultimately, the memories won't disappear.  They may get fuzzy with age, but they'll remain. There is no way to let it go if I'm still wearing the mask that was given to me to conceal my humanity. The only way to let it go is to build a home where what is experienced is shared beyond these beautifully decorated walls. I can't shed the chains by singing loudly on a deserted mountaintop at night.  Undoing the bondage of trauma requires exposing it to the light.  Only when the mask comes off can we see clearly how to make a path forward to letting go and finding peace.  

Dropping the mask is difficult, though.  Dropping the mask means opening the door to all that I kept locked away and allowing people to see the depth of the demons that live under the surface of a carefully crafted image.  I built my life around the notion that I was someone people didn’t need to check in on.  I was blunt and to the point and didn’t need anything from anyone except for them to get out of my way.  Life taught me that whatever a situation called for I would need to figure out how to make it happen on my own because there was no one I could realistically rely on.   Every plan had to have multiple contingencies because being caught helpless was unacceptable.  If I was helpless I was therefore weak and by extension expendable.  For years this meant having a cruel streak that I learned as I aged how to polish into witty sarcastic banter.  

The body keeps score but what does one do with all the trauma the body compounds? Some are consumed by it, burning up in the embers of who they could have been if the world had been kinder and more open. Others turn it into passions, diving headfirst into something larger than themselves to patch up the wounds left by others. 

I feel like I'm on the precipice of one or the other. I could allow my trauma to consume me, wreck me, crush me into a tight little box of should have, could have, would have if only the world had been what I needed.  Or I could allow it to pierce the mask. This option requires vulnerability.  It means putting myself in the position to allow those who have been patiently keeping watch these last few months into my inner world.  It means taking the mask off for good,  no longer replacing it with whatever iteration a particular moment seems to call for, but instead allowing myself to stand wholly in all that I am and be at peace with what the world sees.  Even when it’s terrifying, loud, and all-consuming.  Especially in those moments, because in those moments that’s when I need to know that the me behind the mask matters too.  That's no easy feat though. I guess only time will tell if I can truly take the mask off and let it all go.

Copyright(c)2023 Rayven Holmes

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