Mask off

Since I was a child, I've feared that if I wasn't being seen, I was being forgotten.

I would push myself to shave two seconds off my 50 yard backstroke so that I could get a high five and a 'you got it, girl!' from my Dad. I would position myself in the front row of my ballet class so I could be seen, no matter how sloppy I was when I danced the routine. I would raise my hand first, or even call out the answer in class during grade school, so everyone knew I was right... and I was first. In middle school, I would sign onto AOL instant messanger and IM the boy I had a crush on immediately without waiting for him to message me. And if I did choose to wait... I would stare at my buddy list with sweaty palms and impatience seeping through my veins while I came up with ten stories to explain to myself why I was being ignored for those five minutes. I sang the loudest in choir. I wanted the best solo. And I wanted compliments for how good I sounded. In high school, I wore the tightest black pants and the shortest cheerleading skirt, so it was my ass that stood out in the crowd. I'd come to school wearing a tube top made of pink Seran-wrap to be different, but really, to get attention. I auditioned for the lead role of the school play and didn't get it; then hated on the girl who was Cinderella when I was the ugly step-sister. In college, after choosing to attend the biggest school in the country, being in the spotlight became difficult. I claimed wanting to go there so I could be more anonymous. Maybe it was an attempt at learning the art of privacy and humility – or maybe it was just a harder challenge in a game I couldn't win. There was always a better designer in my class. There was always a funnier, prettier, and smarter girl. A roommate always had a nicer purse (mine was a fake...) and everyone had a fancier car. I had to start really looking inside myself for ways to please. I discovered things I was good at and tackled them full on – art history, yoga, beer pong, blowjobs. And so it continued through my life: do something you're good at, do it in the front row, win, and then tell all your friends about it.

In relationships, while I always despised 'games' (because I wasn't good at them...) in reality, that's exactly what it all was: find nice guy, get his approval, keep pleasing him, and when he is kind and thankful, get bored and dump him. Or, find asshole guy, seek for approval, disrespect self in the process of seeking, obsess over seeking, then five-years-later still be searching for the approval I never received and looking like a real idiot for all the trying.

In jobs, even though I didn't realize it at the time, I thrived on competitive environments. I wanted the win, but being a perfectionist, I never got it. Positive re-enforcement was nice and all, but it was the negative that really pushed me to try harder. I became drawn to narcissistic bosses and role models: people who would encourage me 25% of the time but then shit on me for the rest.

If you're not giving 110% and getting a high five, you're not really trying. Oh, and you suck.

Technology didn't help my illness. There's always a way to get in front of thousands of people on social media and show off how happy you are. I began to rate my own self-worth in likes or comments. I wouldn't buy a new shirt until five of my closest friends gave me the thumbs-up after I texted them a dressing room selfie.

No one cares about you unless they tell you so. If they're not telling you it's because they've abandoned you. You've been abandoned, you failure.

Then you came along.

I don't know what it was about you that broke the mold. Maybe I was in a place where I was ready to break my destructive patterns. I had been doing a lot of soul searching, a lot of self-inquiry, and a lot of learning. Maybe I was so exhausted by shrouding myself in pessimism and trying to be a positive, strong, light-beam breaking through the crust. Or maybe... probably, it was because you were fucking awesome. It was because you gave me the affirmation I sought, but still challenged me in the process. You helped shine light onto my patterns. You did it in a way that was gentle, loving, and encouraging. When you told me 'no', you knew how to do it in a way that was cushioned – so I didn't feel discouraged, disapproved, or like a failure.

You made me feel loved in a way that I had never felt before: a love that wasn't built on my successes, a love that didn't require approval. Your love allowed me to take off my mask. And wow, was that freeing. Someone who loved me for me!?

You died six months ago tonight. Last night, I cried myself to sleep, wrapped up in my own arms like a twelve-year-old pretending to slow dance with herself. I was trying to remember what it felt like to be held by you. I was trying to remember that night, six months ago exactly: the last night I slept next to you, the last night there were two people in our king-size bed instead of just one, the last night I wasn't suffocating in loneliness, the last night I wasn't wearing a mask.

I remember in the weeks after you passed, I begged time to fast forward. I thought, 'If I could just jump forward six months from now, this will be so much easier.' I was wrong. Things are not easier.

Grief has brought me to uncharted territory.

My old patterns of seeking approval, appearing strong, being in the spotlight, and putting on a mask worked for a while. But then depression happened.

I used to be a real asshole to depressed people. I thought I was being encouraging and helpful when I suggested, 'Try yoga in the sunshine,' 'Go take a bubble bath!' or 'Get off the fucking couch!' But really, I was trying to get them out of their funk because I was scared of their sadness. I was scared of the fact that they were so low that they didn't care about pleasing themselves...or others! That would be my worst nightmare, my subconscious reminded me, don't be a witness to this disaster! When I'm in depression, I'm already being hard on myself, the last thing I need is someone telling me to climb Mount Everest, open the blinds, or take a god-damned shower. My body feels so heavy I can't even pick up the phone to tell them to fuck off. And I don't even care to anyway. All I care about is wallowing in darkness and self-pity. And maybe I don't even care about that.

Grief is a lonely process. No one can experience it with me no matter how empathic they are. At first, I found it helpful to share my journey. As I've said, being in the spotlight is part of my innate nature. It's part of an old pattern for how I recognize love. But my pain has become so encompassing that opening up about it is like ripping off a scab. I have to be really careful about who I choose to disclose my truth to. Naturally, I am an open book, so often, I open up thinking it will be comforting. But then I am raw and vulnerable to a person that maybe isn't worthy of my honesty, can't handle the truth, or doesn't want to hold my pain. And then I feel shame.

Grief is a process of unlearning everything that made me me and rebuilding myself with protective armor and boundaries. It's a process of learning that right now, approval is not what I need. It's a process of learning that it's OK to be weak and ask for help. It's a process of learning that 110% is simply not possible and the people who matter will be ok with thatIt's a process of learning that the only love that will feel authentic is from inside my own heart. All other love feels like fraud. Because the only external love I truly seek, is yours, and nothing feels like the love you gave me. It's very hard to love myself when I'm so unfamiliar with who I've become. Every day is like hanging out with a sad, confused stranger. It's like looking at myself and saying, 'Where the fuck did the person I know go?' And then Kira stands there smiling at me, panting softly, licking my leg like it's a bloody wound, and reminding me that she loves me unconditionally – and I look and her and say, 'I'm too sad to get up and let you outside until two in the afternoon. How the hell can you still love me, liar?' I don't even believe my own dog.

Six months does not make it easier. Six months means that I have to learn how to function in society like a 'normal person' when I'm not 'normal'. I begin to question if it's strange that I still haven't moved a single belonging of yours or taken down any of your clothes from our closet. I have to work. I have to pay my bills. I have to respond to my emails. I have to do my laundry. I have to appear in public without sobbing uncontrollably. I have to have a plan. There is no longer an excuse not to do the tasks that usually seem so simple to our society. In order to do them, I've had to medicate myself. Because otherwise, I'd be sitting in a pile of my own dirty clothes and sleeping through meetings. And sometimes, I do that anyway.

For the first time in my life, I am learning to be ok with my own imperfection and my own darkness. I am learning to take off my mask because I don't have the energy to wear it. I am learning that in sadness, you're alone, no matter how crowded the physical space. I am learning that life is not just about the fear of being forgotten.

It's not easy. And goddamn, it's lonely here without you.