The hats we wear, the masks we wear

A woman with a green surgical gown on holding a stuffed panda. She has a paper mask and a purple surgeon's hat with pandas on it. She's standing in a doorway.

One of my occupational roles is as a shepherd for graduate students, nurturing their skills in self-awareness, authority, agency, communication, and interdependence. I help them clarify language to describe their emergent needs, I propose resources for them to pursue and communities to engage with, and then we co-develop a smallest-next-steps action plan. This past Friday, a faculty member called me to ask about language to describe that kind of assistance to his students. In the span of that fifteen minute phone call, we got the question resolved, checked in about each other and our families, and asked about each other’s upcoming joys for the weekend. As our conversation flowed from one topic to the next, we put deliberate pins on the path. “Switching hats…” we said to each other. We were transparent about where our relational roles and responsibilities to each other transitioned from representatives of institutional communities to representatives of families to individuated human beings. We were wearing different metaphorical hats in that conversation, hats that reflect our roles, functions, and responsibilities with each other. 

Are we wearing hats or masks?

To what degree are we wearing masks in addition to hats? In the COVID-era, I’m not talking about surgical and KN95 masks, but instead masking behaviors. People in the disability, Black, and neurodivergent communities often mention masking behaviors. Masks manage others’ perceptions of us and hide who we really are. We try to appear “normal.” We try not to reveal something too “different” or outside the hierarchy of social power. We try not to be inconvenient or make the other uncomfortable or afraid. Masks act as fear-based coping strategies for our survival. Masks can be attempts to demonstrate we belong and to control our belonging by blending in. Belong to what? To the particular academic institution. To the industry of higher education. To our respective offices and titles. To our respective statuses in the contemporary social order as highly educated, cis-gendered, able-bodied white people. To each other. To humanness. In the universe.

Masks project illusions that something isn’t present within us or part of us or that we aren’t affected by another person. Masks hide basic truths about the breadth of human experience like conflict, violence, oppression, grief, neuro-difference, chronic pain, long-term medical conditions, financial woes, distressing experiences, and all the things that come with aging. Masks are our attempts to hide our core fears about threats to our belonging and survival, fears about death, bodily integrity, autonomy, belonging, and sense of self.

11 colorful hats of different types, made of paper crafts.
Cute hats. That’s all.

The “I’m fine” mask

Currently, I’m wearing a metaphorical mask that says “I’m fine” to cover up my lived experience with a recent, significant physical injury. With this mask, I attempt to hide human things that also make me “other:” physical pain, exhaustion, disappointment, frustration, grief, fear, identity crises, dependence, and emergence of traumatic memories. As a person who loves to walk, hike, bike, and run, this injury causes a big shift in my self-concept and wellbeing practices. It’s effortful to go through my day in chronic pain, adapting my routines, communicating new needs, explaining and re-explaining to doctors, and taking icing breaks. It is a huge, almost insurmountable leap for me to take off the mask, accept the person I am right now, and let people into my authentic experience. 

I have an irreducible dislocation of two toes which happened in July. The toes can’t be “popped back into place” because they’ve actually been pushed out of the joint’s cartilage capsule. Those two toes “float” and surgery is the only fix. While the affected joints don’t hurt so much anymore, the ends of the long bones in my foot hurt tremendously. I have excruciating bone bruises where I bear my weight rolling off the ball of my foot when I walk. Walking barefoot and on pavement and cement are agony. Wood and carpet are ok, and stiff-soled shoes help a lot. 

My skills in wearing this “I’m fine” mask didn’t start in July. It’s something I learned many times over in my life as a survival strategy. I learned, through distressing past experiences, to not have needs, to not appear injured, and to not trust others to help me meet basic or urgent needs humanely. Most significant to my current experience is an injury I sustained as an 18-year-old a couple weeks before going away to college [I’m now in my late 40s]. While working at a vet clinic, I was bitten on my hip by a dog. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had completely detached a ligament that connects my pelvis to the trochanter of my femur. In common language, my leg bone was not attached to my hip bone. 

A nylon dog bone still in its wrapper. the cardboard backing is red and says "Hartz" on it. There's a Boston terrier on it. The package is held by a hand on the right and there's a blue carpet in the background.
The toy dog bone I received from the theatre company I performed with that summer. We were performing “Annie.”

I was in terrible pain all the time. For a while I couldn’t walk. I progressed slowly over weeks and months so that I was using crutches by the time I arrived at college in August, then a cane, and then unassisted by the time snow started falling. Many people who could have and should have helped instead dismissed or ignored my pain and difficulty walking. I never got anyone to either investigate or treat the cause (e.g., xray, MRI, surgery) or to address the symptoms (e.g., pain management, physical therapy, occupational therapy) or suggest accommodations. Within about a month of that injury, shortly after arriving at college, I was sexually assaulted. In an eerie parallel to my torn groin ligament, I didn’t receive any associated care or justice even though I had talked with the “right people.” That late summer into my first year of college, I was in pure survival mode. 

The mask as illusion

I came across a tweet on Wednesday that I have been mulling over. It speaks to me about masks I wear to hide and imprison my experience even from myself.

“The big paradox of trauma recovery is that letting go of the illusion that we can really control or avoid this sh*t is the key to ACTUALLY controlling it & ACTUALLY experiencing less of it. We gotta give up this fantasy that we’re somehow ‘mistaken’ that we experienced trauma.”

I wear a mask that creates an illusion, a fantasy, and a lie that ‘something bad’ didn’t happen to me. And even if that ‘something bad’ DID happen, it didn’t affect me; I’m not wounded or troubled by it. And even if that ‘something bad’ DID affect me, I can control the possibility of it reoccurring. 

The truth is, ‘something bad’ did happen to me, many times in different ways. It did affect me; it was distressing physically, emotionally, and developmentally to the extent that I’m now wrestling and rumbling with complex PTSD. Those late summer experiences taught me toxic self-sufficiency, dissociation from pain, and distrust of institutional authority. I learned to act as if those experiences never happened and never affected me. And I live with an anxious need to create a safe life that tries to prevent those things. I am afraid of embarrassing and humiliating the antagonists to say it out loud even though I am the one feeling embarrassed and humiliated for what happened to me. I am afraid of having overwhelming, intolerable emotions or sensations that others can’t or won’t help me with. I create my own social death of ‘existing but not’ by punishing, self-negating, and dissociating from that hurting part of me.

To be clear, I don’t overshare deep, terrifying, painful backstories when I let down my mask. Most of my interactions require that I consciously and conscientiously self-manage my fears about physical, emotional, and existential safety. In everyday life, letting down the mask means asking and allowing others to help me reasonably and humanely within our loosely affiliated social contract: more time for a task, solitude and quiet, rest, clarity on task priorities, collaboration and assistance, communication about other people’s needs and expectations. Sometimes, it helps me to say my fears out loud without any expectations from others beyond compassionate witnessing. Occasionally, I need a safe person within my close, carefully communicated, mutually understanding relationships to help me manage the sensations and thoughts behind the fear. I’m learning to be more authentic about my experiences and to let people help me take off the mask.

As I put on different hats representing my roles as worker, partner, parent, and friend, I have also been wearing a mask that keeps others from knowing my authentic self and the reality of my experience. With the help of a lot of therapeutic experiences, my mask is now more nuanced, situational, and contextual. Most importantly, my mask isn’t hiding me from myself anymore. ‘Is it true, necessary, and kind [to myself]?’ My experience does matter to me. I go back to the beginning of this post, the role I have with graduate students as shepherd. I am trying to better play that shepherding role for myself now: nurturing my own skills in self-awareness, authority, agency, communication, and interdependence. 

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