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Mental Health


Smoke and mirrors

Tuesday, 14 July 2015 Written by // Michael Yoder Categories // Activism, Gay Men, Mental Health, Health, Living with HIV, Opinion Pieces, Population Specific , Michael Yoder

Michael Yoder says those of us who do HIV work often hide our true feelings. For him “we hide our insecurities under the masks we wear and plug along – the emptiness and loneliness and sense of isolation are not to be mentioned.”

Smoke and mirrors

“I've looked at life from both sides now

From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all.”

Joni Mitchell 

We recently had our Pride week in Victoria, and every year for the past several years I’ve committed to doing gender-fuck clown drag (I don’t make a pretty woman on a good day). I create some bizarre dress, slap on a wig and too much make-up, draw my eyebrows way up high and become someone else for a while. 

What struck me the most this time was that while I’m in drag, people snap photo after photo – yes, it’s drag and Pride and different, but when I put on my boy clothes after the parade and wipe off the spackle, I disappear. 

It would seem I’m more interesting in a mask than I am in real life. 

I thought about masks. I think we wear them a lot of the time, and especially those of us that work in the field. We wear the professional mask, while inside we might be aching. We may want to scream, or cry, or simply be held, but instead we put on a happy face. 

It’s just easier that way. 

When people ask each other “how are you?” they don’t really want to know the answer. We want to hear “fine” or “doing well”, we don’t want to hear “I’m in a deep depression and can’t work my way out” or “my life sucks”. People want to see someone else’s mask – it reflects their own and it’s safe. When we’re fortunate enough to have one or maybe two very special people in our lives where we can truly be vulnerable at least there is some safe space to take off the mask for a moment and be who we are and where we are. 

This is rare. To risk vulnerability is, in our Western culture, potentially a sign of weakness; and we abhor weakness: we value a strong work ethic and invincibility. We repress our feelings or at least we don’t show them. We hide our insecurities under the masks we wear and plug along – the emptiness and loneliness and sense of isolation are not to be mentioned. 

I believe that even the angry young activists are wearing a mask. Railing against the sky, the anger they show is the mask that covers up fear, hurt and feelings of inadequacy.

I was one of those angry young activists years ago. To explore the underlying feelings and see the root of them – a need to belong and to love and be loved, a need to be vulnerable in a safe place, is masked by protests and vitriol that alienates the very people with whom we want to connect. 

What can we do to take off the masks? I don’t have an answer. It’s a very personal process and for each of us, we have to find the safe places and people where being ourselves is honoured and respected and even loved. Until we can locate that place, the mask, the carefully constructed walls will remain. 

Life should ideally be about being able to express what we feel without fear of rejection or reprisal or repression. Sometimes it seems that it’s the illusion of life we prefer, the safety of being someone other than who we authentically are. The layers of society are thick and heavy and removing those layers takes bravery and faith. 

And onions can be peeled…

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