Monday, January 31, 2011

We wear the mask: the different versions of myself I present to the world versus who I really am

I present different versions of myself to the world, as I am able and as I see fit. It is my way of hanging onto the "normalcy" I'd like to call my own but can't completely take claim of.


My apartment is a disaster. I have not been throwing things away, so there is general garbage piled up. There are clothes all over the floor of my bedroom in baskets and, well, just piles on the floor. They have been there for many months. I have not been able to manage to tackle this issue. I tried, once, but gave up, quickly. I have an armoire in my bedroom covered in spilled make-up and lotions and iced tea. I just left it that way, too depressed to deal with the issue, and anyway the light fixture has been out for months and I have no way of reaching it to replace the bulb, so most of the time I cannot see the disaster that is my bedroom enough to care about it. I tell myself I can't clean because it's dark. And when it's light out, I close my eyes or simply leave the room and don't go back into it. The Christmas decorations are piled in a box, except for the ones I haven't packed yet. The toilet seat cover broke off the other day, and then the toilet seat itself, and the shower curtain is totally gone because it had holes that grew until it was a completely worthless piece of plastic on the floor. So now I just take baths. The sink in the kitchen keeps getting stopped up, so I have a plunger in the kitchen I regularly use to try to fix this problem, because I can't call the maintenance people when my apartment looks like this. I can't let pest control inside here either, so if they come when I'm home (god-willing) and not when I'm out, I simply say that they can't come in today.

The living room is piles of prescription bottles, used dishes that need to be washed. I finally washed them yesterday but there will be a new pile soon if I do not make a serious effort to prevent it. The mail, unopened mostly, mostly junk mail, is piled or just quickly thrown in the trash. The trash piles up till there are a few bags, and then I finally take it out.

I live like a slob. It's not intentional, really. But how can I say it's not intentional when I'm aware of it and I'm still living this way? I can say this: when you are depressed to the point that you feel incapable of handling a task, you can get pretty convinced that there is no way to handle that task. And that task will remain unhandled. The problem will worsen. And then you will end up a display of a person on Hoarders, with all of America marveling at how disgusting and lazy you are.

This is the home I have. This is the way I live it. I distract myself here by watching mindless television, and spending hours on the internet, doing social networking or actual reading, sometimes even classwork. Occasionally I read a book. It's hard to concentrate to read here, though, in this mess.

The cats knock things over a lot these days. I leave the things on the floor until they become an obstacle to walk across, and then I pick them up. The cats trash this place probably because I do.


Before I go to work, I straighten my hair, which has been washed and blow-dryed usually, with a flat iron. I find matching jewelry for my outfit. I put on a full face of make-up with showered body and brushed teeth. I eat breakfast, take my medications (which is how I function), and my vitamins and supplements. I arrive, usually, on time. There are days when I have extraordinary trouble getting out of bed, especially recently when I have extraordinary trouble getting any sleep. But I still go to work. Albeit late on occasion. I still go. I do my job well. I say hello to my boss, which she likes. She's big on people saying hello to her, since most don't bother. I sit at a cubicle and answer 100 -160 phone calls a day, with a friendly voice, usually, telling the caller exactly how to use the college website to become a student, or to register for classes, or giving them a phone number for who they need to speak with before transferring the call, always telling them, "Have a good day". I am not miserable at work. I am functioning. I cannot say I am suffering a major depressive episode, because if I were I would not be getting to work, most likely. I am depressed, yet, I function. I chat with my coworkers, when I can. I get caught up in reading about politics, and posting links to articles on Facebook, and emailing people in the organizations I volunteer with. I work on my classes to the best I can while multitasking. Sometimes it's hard, because I'm not my real self with the people at work. They don't know I have a mental illness. It is not discussed.

Until recently.

Recently, a computer tech guy came to fix some of our computers, and while working in my coworker's cubicle he began to talk about his wife trying to strangle him, and being sent to jail for it. She is bipolar, he said. Her whole family is "crazy", he said. She mixes her medications with alcohol and she has a drinking problem. I broke my silence this time. I said, "There is this organization called NAMI which I volunteer with. You can go to support groups there. My mother is bipolar and I understand what you are talking about."

This led to one of the most extroverted of my coworkers starting a conversation with me about psychiatric meds. I ended up saying, simply, "I have to take some of those". That was all I said, but it was an admission to something I normally keep private at work. I said that too, "I don't talk about these things at work". I was suddenly aware that I had opened up the real me for viewing and I was uncomfortable. We haven't talked about it again since. I maintain the professional, friendly me. I hide the dysfunctional, mentally ill, depressed me. People like you a lot more when you are functional, you do your job, and you don't complain. I like being viewed as a competent human being, and in our society people with mental illnesses are often thought of as incompetent.

The issue comes up from time to time. Somebody will tell me about a promotion I should apply for, another job. I can't work more hours and I can't make too much money, because I'm on disability and because I simply can't do that much more than what I already do. I don't tell them this. This is private.


At school, I am a public policy and administration major right now. I am earning a Bachelor's degree. I don't know that I completely want this degree. I don't know that I will ever be able to work full-time. I do know that I am old to get into a career in public policy issues or any related career at all. I know that I want to do non-profit work, and that I want to help people, and this degree may not allow me to do that. But I am doing this degree because it was the easiest one for me to manage to get, logistically. I didn't have to move to another county to do it. I don't have to leave my doctors or my job behind. I don't have to hunt for another dirt-cheap apartment to live in, which is not always possible to find. I can stay where I am. Living in this apartment for four years is the longest I've lived anywhere in all my adult life. I feel comfortable here, except for the fact we all have to move into different units soon for renovations that are being done. I feel comfortable because I can go to my mental health clinic and get my injection of Risperdal Consta without a hitch, and that wouldn't be so simple if I moved. I can also do this degree part-time, and I can't manage school full-time, so that is another reason I am in this degree program.

I am a good student. I get A's and B's. I sit in the front of the class. Sometimes, I use a notetaker or a tutor, which I get through the office of services for student with disabilities, but this semester, so far, I haven't used either, because I'm in a Bachelor's program now, and in the real job world, there isn't going to be any notetakers for me to go to. There are no tutors available for the classes I'm in now. The college doesn't provide them. I am trying to get by in these classes just like everybody else, with no extra help.

A brief glimpse of my true self came through though. In my class last week, we had to take turns interviewing each other and then each person had to stand in front of the class to be critiqued. People said I was friendly and smiled a lot, but also that I was insecure. My voice was very soft, they said. My handshake was weak. I seemed very shy, they said. These are not compliments. And of course, these are not news to me. I know these things about myself. I just like to keep them behind the veil that I put on for the world. I contribute to class discussions, and I ask questions, and I enjoy learning. I don't want to be seen as the insecure young woman who doesn't know how to give a good speech.

I've given speeches this past year or two, in front of police officers, high school students, therapists and case workers. I have spoken publicly in ways I never thought I would be able to do, and I have been repeatedly complimented for it. These speeches are always warmly received. People tell me I am brave. People cry. People say I really made them understand what it is like to live with a mental illness. This is incredibly gratifying to me. I feel like I have a purpose when I give these speeches. I am nervous, shaky, afraid. But I make myself get up there and do it anyway. I try to do it well. And so far, I have not heard any negative feedback. In my daily life, my sister laughs at how tiny my voice gets if I am asking for something from a waiter at a restaurant. Apparently my voice goes up a couple octaves, and everyone finds it amusing when my sister imitates me with a tiny, squeaky mouse voice saying, "Hi, I'm Jenny, can I have an iced tea please?". When I give speeches, I make an effort when I speak to sound confident. I think I even convince people that I am confident. Of course, I'm not.

I've been given awards in the past year that I didn't think I deserved. I've written articles for the NAMI newsletter that I didn't think were any good, but they were printed anyway. I've done a lot of work, spent a lot of time on NAMI. In NAMI I can be myself. I don't have to explain why I have no full-time job, no husband or partner, no kids, no house, no Bachelor's degree. I am me, and I have a mental illness, so whatever I do well is considered an achievement. Things that wouldn't be considered so important if I had no mental illness, are considered more important in NAMI because those people know that I live with mental health challenges. I appreciate their kindness and their encouragement a great deal. Yet, I don't talk to many people outside of NAMI or this blog about what I do with NAMI. I have a father who isn't interested. Other family members who would never go to a NAMI meeting even though I've invited them. I know how the non-NAMI world views NAMI and mental illness. This awareness impedes me sometimes. Yet, I am passionate about advocacy for people with mental illnesses, and NAMI gives me a vehicle where I can make my voice heard and make a difference.

I am also passionate about women's rights. In the women's organization I volunteer with, I am looked at, I think, as a meek person, and as under qualified for the job I have. I probably am under qualified. I do not like having the job anymore because I feel that everyone thinks this about me, and they are just waiting for my term to run out so they can elect someone else who they like better, and who has a Bachelor's degree or other qualifications, and who isn't timid like I am. I do not plan to run for reelection. I wouldn't win if I did, and I don't want to in the first place.

I'd love to fit in with that group of women. But I've never been able to talk any of them, except one person, about having a mental illness, and I don't think they understand how this illness has affected, and how it still affects, my life and my abilities. So I haven't done the best job one could do in my "job" in this organization, and I can't explain the main reason for that because the members of the board do not talk about their weaknesses or problems. It is just not done. When I did express that I had felt hurt by the way some women treated me, I felt like a fool for having done so, and I think they thought I was a fool too.

I had joined this organization hoping to make friends, but that proved to be difficult. I was asked to be on the board of directors, and that proved a job that was more than I could handle. But I still try. I have gotten friendly with some people. I do maintain an active web presence as a feminist activist. They say that I put my chapter on the map because I created the chapter's website, put it on Facebook, and tried to help increase its membership. The other members are all older than I am, so they think this is a big deal. Really, anybody could have done it. They just appreciate me because I did do it, and that's nice of them.


These conflicting edited versions of "me" cause my problems. I cannot be my true self, comfortable in my own skin, at all times in all places. I hardly ever feel able to be myself with other people. It is hard to live this way. I need to find a way to interweave who I truly am with who I am trying to be, to become. I need to be more authentic or I'm going to get more depressed. This much I know.

I think we all do this, edit ourselves, for others. I think we all wear different masks. Sylvia Plath wrote a great poem called, "In Plaster", about that:
I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:
This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,
And the white person is certainly the superior one.
She doesn't need food, she is one of the real saints.
At the beginning I hated her, she had no personality --
She lay in bed with me like a dead body
And I was scared, because she was shaped just the way I was

I wish that the world was more accepting of differences, more tolerant, more educated about mental illnesses. I wish the world was more kind, more welcoming. But it isn't. And so this is the way that I function in the world as it is. Perhaps one day that will change.

In high school, I collected theatrical masks, and hung them on my bedroom wall, their porcelain decorated lavishly; they were lovely. They were meaningful. I read the poem, "We Wear the Mask", by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, when I was studying the Harlem Renaissance for an American Literature class in 1996. I loved it immediately.

We Wear the Mask

WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

I would like to feel whole again, without these disparate parts of me going in the other direction from where I really am. Yet, this is how I function. I cannot be me, and be depressed and also function. I must pretend that I am not depressed. That I am not having any auditory hallucinations. That I am not extremely anxious. So I pretend. I try to fit in. I try to be what other people will accept and what I, myself, want to be. But when you sit at home at the end of the day, all of this acting can make you feel very lonely.


  1. What a excellent post Jennifer, I found myself nodding along with all of it. It's so true that there are different selves we use/show in the world, and I constantly wonder whether I even know which is the "real" or authentic me. Thank you for sharing this, it really helped me today.

  2. I am glad I found your blog. I am just beginning to figure out how to incorporate the different versions of who I am into my life and my blog. Thank You.

  3. Thanks Jen, for sharing so much of yourself with others here. I think you are way too hard on yourself. Stop worrying about what other people think and be proud of yourself. I am not able to do a fraction of what you do. I think what's hard for you is that you know that if you didn't have schizoaffective disorder you would be very successful in the superficial eyes of the world. But you still have ambition, drive and a caring heart. And so naturally you move forward, as you should. And think of this--how far would all the "successful" people be if they had gone through what you have gone through? In my mind, you deserve more respect than they do, because you have put yourself on the line over and over again. You've done more than just survive, you've worked hard and you are getting somewhere, despite the mess in your apartment (which I identify closely with) and the mild masks you wear. You may not tell everyone everything about yourself, but you are no phony. You're the real thing! I think you are great.

    Kate : )

  4. Thanks, everyone! I really appreciate all of your comments.

    Lil, if anything I write helps anyone on any given day, that certainly makes it worth writing, so thanks for what you said.
    Erathora, welcome here, and I hope you come back.

    Kate, you are very kind and thanksf or all the compiments.

  5. It took great courage to write this post and let people glimpse different areas of your life life with such honesty.

    You need to re- read this post every once and a while to remind yourself just how much you ARE doing with your life. You are an amazing person!.

  6. I hate the closet. This is an excellent post, a clear articulation of what is and isn't apparent of ourselves at different radii from our centers. I live a fully bifurcated life, one wherein I occasionally even have to quote myself without crediting myself. My job depends on the perceived trustworthiness of my brain and the quality of its output. The second one person finds my mind may be unreliable, I will not be able to work again. It's terrifying. Thank you for sharing.

  7. I'm quite good at switching masks as well, for many of the same reasons you highlighted.

    What's more, as we're trying to pass for "normal" (please realize I'm more than aware there's no such thing as normal, as everyone has some sort of nonsense in life, whether drugs, alcohol, abuse et al.) but as I rifle through these same masks I'm also often weathering the voices, or at least that's what I call them. You know, the voices that make say, a party difficult to attend or say a day to carry on sans harassment from what I call my Inner Chatter. Some days are worse than others, but it's a process to work through constructively. I finally had an epiphany in that I realized yes, the voices are in your (my) head, yes they are you speaking to you (me), yes? And usually they like to be negative, pessimistic and downright abusive; they can evoke paranoid thoughts as well. But what of it....

    I call this the Inner Chatter and I made a short film about it, Please feel free to take a look, as I'm sure you'll be able to relate in some capacity.

    Great post!

    be well,

  8. Great blog and post. You are so brave. I am working towards being more authentic. Pretending to be normal is so exhausting. Cheers, Cheers, Cheers!


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