by Erica Spiegelman
One of my earliest memories is sitting at a family photo shoot at 4 years old, with a ruby red ribbon tied tightly around my perfectly coiffed hair, being told to “SMILE… SMILE BIG! I am the oldest child and grandchild on both sides and when I was born, I was the center of attention.
I was put in dresses with matching shoes and bows, always told how pretty I looked. I remember that when I smiled and was pleasant I got a positive reaction from everyone. So began the first conscious thought that if I act happy and smile that I will be well regarded by my family and others and therefore loved. So the first Mask arrived, the Smiling Mask.
I believe as a woman, we learn to wear many masks throughout our lives. These behaviors were learned in my childhood to my adulthood, from watching and mirroring people in my family, friends and society. I know that I wanted people to look at me in a certain way and I aimed to please. So began the wearing the many masks.
This pleasing behavior continued and when I turned 8 years old my parents divorced. I was devastated because the only family unit I had known was severing in half. It was two households, and within a year two new step-parents and step-siblings and I had to make some adjustments. I had to begin to be the protector to my younger brother.
I put on the Brave Mask, acting strong like nothing bothered me. Any emotions, confusion or resentments I harbored because of the divorce, I pushed deep down inside, smiled and put on the Brave mask. I told myself not to show the pain I felt because that would upset my parents and I wanted to please them and not to be weak or fall apart. So I marched on into my teenage years never expressing myself.
In junior high and high school I became popular, hung out with different groups of my peers and wore many masks. I had the Party Girl Mask, drinking and trying cigarettes at 13 years old. There was the Sporty Girl mask, playing on several sports teams, the Hippie Girl mask, going to Grateful Dead concerts and smoking pot, the 90’s Grunge Mask, sneaking out to music shows in San Francisco and finally the Good Student Mask.
I remember thinking how exhausted and confused I felt. Which one of these girls is the real me? Who am I? I felt that had to be a chameleon and change depending on which group of people I was around. It was a confusing time to say the least.
In college I found alcohol. By this point, my emotions had been bubbling up all these years and the many masks I wore started taking a toll. Who am I, I would ask? But soon that did not matter. I had finally found a substance, something outside of myself, that put me at ease and relieved me of any negative thoughts or uncomfortable feelings.
I would go out every night of the week to a bar, a fraternity party, restaurant, club and drink. The alcohol became my one true friend and constant companion, and soon I slipped on the Mask of Denial.
At first, the alcohol allowed me to be confident, fun and social and I felt like I was thriving. I was out of control at times, blacked out and did and said things I was not proud of. That caused me to only push down those feelings of embarrassment, denial and shame I felt from my behavior.
I was in a vicious cycle of denying that my drinking was having negative consequences in my life. I continued to put on a Smile and the Denial Mask, until my mid – twenties. It was then I became physically, emotionally and spiritually drained of all my energy. I was wearing so many masks that I felt a dangerous disconnect with myself.
My family showed grave concern about my drinking and insisted I get help. I was ready to stop running and masking who I truly am through using alcohol. I had been numbing my true emotions my whole life and always put on a fake smile so that no one would ever think I had a problem or felt sad.
It had all caught up to me. I was wearing the Mask of Despair toward the end of my drinking. I was miserable and wanted so bad to stop, change my life and rediscover who I truly was. I had to get real and find my authentic self.
I began my journey of Authenticity the minute I stopped drinking and started acknowledging all the masks I was hiding behind. I discovered that I had to accept myself, with all my flaws. I am quick tempered and bossy towards the people I care the most for, like my brother.
I have always bossed my brother around and get aggravated with him the fastest. It’s because I love him and stubbornly think I know what is best for him. I realize now that I cannot tell him how to live. He has to figure it out himself.
I have to watch my words with him so that I don’t get angry and say harsh or hurtful things to him. I have realized that I have yelled and spoke negatively towards him. I am working on being more mindful of how my words can hurt his feelings. I feel these flaws of being stubborn, bossy and quick-tempered has made me who I am.
But I have a choice to accept that I am that way and work on becoming a better person, a more patient sister and a supportive family member.
Through this journey of Authenticity I had to accept my insecurities and realized that they are all based around my fears. My fear that I may not succeed in my writing or counseling career, my insecurities surrounding, how I look, my physical appearance and body image. Another fear and insecurity and a big one is that I will never meet someone, romantically, who will truly love me.
I learned to accept my successes through acknowledging the hard work I have done. When I have a challenging run I pat myself on the back and tell myself “good job”. Becoming sober is a great success for me and I am proud of my sobriety. I acknowledge this success by telling, sharing and writing my stories. I give myself credit for changing my life for the better. It took courage and I acknowledge that.
Lastly, I realized my truth. My truth is that I am a good -hearted person. I treat others and myself with respect and love. I try to do the best I can everyday and not judge myself or care what others may think about me. I cannot control what other people may think and feel.
I can only control how I act and live my life, and I do so with honesty, meaning I acknowledge and express how I feel in any given situation or encounter. I found out that I have to always acknowledge, respect and honor my emotions. When emotional I allow myself to cry and be sad. When angry I channel that energy into physical exercise and through writing.
I allow myself to feel every emotion and just sit in it. Suppressing or ignoring my emotions, negative or positive is no longer part of my life. I now always communicate my feelings, express myself, allow myself to feel, and ask for guidance and help if I need it. I am not perfect and to pretend otherwise is something I do not do anymore.
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