The Masks We Wear

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I started wearing masks when I was in high school. Actually, I probably started wearing them sooner than that, but high school was when I consciously made the effort, knew that I had them on. I’ve discovered a lot of people who dealt with mental illness for a long time—like many years—before actually being diagnosed with it. For me, it was closer to six months, maybe. Before hearing a doctor say I had depression, I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t know why I felt so sad, didn’t know why everything felt so difficult, didn’t understand the darkness that had washed over my entire life. I just knew that I felt different, and in high school different is bad. It means there’s something wrong with you, and I didn’t want to let people see that. So I put on a mask.

Every day, as I walked the 4 ½ blocks to school, I got sicker and sicker, until I felt like I was going to vomit, thinking about being surrounded by people I had to pretend for. I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t normal, but as soon as I got to school I put up the mask that said I was. It was torture each day. And each day, sometime after I got home, I would go into my room and cry. Then at night, I would cut my arms and shoulders. It felt so good to distract my brain from the mental pain I was suffering and focus it on a physical one.

As time went by, and I discovered there were other people like me, that I wasn’t as alone as I thought, that there was a name to what I was going through, I was able to throw away some of those masks I wore. I didn’t hide my scars. If people asked what had happened, I told them. If they judged and condemned me for it, I didn’t care. I let the vibrant colors inside of me show through in the tie-dye t-shirts I wore, the peace necklaces hung around my neck, the beads on my wrists and rings on my fingers. And yet, I could never completely break free of the expectations people held for me. I knew the person they saw me as, and even though I didn’t feel like that was me, I felt like I had to pretend to be that person. And so, on February 2, 2001, my senior year of high school, I wrote a poem about it. I entered it into a poetry contest my school held each year and got an honorable mention.

I still wear masks sometimes—I think all of us do. But lately I’ve learned to be happy with who I am, whether anyone else is or not. Part of trying to educate people on mental illness has meant completely opening myself up. I don’t hide who I am—in real life or on this blog. I am Tacy Stine, I have mental illness, and I’m going to be open again and share my poem. I look at it now and don’t think it’s one of my best, but is still one I treasure. Here it is.

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And the Moon Can Dance
by Tacy Stine

The music’s pounding in my head as the pain thunders in my gut,
and I just can’t take this monotony anymore –
the same old room, the same old bed, the same old scene.
Sometimes, I just wanna tear out my hair and scream!
Then rip off all my clothes, jump out my window
and run around naked in my backyard during the cold winter night.
My bare feet would prance over the old, hardened snow,
and I’d dance with the bright, yet waning moon – ’cause the moon can dance.

Have you ever seen the moon smile over Central America?
The moon is just different there as it dances their dances
and reflects their smiles.
So, I wanna rip my hair out and cha cha naked with the moon –
but there are conventions and expectations of society.
There are conventions and expectations of me . . .

So I wonder, what if I threw a chair and a table over
at my friend’s wedding reception amidst all the boring small talk?
What if I answered questions in class with intellectual ease
or became a talker with words on my mind,
because they’re always there – I just don’t say them.
Why?
Expectations.
What eyes would bulge if I came to school dressed like me – a hippie?
Would conventions condemn me?
‘Cause I wanna throw the chair; I can answer the questions; I am a hippie;
and the moon can dance!

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