Anyone who has experienced perinatal mental illness (PMI) in its myriad of forms will be familiar with the concept of ‘the mask’. In fact, I don’t think it’s unique to PMI – it’s kinda a ‘life’ thing in terms of a coping mechanism.
We wear a mask to look like we’re ‘on form’ and to sign up to the ideal of ‘superhumanitis’…you might not actually be wearing a cape but some days you feel like there should be a badge of honour or at least some recognition for jumping through so many unfeasibly high hoops.
We often call PMI the ‘smiling depression’ – an oxymoron of course but that’s the sting in the tail. We are told that parenthood is ‘the happiest time of our lives’ so already there is a built-in pressure to be joyous. When you find yourself in a reality that is so far removed from happiness then a huge tension lies in the chasm between what should be and what is. Many mums and dads feel a heavy weight of expectation that simply locks down their ability to admit that things aren’t going so well. This inevitably brings a liberal dose of guilt with it, which can even compound into shame – a shame that is so deeply hidden that it gnaws away at our inner selves as we polish our badges of honour and readjust ‘the mask’ in all public situations.
It’s a long introduction but it needs to be spelt out in no uncertain terms. When we wear a mask we deny our own right to express how we really feel. We’re all acting on some level, but the closer we get to our authentic selves, the more peace will naturally arise.
When I was in the thick of high anxiety and crippling low mood I resisted every single thought and feeling. The intense frustration and anger at being dealt such a poor hand spiralled and I fought with every sinew in my body to will away the thoughts and feelings. In those irrational times I was unable to see that I was flapping desperately against a powerful tide. The simple realisation came when I was reading The Mindful Way Through Depression that I was resisting what is. When you think about it, it’s actually ridiculous to try and change the way life is unfolding in that moment. Eckhart Tolle’s breakthrough after a period of sustained depression came with the epiphany that life is about surrendering to each moment and connecting with the ‘now’ “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”
Underpinning all of this is the notion that we are somehow in control of our lives. We exist in a bubble of conditioning that dictates how we must conform, with gratuitous use of ‘should’. The biggest lie of our time is the belief that we can somehow engineer what will happen and how others will behave. It’s none of our business. We only exacerbate suffering and pain when we wrestle with it and deny it.
How many people silently carry in their hearts a heavy weight of sadness that they have tried to bury or deny? It becomes part of the fabric of our bodies and manifests itself in our behaviours, thoughts and feelings unless we bring it to light and forgive ourselves for trying to be what we’re not.
There is no shame in honesty. Authenticity is real – unlike the illusion of perfection. We are beautifully flawed and we all struggle with fear in its many guises. By wearing the mask we only compound the conspiracy of perfection and make it harder for others to say they are struggling. So don’t be afraid to let the mask go – you might be surprised by how liberating it is.
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