Being Authentic – The Masks We Wear

A theme that keeps coming up when I come out to friends has been that I feel I’ve spent my life holding space around me, probably in every sense. I’ve always been one of those people who has a strong sense of my personal space in a physical sense. Maybe a symptom, maybe who I am at my core. I’m still uncertain. But I’ve begun to realize that even friends I considered really close friends don’t know me. And that’s kind of a sad realization to process. They knew a facade I wore. I don’t feel I entirely know me either yet which is a weirdly ironic thing to say. Imagine not knowing yourself at this age?

But I don’t. Every day, I have a better idea than I ever did before. It feels like I continue to pick apart new threads of my identity. I will often have moments of reacting to something and wonder is this part of a mask or how I really feel? So it’s a changing thing. I am constantly learning what was a coping mechanism and what is a genuine response.

I recently read this quote:

Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.

Written by Twitter User alexand_erleon

When I found that quote it wasn’t properly credited to the originator but I’m pretty sure it came from the Twitter user referenced. The way Twitter is going who knows if that post will still be there later when you click the link.

His words resonated with me more deeply than I expected. The author put words to what I’ve experienced the past few years searching for my true self. And it’s only accelerated since I started writing about my journey to accepting who I am. For me there’s something about writing it down that has helped break the dam a bit. I’ve really noticed how effectively I’ve built walls in my life. Those walls gave me a sense of safety but they were also deeply isolating.

What is even harder to explain is how the walls of my closet were so well built that I was able to just ignore thoughts and feelings that didn’t fit with my image of me. My recent flood of memories from 1998 have shown me there was a lot of fear involved. I’m recognizing that same sex attraction felt dangerous to me. I didn’t have the religious side of it so many people experience. My parents were technically Methodists but right out of the gate, they had a bad experience with the church in the town where I grew up. As a result, I can probably count the number of times I attended any church service. If I didn’t include funerals and weddings, it would be a number I could count on both hands.

For me the danger I sensed was actual physical danger. Some of it may have come from coming of age in the middle of the AIDS crisis. I don’t have any concrete memories of that but despite a government which purposefully responded to the crisis with glacial slowness, it was certainly in the news in my teen years. But as referenced in that post about unlocking my memories of the death of Matthew Shepard, a lot of it was fear of a world that inflicted violence on people who were gay. Until I processed those memories again, I would often wonder why I was moved to tears at the mention of the name of someone I never knew. Part of it, yes, was sadness for his death but it was compounded by sadness for part of me that I kept out of reach of everyone including myself. Essentially grief for Matthew and grief for myself.

At this point I’m still coming out to old friends who have known me, in some cases most of my life. For me it’s easier to do it one on one than a mass broadcast, although I believe I will get there. It really might be simpler to write a social media post and walk away. I see the appeal. But repeating my story, it gets a little easier each time. And I’ve become more comfortable with using the term queer. I thought at first it was too charged a word for me but I ultimately like it because it’s a broader label that says there’s straight and there’s me over here, decidedly not straight. Partly I’m still learning what being queer is for me. Partly as I’ve mentioned before I want to be free to not need to say every few months, no, now I realize this language better fits my experience now.

Effects of Limiting Who I Could Love

As I begin to live inside my own skin, there’s one commonality I’m seeing both in the present and when re-visiting my memories. And that is there’s a far wider variety of men that I find attractive. I do still feel there have been some women for whom I genuinely felt attraction. However, imagine without regards to what gender you yourself are attracted to you felt it was ONLY acceptable to be attracted to redheads. What’s more they have to be redheads who have blue eyes (a fairly rare combination). Now you go out in the world and you’re actually also genuinely attracted to other hair and eye colors but you’re fixated on only the redheads with blue eyes. It’s got to be one of these or nothing. But some of those blue-eyed redheads are unavailable either because they have a significant other already or the attraction is simply not returned. Look how limiting this is! I feel like this is my lived experience, that I’ve limited myself from feeling anything for a significant number of people. The TLDR version is there are significantly more men I feel attraction towards than women, it’s not a 50/50 thing.

That’s not the entire thing obviously, part of it is also a mix of confidence and simple willingness to risk rejection. It’s hard to feel confident engaging with any new people when you’re unwilling from the start to share the full picture of who you are. And on some deeper level I felt broken and the last thing I wanted to do was add another person into that picture. I understand the pressure society exerts on people to conform, so I am not judging the men and women who try the straight marriage and kids thing thinking a picket fence will make everything right for them. It just wasn’t my personal path here and I’m glad of that. Yet, even where there was a woman I was interested in if they were available, I kept them at arms length and just wasn’t willing to chance developing the sort of closeness one needs with a potential partner. And men just weren’t on the menu at all for the ultimate in self-sabotage.

In a conversation with a friend recently I referred to this as something that ultimately poisoned relationships of any description, friendship, platonic, romantic, etc. It’s one thing to wear a mask with the world a few hours a day. It’s entirely another to imagine spending significant amounts of time with someone and worry that somehow they’ll see through the mask. This is more something I’m realizing in the here and now. I don’t remember consciously ever having that inner-dialogue exactly but it’s how I lived my life.

In the past, I couldn’t acknowledge why. It just felt like bad luck. In retrospect, I feel as if I have friends despite myself and I love the people who stayed in my court. However, on an emotional level, that was the limit of the closeness I could allow regardless of anything else. Everyone in my life was kept at a comfortable distance. Hello reason I have pretty much always lived alone (other than my parents) and traveled solo.

A Creature of Extremes

Another thing I’m noticing as I examine my feelings past and present is that it seems as if I feel things intensely or I don’t. I’ve begun to realize this is a factor that repeats in my persona. If someone makes me angry, I’m not just upset I’m livid. If something makes me sad, I’m in tears. And so on down the chart of emotions

What I don’t know yet is the chicken or the egg of this scenario? Is this my natural way of things or another piece of the mask I’ve built over the years. Have I learned to bottle up feelings, emotions? Do they finally bubble up in full force. Or am I genuinely a creature of extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to how I experience things? I may not know an answer to that one for some time but it’s something I want to explore.

There’s No Timetable

A couple of friends have commented on my discussion of relationships such that I think it must sound like I’m desperate to find someone. Hackneyed images of the spinster aunt spring to mind. I mean, I would not complain but I think it’s unrealistic. When I say relationships, I mean across the spectrum. What I’m hoping for right now is to generally have friends who know me for who I am not an edited version of me. It would also help a lot to have friends who have some shared experience, i.e. queer. Gender is not per se a priority, but I will admit to being more interested in guy friends for the simple fact having close male friends is something I’ve denied myself for so long. Yes, not just dating but close friendships. The bulk of my male friends are friends I made when I was considerably younger.

When one lives in the middle of nowhere, where exactly does one post the “wanted queer male friends who can handle socially awkward people” notice? I suspect a lot of this right now is going to be online friends because at the moment I’m the only person who seems to be able to bring my mother with dementia out of the sad places she goes. Yesterday when I got there to see her she was surrounded by caring people (staff and other patients) and she was still in tears. It was only when she saw me the tears stopped. And she had called about an hour before (wanting me to pick her up – she cannot remember where she is). This could be months or years, there’s no real telling at this point. Last year I didn’t think she’d still be around by this time. Now I have no gauge. I don’t go every single day. I did for awhile but I have started accepting that occasionally Mr. Introvert needs a day. I rarely miss going over to see her and that’s how I expect things to continue. I want to be close at hand while at the same time finding time to find who I am, etc. A bit of a balancing act.

Wrapping Up

There’s still a sociology major inside me that remembers reading that much of who we are is a performance art regardless. We show people what we want them to see, sometimes what we think they want to see. There’s no getting around that. So it’s funny to me to constantly address wearing a mask. We all do. Yet, I’ve been performing a role that limited my enjoyment of life. There must be a role in this theater we call life that is a better fit for who I am. I’m working on that.


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