Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Behind the mask

I've been thinking about this since I said it was in the works; the problem is that the further I get from thinking about the bad times, the harder it is to bring them into the present. The only way to get them to come to life again is to go back into the past and as we've already seen, that's not a good idea.

It's difficult to write about the isolation of depression, too, because to some extent we're all isolated inside our heads. I have no idea whether my own sense of isolation was greater because of my illness, or whether I was just like anyone else.

Given the situation, though, I think it unlikely that I was just like everyone else.

At its absolute worst, the mask was a visible (to me) gray screen between me and the rest of the world. It seemed to be two or three feet in front of me. But that was at the end, shortly before I was diagnosed. Before that, it was just a mask I wore that I hoped made me look "normal."

For most of my life, I had a strong sense that I was wrong - that I looked wrong, sounded wrong, felt wrong - I did not fit and I was trying to pass. The sense of wrongness started in grade school, but I think I was older, probably in high school, when I started trying to fake it. I hid behind the mask, knowing that if I dropped it, my wrongness would be visible; I would be found out.

I was living in a world of Miranda rights - I knew that anything I said could and would be used against me - not because people were out to get me, but because I continually felt I was saying the wrong things. Live like that for 20 or 30 years, and you slowly become afraid to say or do anything at all. (I just realized that I'm still a bit nervous when there are friends - or anyone - in my apartment; what part of me is showing, that shouldn't be?)

Or you say "to hell with it," and speak your mind - but your social skills are/feel so poor that you can't tell whether or not you even made sense. One too many times, and you lose your professional credibility. I tend to change jobs every 7 or 8 years; that's about how long it takes me to feel I've "screwed the pooch," so to speak.

I was at a family gathering this summer and heard my sister tell her daughter, "Poke me if I start talking too much." Shyness is a family trait, and in trying to overcome it, we all struggle with how much social chat is enough. I was surprised to hear her say that; I thought it was just me. That's when it struck me that I have no idea, really, how odd I am, how much of my self-consciousness is the scar from years of illness and how much is simple shyness.

I am getting better. I still hate large gatherings - I can never remember names or faces; I think it's from having spent so many years not looking people in the eye. That may never change. But I'm getting better at small gatherings and parties. In general, I can hold conversations and not be particularly anxious that I'm going to Expose Myself. But there's a sense of restraint - a sense that I shouldn't be too honest, or too open, or someone will know that something was wrong.

Now that I'm writing about it, it seems that I don't know any more about this than I did when I was ill; it almost seems as though I haven't advanced at all. But that's not really true. The level of anxiety is much, much lower, when it's there at all. I know that for the most part I'm as 'normal' and capable as everyone else, and most of the time I'm able to trust that.

And I no longer care so much about my place in someone else's view. It's far more important to me to be okay with myself in my own view, and I don't mean that in an "I'm Okay, You're Okay" kind of sense. I mean that most of the time these days, I like myself. I know where I've been and what I've come through, and I'm pleased with where I am. That's a huge achievement, and it gives me a place to stand. There will always be people who find me odd or unsympathetic or awkward - but that is more a matter of taste than anything else.

I've met a lot of people, and there are maybe a half-dozen I actively dislike. I'm guessing there are about the same number who actively dislike me. A half-dozen is not so bad. A half-dozen I can live with.

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