Peeling off the masks

Last August I told my friend J I’d take her out for lunch for her birthday present. Monday night she cashed my offer in for a happy hour that turned out to be dinner due to all the tasty appetizers. At least we made it before her next birthday!

We were talking about our kids, her kids, her daughter and the ways we both work to wrap around this young woman well so her keen heart and mind arrive at adulthood. Mostly I wrap around J and J wraps around her daughter; I provide a survivor’s portal into depression and anxiety for J. 

J and I were reminiscing, though, about my spring-semester conversation with her daughter. The one where I described what the “vacation” of a psychiatric hospital is like. From there I thought about the other kids on my floor, wondering how and whether they made it out of their suffering. About that one guy who had made it so far in his feeling and growing that he felt safe enough to show me his “Jason” mask, the one he would wear in the western Pennsylvania woods when he was catching and torturing small animals. I don’t need it anymore, he told me. 

I have always prayed that was so. 

Then today I encountered this in Brené brown’s Daring Greatly:

If I were directing a play about the vulnerability armory, the setting would be a middle school cafeteria and the characters would be our eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-old selves. I pick this age because armor can be hard to see on adults. Once we’ve worn it long enough, it molds to our shape and is ultimately undetectable–it’s like a second skin. Masks are the same way. […]Depending on the level of shame and fear, most kids have yet to be convinced that that heaviness of the armor or the suffocating nature of a mask is worth the effort.

All the gifts from my time in the hospital were difficult, including stripping off my masks. Perhaps that transformation was what spurred my floor-mate to share; perhaps is was the rock-bottom vulnerability and openness all of us had then. You don’t land in a psych ward when your coping strategies are working. And there’s nothing quite like being around 24×7 with people who’ve failed at all the strategies you think you’ll try. (They have this certain half-skeptical, half-pitying look… .) The smart move is to shed them all right away, and that’s one thing everyone says about me, that I’m smart. 

Doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sting like crazy to strip off the false skin. Or leave you feeling raw and oozy while you grow the true one. 

Brown reprises her ten guideposts for Wholehearted living on page 9 of Daring Greatly. I found it both cheering and daunting that they match the bedrock of what I built and learned while climbing out of that dark place. 

…cheering but mostly daunting to recognize that I lived out her seminal work from age seventeen to twenty-five. 

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