Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Okay Mask

We all wear masks at times. One mask that's very well-worn for many of us is The Okay Mask. It's the one we put on when we want people to think we're okay when we're really not. It's necessary to wear it in social situations, because, even though people ask us how we're doing, in most cases, they don't really want to know. They're just being polite. So we wear The Okay Mask, and tell people we're doing great. We act like nothing's wrong. It's how we get through the day.

If you have cancer, or if someone you love has it, you wear that mask around everyone but your inner circle. Some even wear it in front of those closest to them. Because if you looked the way you really felt, you'd make everyone feel sorry for you. So you wear the mask. It just makes things easier.

Or does it? Inevitably, at some point, the mask comes off. Sometimes it happens at the worst moment.

For me, much of the time, I'm not wearing the mask at all. When you ask how I'm feeling and I say I'm feeling good, I usually mean it. Most days recently, I'm in a pretty good place. But I had a really bad month not too long ago. You all witnessed it. I poured out my feelings about it in this blog, but around people who don't follow my journey, I wore the mask.

I put the mask on immediately after I got the phone call from my urologist telling me that I had cancer months ago. I was on my way out the door to drive a friend to a big gig he had that night. I was screaming inside, but I wore the mask for the whole evening, and didn't even tell my wife until we went to bed that night. I didn't want to spoil the fun, so I wore The Okay Mask.

Two weekends ago, when I was in the midst of one of the worst funks of my life, I had to put the mask on when we went out with friends on Saturday, and again when we went to church on Sunday. I don't want to ruin everyone else's time because I'm a wreck inside. Our social time on Saturday was with close friends, so they got the truth when they asked how I was doing. But that only lasted a few minutes, and then The Okay Mask went back on.

Since that terrible weekend, I've been much better. But I had one bad day this weekend, emotionally. Keep in mind that I'm talking about my emotional state, not anything physical. I still have no symptoms, other than from treatment. Those are bad enough. But, even with the 5-HTP supplement that has made a huge difference for me, some days something sets me off and I go straight down into a pit of misery. Even after the emotions pass, and I'm not wallowing in it anymore, I can still feel it. A knot inside that feels like a wound that's still tender. One that can flare up again at the slightest provocation. When I feel like that, I have to wear the mask.

If we know each other well, and I'm having a bad day, I'll probably tell you. But if we're not close, all you'll probably see is the mask. I know you're expressing concern, and you want to be supportive, but I may not feel comfortable exposing my drama to you. Around you, I need to wear the mask. I love you, and I appreciate the concern, but I don't want to go there. I can't go there with everyone. The cost is too high. The mask is much cheaper.

It's not just those who have cancer who have to wear The Okay Mask. Those closest to them wear it too. Cancer is often harder on a patient's loved ones than it is on them. If you have cancer, and are married, your spouse probably feels like they have to wear the mask around you. They think they need to stay positive to help keep your spirits up. Theirs is a burden that never goes away. If they let their guard down, they may feel like they're letting you down.

But wearing the mask too often is not good for us. We have to be able to let our guard down from time to time. We have to take the mask off and be vulnerable with someone. Otherwise, the emotional undertow will drown us eventually.

Again, I'm not always wearing the mask. Much of the time, even most of it, I really am okay. Great, actually. I might be tired, or having a hot flash, but I don't try to hide those things. It's the emotional baggage that needs to be covered up.

There's no point in saying that we shouldn't wear The Okay Mask. We all have to wear it sometimes. It's a matter of self-preservation. But if we love each other in spite of the mask, it gets easier to take the mask off. And what we need are people who love us even when the mask is lying crumpled and dirty on the floor, and all of our emotional ugliness is exposed. If you have at least one person like that, you should count yourself rich. I do, and I am.

Of course, I know that it's not just those dealing with cancer who wear The Okay Mask. Anytime we're going through some kind of difficulty and we need to be able to interact with people, we put it on. But with cancer, it seems to become a permanent part of our wardrobe. If you suspect that I'm not really as okay as I say I am, please just give me grace. Let me keep the mask on. It's not that I'm trying to keep things from you. I just need to protect myself. That's why I wear The Okay Mask. #waroncancer

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