Personal Stories

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The Mask

Crickets sung softly in the background as I looked up at the night sky. I could see my breath as I fought back tears. It was late November as I stood out in the cold, frozen, unable to move. Instead of running immediately back to the safety of my cabin I was in for the weekend, I stood frozen fighting a battle on the inside. It’s November of 2014, I am on a Christian retreat for girls and I just ran from the building we were having our service of the first night in. All my emotions becoming too strong for me to deal with in front of any of those people. I wasn’t going to let them see me broken. True vulnerability, the space where you let people in and see your brokenness. This is something I can’t see myself doing, I can’t let my friends see me this broken. Yet alone anyone that is just an acquaintance, I can’t do this. The door opens and shuts, I turn around to see a team leader whose eyes were pleading for me to open to her. My hands ball up into fists and then loosen their grip, this motion continues as she pulls me into a tight hug. What’s wrong Courtney? Please. She begs as she tries to pull off the mask.

What comes over me, I’m not sure, but as I am held in her hug tightly the mask begins to slip. All my life, my dad has dealt with bipolar disorder, depression, and PTSD. I don’t know how to handle this, all of it is a mess. I am broken. The words fly from my mouth and I instantly am filled with anger, anger with myself for telling her. But as I try to pull away she looks at me with a look of concern and hurt.

You don’t have to tonight, but at any point if you want to talk about it, we can. she says softly as I furiously shake my head no, I can’t do this. The mask seals back as I quickly get away from her, but the moment stays, as the memories I had done so good to push away come back to the forefront of my thoughts. I became an expert at pushing away the bad memories since I have been doing it since the third grade. But when they come flooding back all at once all I could see are those moments. Moments where I stood as a young child between my parents as they argued. Times when I needed a father figure but no father was present, just a shadow of his former self in his place. These moments flooded back, becoming all I could think about, breaking me more than I already was. This mask, I was determined, would not come off again for the rest of the time I was on this retreat. This mask that protected me from being vulnerable in front of anyone would not slip again. The girl on the outside looked fine, the girl on the inside though, was shattered.

Two nights later I sit in a dimly lit church towards the back, it’s reflection night. I begin to hear faint whispers from the groups, even some girls crying. Why are they crying? I’m not going to cry, I think. I am not going to be vulnerable in front of these people. As I sit in the church pew, the once strong glowing light from the candles in the front of the church seems to grow darker. Then I realize, my jaw is clenched tightly, my knuckles turn white as I grip the pew back in front of me. I am not going to be broken, I am not going to show my brokenness to these people. The mask that I am okay will be all they see; these people are not going to see me at my worst. But the levee begins to break and tears begin to slowly fall.

Moments pass that feel like hours as memories begin to flash in my head like a film strip, showing all the bad parts of my childhood. I did not realize it at the time but I was sobbing, my head in my hands. The tears begin to flow quicker as the levee completely breaks as breathing becomes hard, a lump has formed in my throat. My emotions gain control of me as I feel so many things at once, but the main one is frustration.  

Great, now I’m crying, I say to myself in a soft whisper out of anger with myself, how can I let myself be broken in front of these people? They don’t want to have to deal with my tears, I can handle this on my own. This thought races through my mind as I try to fight back the tears flowing down my cheeks. Trying to force it away only makes the tears come quicker, breathing becomes harder and I am shaking. I feel an arm wrap around my shoulders and I let out a sharp breath as I look up at them through my hair.

Then I hear them whisper my name softly, Courtney, it’s Satchel. I slowly sit up as I realize who it is, I sit up because I know she will refuse to move until I let her comfort me. She knew me before this retreat, I had known for almost a year she was not going to back down. But it isn’t comforting when you do not want it. She pulls me close to her as I try to pull away, then she asks the question I refuse to answer. What’s wrong? I shake my head no, I can’t let her in, I just can’t, the mask holding firm. She leaves me and I feel the anger rise within me again, except this time asking myself why? Why can’t I let these people in, when all they want to do is care for me? Why?

I was in the seventh grade when the mask became a part of me, it was the seventh grade when my world was forever broken. My parents had just gotten into a huge fight; fights had become the normal thing in our house. Despite my tear-stained cheeks that night, my mom to make everything seem normal, still dropped me off at Girl Scouts. She drove in silence down the road, her cheeks were stained as well. Her jaw clenched shut not asking me how I felt or to tell me it would all be okay. She drops me off with a silent goodbye wanting to act as everything was okay, even though she knows good and well that I knew what was going on, it was her attempt.

I walked into the building we met in for Girl Scouts, my leaders immediately noticing how red and puffy my eyes are share a look of concern before deciding to let it go. We were sitting as a group eating our snack, which was a grilled cheese that night. The rest of the girls were talking about their days and laughing, meanwhile I set at the end of the table silently eating my grilled cheese. I blocked them out, the argument my parents had playing on repeat in my head. Then I hear one of my troop leaders on the phone, I hear them say my mom’s name, my focus is instantly on the conversation..

Your mom is on her way back here to pick you up Courtney, something happened to your dad. She says this and I am left to sit and eat my grilled cheese again, but all I can do is just look at it.

My mom gets there and quickly pulls me into the truck, she hadn’t even made it home yet before she had to turn around to get me. Her eyes are filled with a mixture of fear and frustration and I am instantly consumed with utter dread.  I look at her asking what is going on and she glances over at me as she speeds down the road. Courtney, your dad has attempted suicide by overdose, he is still conscious, but I have already called 911, they are on the way there. He is going to be okay. The breath caught in my lungs, tears filled my eyes, my thoughts immediately going to the place of what would happen if he wasn’t okay. My mom’s phone rings, it is my dad on the other end, but it wasn’t my dad, it was a version of him that I would in time hear three more times in my life. He yelled into the phone at my mom as she tried to talk to him as tears ran down her cheeks. Then he said the words that shattered me.

Maybe y’all would be better without me, don’t come home, don’t let the Paramedics get to me. Find me dead and maybe then y’all could be happy. Courtney, I’m sorry I am such a lousy father. The rest of the drive home I stared out the window, tears ran down my cheeks as sobs shake me, a reminder that this was not a nightmare that I could wake from. We get home and the EMTs have arrived, my dad is taken out on a stretcher and would eventually be okay.

I went back to school the next day, my attempt to fix myself as my mom focused on trying to help my dad. This was not the first time that I had to attempt to fix myself, this has been happening since the third grade. Back then though it had been much easier to just push it away, I didn’t understand then what was occurring in my life. But this year, this time it had become crystal clear, the innocence of a child’s mind was now gone. I was not going to let it affect me, I was not allowed to be broken, my dad was the only one allowed to be broken. I had to go on like everything was normal. Except it wasn’t, my mom asked me if I wanted my teachers to know what had happened so that they could understand if I seemed withdrawn during the day. I told her yes, but as the day continued this would be what caused the mask to become a part of me.

As I went through the day, my friends remained clueless to what had occurred the night before. The teachers I encountered at first only gave me gentle looks, but then came history class. I walked into class and made it to my seat but before I could even put my things down my teacher engulfed me with a hug refusing to let me go.

Then for a split-second I relax in her arms thinking: I’m safe, she cares about me. Someone is going care for me and ask me if I’m okay. But then as I tried to pull away she held onto me tighter. In this moment, I was confused of why she was hugging me so tightly, but later that day when it occurred again with my gym teacher it became crystal clear. Their view of me had changed, from the girl who was so nice and sweet, to the girl whose dad deals with mental health issues. A girl who needed to be treated differently because of it. They saw me as broken, someone that needed more time to process things, someone who they needed to protect. Any time I would struggle to answer a question, any time my mood seemed to be off they would fall into protection mode. They were giving me excuses to use that at the time I did not want to have to use. I had to be strong for my parents I had to, I could not be broken. This is when the mask became a part of me; it shielded me from there looks, it kept me from not only being hurt, but ever having to fear being hurt more. It was my armor.

The mask I wore for so long was created out of fear and anger. It was something created for the younger me to wear. It is similar to a character on the show Once Upon A Time, Emma Swan the main character, had a damaged childhood and as she became an adult she always wore this red leather jacket that she called her armor. It was a representation of shielding herself from letting others in, letting them see her brokenness. Much like that, the mask I created for myself was so that I would never have to see the looks of pity others gave me when seeing my brokenness. These looks to me at the time seemed like a reflection of how broken I was and am, the brokenness I wanted for so long to deny. Denial meant being able to push it away, seeing my own brokenness meant making it real.

As I set alone in the church pew, these memories flashing in my head of what had led me to this moment hit me like a ton of bricks.  I could not help but feel physically and emotionally broken. The pieces of the puzzle began to connect in my head as I set in the pew alone, my concerns I once had about crying gone completely. I had become so unaware of my surroundings that I did not notice that another team leader, Gina, had set down beside me and had an arm wrapped around my shoulders. I looked over at her and she looked into my eyes and it felt as if she could see the war, the torment that was going on within me. She pulled me gently into her embrace as I cried till I thought it was impossible to cry anymore. As my sobs turned into silent tears in the comfort of her arms she began to tell me about her daughter, distracting my mind for just a minute.

 Look at that stained glass lit by the candle light, Courtney, how beautiful it is. You know my daughter was married in this church? She was giving me a happy distraction and I knew it, she was chipping away at my mask I still held tightly to and I was beginning to lose my grip. She lifted my chin to where I had to look at her and softly said, I am not moving from this spot until you tell me what is wrong.

As she said this I took in a sharp breath and then the words flew from my mouth, I explained it all to her- how I tend to push people away from me the moment they try to care for me, how I was terrified of being vulnerable with people out of fear of being to broken. How I was too broken for anyone to know, because I feared if I showed this brokenness to anyone that they would view me differently or worse run. But Gina did not run, she grabbed hold of me tightly and did not let go.

There was a moment of silence after I had said all of this, this moment felt like days had passed outside. The simplest things became hard, the air going into my lungs out of necessity not by my choice to breath as my chest had grown tight. It became hard to see as my vision was flooded with tears. In one fatal swoop this woman who I had only known for three days has managed to chip away at my mask, could see how it pained me to hold onto it. Then in response held me in comfort as the pain I felt of the mask being pulled away burned through me. Maybe those looks I had received in those broken moments were out of care and love. I have been trying to pick up these broken pieces for far too long alone. This thought creeps into my mind as I feel a weight lift from my shoulders. As I turned my gaze to the candles at the front of church breathing became easier, the tightness in my chest relieved.


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