the masks we wear, the lies we tell, and the secrets we keep

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

I spent the past year a walking wound, but you’d never know it. Maybe you read a handful of sad stories I’d written or scrolled through a few Facebook status updates, but if you saw me in person you’d see someone who was assembled, stitched neatly together. Nevermind the gashes beneath the surface, the cuts that failed to heal. I was fine, just fine, but let’s not talk about me. Tell me about you. I’d arrange my face in different shapes; I’d smile and nod and stare intently, and everyone would leave with the comfort that I was going to be okay. In forty years I’d survived so much, surely I would endure this. Surely the girl was going to be just fine.

The girl slouches home. The girl unravels. The girl is far from fine.

When I was small I was taught the worst thing one could be was weak. Never cry, never be vulnerable, never let anyone all the way in. So my heart was a bolted door and I lived on the side with all the mothballs desperate to flutter out. Throughout college and during the first fifteen years of my career, I was repeatedly told that it was verboten to bring your full self to work. The office wasn’t the place for your sob stories or crumbled tissues in clammy hands. Leave that six-piece luggage set at home. No one wants or needs to know. Deal with your life privately, behind closed doors. Even as a child growing up in Brooklyn, everyone lived by the axiom: mind your own.

So we become editors of ourselves, preservationists of our suffering. We become architects of our masks; we reframe our true stories in work and in life. We become vague on the level of a CIA operative. We’re just going through a tough time. We use phrases like a rough patch, a temporary setback, and a minor blip. But we’re fine, really.

We consistently pass on that glass of wine because we’re not in the mood or we don’t particularly like drinking instead of saying I’m an alcoholic. We talk up our partner’s attributes or the memories you once shared that were photographs worth taking instead of saying I’m going through a divorce. We post terrific photographs of our best selves while we binge-watch “House of Cards”, refreshing our phones, waiting for the Likes. We live for that validation in the moments when we feel sonnet-small when the space between you and the photograph you’ve taken becomes a chasm that widens with the passing of each day. We wonder: how do I get that to person? When can I feel that expression? That face?

This week, I was formally diagnosed with severe depression, and my financial situation is dire to the point where I’ve had to borrow money from close friends to pay for my twice-weekly therapy visits. I tell my therapist how much this bothers me, how it annoys me that I’ve become a burden. I look weak. I’m a failure. And he interrupts and reminds me of something I’d said when we first met — it was an off-hand comment, something to the effect that if he saw me on the street I would be unrecognizable. What did I mean by that, he wanted to know. Had I been wearing a mask all this time? I said, yes, of course, because when you spend your whole life on guard, you can’t just fling open all the doors, throw open all the windows. It didn’t occur to me that I was laughing during the first half hour of my visit. I couldn’t stop laughing. I hate that I had to publicly ask people for money — ha! ha! ha! I hated how it felt when my friends read an essay I published and subsequently deleted because it caused them insurmountable fear and anguish to the point where I received frantic voicemails in the middle of the night— ha! ha! ha! I hate this feeling now, of being here, of telling you these things; I’ve always come back, I’ve always survived, and now I’m certain if I can get past this. He tells me that vulnerability isn’t a mark of failure; it’s the trait of someone who’s human.

Why are you laughing, he asks, to which I respond, it’s easier than crying.

I spent so much of my career not bringing any of my whole self to work that it must have appeared like I wasn’t human. I wasn’t capable of feeling, and this alienated me. This red pen that I took to myself, this scalpel I used to excise parts of my life that I could have shared with others, made it hard for me to form attachments, made me seem less real to the people who worked for me. I regret the mask I wore and wish I would have been a little more vulnerable, or at least, honest.

When I tell my friends that things are bad, really bad, that I’m seeing a psychiatrist twice a week and taking Wellbutrin, I receive dozens of emails from people whom I least suspect, people whom I’ve known for years who suffer from depression or another form of mental illness. They tell me they’ve been there and they know exactly what I’m going through and that it gets better. They assure me it does even on the days when I can’t see my hand in front of my face it’s that dark. And then I ask why they never told me this, what they’ve gone through, some replied that I seemed so put together, so stoic, warm but at a remove, that they didn’t want to ripple the surface. Others said that their depression (or mental illness) is not something they offer up for a variety of reasons, one of which is stigma and fear of how others would perceive them. They trust me with their secrets and I want to write back and say I wish we wouldn’t have to lie, or tell secrets, or spend our lives presenting our edited selves to the world.

I wish I would have made my wounds visible sooner because I know some would be there at the ready with bandages. Perhaps I would’ve healed sooner.


I originally published this post on Medium
depression

there's beauty in the attempt (and honesty)

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I have a friend coming over for brunch today and I’m pulling out all the stops: homemade blueberry waffles topped with fresh compote, maple bacon, fruit salad and brewed coffee. It’s been a while since I’ve had someone over–possibly because my home is my refuge, and I couldn’t imagine anyone in it because I viewed the slightest intrusion as a pillage on my sanctuary. Although I’ve been in California only a brief time (five months), it feels like home because it’s not yet blemished by all the history. Even though I moved apartments in the Brooklyn brownstone I once lived, I felt haunted by Sophie’s passing (among other things), and I could feel the weight of having grown up in Brooklyn and seeing it changed. And while the city has been remodeled to the point where it’s barely recognizable, I still have the memory of it. I still remember being a teenager, riding the subway, my feet on the seats.

In Los Angeles, there are no subways, and the streets are clean and expansive. People drive and I walk, and sometimes I’ll walk the eight miles from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica simply to feel space.

Last week, WordPress emailed my end-of-year report, which is kind of like an annual report for your blog, and I normally try not to look at these things, to concern myself with the business of numbers because numbers have a way of doing things to you, altering what and how your create. And it’s no surprise that this space had demonstrably more traffic when I was happy, and people seemed to fall out of the frame when I got sad. And then this put me to thinking about social media and how it can be brutally suffocating with everyone demanding that you be positive, happy and in a constant state of growth and repair. People want to read about your dark times only in the past tense, only when you’ve made it out to the other side and you are gleaming and dressing your wounds. There is so much talk, so much desire for that which is real and authentic, yet we see time and time again how people are rewarded for their artful representation of a coveted life. People want their darkness in manageable doses (that one book everyone reads/movie everyone sees) because possibly they have so much (or little) going on in their lives that they don’t want the burden of someone else’s grief. Rather, they reach out to light so religiously they don’t realize when they’ve been burned and blinded by it.

When I was a teenager, I kept losing PTA-sponsored writing contests because people always died in my stories. Parents can’t reward something that disturbing, a teacher once confided to me. Later, when I was at Columbia, a teacher asked me in my first year why people in my stories died and I was confused and said because that’s what happens. My father once told me that I hold on to darkness too hard. In response, I said no, it was more like I didn’t like letting it go. There’s a difference, even though at the time I didn’t know what that difference was.

 

I’m going to ignore what’s popular and inherently desired because I think that our work allows us to weed out that which does not serve us. I’m in this kind of purgatory where I’m not as low as I was a few months ago, but I’m not out of the woods yet and I feel this tension between the need to get better and the ache of giving up. Being in Los Angeles has given me so many things already–a new book, space, and the want of rebuilding a tribe when the old one didn’t serve me well. It’s hard, really fucking hard, to see the constant stream of posts that speak to how everyone’s life is so! fucking! awesome! when my life is anything but, but their life isn’t my life and there’s no joy in comparing myself to others and what they chose to edit and project out into the world, so all I can do is keep attempting, keep doing, keep working, and keep being my most honest self–even if it’s not as attractive as the world would want it to be.

I woke this morning and thought: well, at least it’s no longer 2015.

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california living the gathering kind

on perception, and the delicate dance of masks

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I had dinner with a new friend the other night–someone whom I’ve admired for a while–and she told me that she was delighted that I turned out to be warm, funny and accessible in person, because while she loved reading my blog and found me intelligent, she’d gotten the impression that I was intimidating and aloof. What a wonderful surprise, she thought, because normally she’d encountered just the opposite; she’d fall in like with someone who possessed an effusive online persona to only discover, in real life, the person was a raging asshole. We laughed and traded stories about relationships we’ve cultivated by being online, and…

WAIT. HOLD THE PHONE. I’m ALOOF? {sniff}

Truth be told, I’ve heard this before. From former coworkers who’ve become close friends to acquaintances who appear relieved that I don’t quote sonnets over pasta {brief digression: I’m barely surviving my second week without pasta}, people have expressed their glee over the fact that I’m not as esoteric and intimidating in person. My response is normally one of a fierce twitching. On a scale of 1-10, my discomfort registers at about 40 {HOW AM I INTIMIDATING?}. But here’s the thing — if you immediately balk at constructive criticism or observations that give you discomfort, part of what you’re receiving is probably true, and getting defensive only serves as a mere distraction from that truth. On my way home from dinner, I gave my friend’s words serious thought. I thought about the masks we wear and how and when we switch them, as if we’re performing some sort of elaborate, delicate dance.

For most of my life I wore the just fine mask. The I’m okay, don’t worry, I can handle it mask. To an outsider, I was a successful, prolific overachiever–I was my finest photograph. Yet as soon as I came home and the door closed behind me, I fell into dark. The world behind me receded, and I felt crushed by the weight of having a double. All I wanted for people to know was that I was the complete opposite of not okay, but the risk of that vulnerability and the perception of weakness was unimaginable. Coupled with the fact that I published a memoir about very personal aspects of my life {some of which I regret writing, in retrospect}, I felt caught between tectonic plates. I was revealing the things that I didn’t want to share, but at the same time hiding the things that I wish would come to light. As a result, I spent the better part of a decade reconciling this, mostly in private, and when I resurfaced, I created rules for this space. Perhaps not realizing I’d created another mask. Oh, the irony.

I read somewhere that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

For me, this space is about art. I conduct minor experiments with language and merging image and type, and I’m also trying to find the art in talking about food in a different way. The dozens of drafts of posts {the rewriting and rethinking of lines and ideas}, and the hundreds of images I take, are examples of the mess in this art. Yet in the end what you see is the edited version of things. You see a representation of myself that is one aspect of who I am but not the whole of me, if that makes any sense.

For me, this isn’t artifice. Part of me constantly calls to references in art and literature because I’ve been reading and creating since I was a toddler. Words help me make sense of the world, and when I call to an artist it reminds me that I’m less alone. If I think about all of this in terms of geography, this blog is my living room while Twitter is me at the bar–acerbic, wry, passionate, outspoken. Instagram is my playground and bedroom, as I can show you photographs of things closest to my heart without actually talking about them. Pinterest is me dreaming. LinkedIn is me working and not sharing pictures of my cat. In real life I’m a mix of all of these rooms, and perhaps a bathroom thrown in for good measure because I’m not always on, sometimes I tire of the performance, and I just want to laze on my floor and reveal parts of myself that aren’t necessarily pretty or well-kempt. I feel privileged to have friends with whom I can share comfortable silences. These are people who love me even if my jokes fall flat or if I’ve stolen cookies off their plate.

Part of me is starting to wonder how I can bring all of these rooms into one house, because much like I’ve realized that fragmenting my career is ridiculous, fragmenting aspects of my character is exhausting and perhaps misleading. As this space evolves, I want to be conscious of sharing all of these rooms on all of the places I play online. I want people I care about to know that I’m not aloof; I’m tremendously shy, extremely bookish, and when I write these posts I’m in my prefered state: home, alone, settling into quiet. Because that’s when the magic happens. That’s when I’m able to be still enough to create. I want people to know that every post is the moment before the storm.

Obligatory shot of my FELIX. Isn’t he a MOVIE STAR?

the gathering kind