This post is soemthing that my sister Natalie asked me to write for her. Discuss my mental suit of armour, plus my masks, why I have them, and how I use them. I am dedicating this piece to Nat (love you always Sis!!) and our mutual friend, Laurie M (who will discover something new when she finishes reading this).
Grab some snacks and fizzy water, settle in, and let me share a story with you kittens. A good deal of my writing is about a topic or teachable moment that has triggered a thought in my mind, and I can sit down and knock out 3,500 words in an hour or two, give it a quick edit for anything glaring, and publish it. Perhaps by the time you reach the end of this, you may see why it has taken 3 weeks to write this. Sometimes something new will be distinguished for me in my writing, and I’ll stop and examine it and see what the root of it is/was. This collection of words has, at times, been quite challenging to assemble, but, I must keep moving forward, I made a promise to write this.
If you have read a post I wrote last year, Self-Isolation, a few things will be familiar to you. Much of this is new material that I have not discussed prior to today. Another reason this one took a while and was difficult to lay out… because you are getting a look behind the mask, behind the curtain, and honestly, it’s more than a little uncomfortable to reveal the parts long hidden. The quote in the graphic above, keep that in mind, by the end you will see just how thoroughly applicable it really is.
If we were meeting for the very first time today, I can tell you what you would see and experience. You would be dealing with the humour mask, it’s the main component of the mental suit of armour. It’s the one thing people usually pick up on right away, and I get comments like, “OMG, she’s hilarious!” or “she’s funny and blunt as hell!” You get the idea. What a friend once referred to as my “rough as a badger’s arse persona”. I call it my cantankerous, crass, caustic, comical curmudgeon self, just crustier as I’ve gotten older. A longtime friend refers to this as my CBS exterior – Classy, Brassy, and Sassy. You’re familiar with the typical gallows humour of first responders (which I so thoroughly understand!), my humour runs about 3-4 shades darker than that. It means that some days, Nat and I will be howling with laughter at something we’ve shared with each other, but dare not let anyone else hear even the slightest whisper of. Humour is a coping mechanism. It’s also how I keep a safe distance between you and me; not that you are any kind of immediate physical threat, but, welcome to my PTSD brain in action. It is in that state of hyper-vigilance where it operates the majority of the time, that it says, you cannot let someone get too close, you know what’s happened before when you have. Is it true? Highly unlikely, but, you learn to deal with how it functions. It wasn’t always easy to manage that armour/sense of dark humour. While taking part in a documentary in 2015, during the one on one filming session, the senior producer said, “I know your sense of humour protects you from the world, but for the next 3 hours, I need you to not hide behind it.” Honestly, it was the longest 3 hours I can recall, and they did not get all that much usable footage. Without that line of defence, the dark humour, it’s difficult to speak of past experiences and not become overly emotional or go totally mute/at a loss for words. Those are the times it gets in the way.
Why a mask, you ask? It’s the face you present to the world. That moment when you are showing “everything is fine” while inside your mind, it’s completely the opposite. Some wit once described it as ‘you smile, and inside your boot, your sock has slid down.’ That feeling when you have just laddered your tights before you have to stand up and speak (my fallback, go without, or have a spare pair in my purse just in case, because shit happens). Think about what you see on social media, everybody looks like they are having the perfect life, perfect friends, perfect partner, etc., when reality is nothing like that. Reality is waking up, rolling over, snuggling up to who is beside you, and you suddenly get the worst case of gas, or sulphuric morning breath from the depths of hell. Getting up from a sound sleep to answer somebody pounding on the door, to later realize, you carried on an entire conversation with your hair going in multiple directions (I have done that more that a few times, so I could sympathize when it happened to a treasured friend). My profile picture? That’s the result of 90 minutes in the chair of a highly talented make-up artist (and one of my “kids” that I am eternally proud of). I let her design the look and do whatever she wanted to. Want reality? See me when I take that first look in the bathroom mirror, and discover that Medusa showed up overnight!
Some people think it means that you have to constantly be handled with kid gloves. Give me a break! It means that in that constant stream of information and conversation that takes place internally, I alone, am responsible for managing my space and comfort level. Only someone else who deals with it would understand the dance that is happening at any given time. It’s how any time Nat and I are at some event, we know when to take the other to a silent place to rebalance. Another reason for that mental suit of armour, masks, safe space, is that over the years, those who said they would be there, when the chips are down are nowhere to be found. Once it has occurred enough times, it becomes your standard base of operation. Is it always the case? No, but you’ve been conditioned to it being your own reality. It is not what’s so, it’s just what is. But at some level, you just know, in a crisis you’re flying solo kid. You fear letting somebody get that close. Remember fear? False Evidence Appearing Real. In instances when your anxiety is triggered, I can usually guarantee that FEAR is driving it.
You will have heard much about “fight or flight response”, as a part of managing anxiety and what PTSD does to your brain. After reading much material in recent years, researchers have said there are now four stages to anxiety. Fight, flight, freeze, collapse. Allow me to illustrate for you. I’m sitting in a long and increasingly more heated meeting. People are coming and going from the room constantly to use the facilities. The closer on the door is set incorrectly, and the door closes with a thundering bang every damn time. Along with other things, I deal with sound sensitivity (Misophonia). Typically, not having my hearing aids in is enough to manage it, but this one night it wasn’t cutting it at all. And the discussion at the table is rising in temperature. I know my anxiety is about to become uncontrollable, and as much as I am mentally shouting at myself, DON’T MOVE!, every time that door slams, I noticeably and physically flinch (for the two people who are actually paying attention and not in a heated discussion). As the volume continues to rise in the room, I’ve already passed fight, I’ve made an attempt to rein in the tempers. Flight is not possible, I’m stuck on this floor until we are finished. Freeze is where I’ll be hanging out. If you are watching, my head has dropped, I’m fidgeting with anything at hand, there is zero eye contact with anyone, and I’ve gone completely silent and am on the verge of the final stage, collapse. Collapse will be where dissociation (in my case, depersonalization) occurs, and I’m losing track of time and no memories are being retained. If you lift my head, I will look directly at you, and not see you. I’ve stepped away, I’m literally not there, I’m watching it from elsewhere, it’s not happening to me. It can be possible to hide the early stages under a mask, but freeze is really obvious, as is collapse.
If we were able to see the full truth, there are many more of us out there operating behind a mask to hide the reality, than we had thought possible. My sense of humour is the mental suit of armour, it’s meant to keep things from getting past the defences, the rough persona is that envelope that holds people at arm’s length, because heaven forbid they get too close and see the real me, that messy arrangement of damaged goods. The various masks hide what is happening mentally and emotionally (and in a few cases, physically). The masks are particularly useful for hiding/disguising episodes of high anxiety or depression (the two associated mental health issues that are pretty much always handed out with your PTSD diagnosis). And once you have put your mask in place, you have that constant worry that it might slip and somebody may get a look at what is really going on with you in that moment. It has happened more than a few times. I’ll give you some examples from my own experience.
This past week, it was taking every part of me to get up out of bed, get in the shower, get dressed and go out and handle the standard month-end errands. Thank heavens for a chat/pep talk with Nat that morning, got up and went through the motions and launched myself out the door, mask firmly fixed in place to appear as emotionless as possible. I could get through the next few hours as long as I didn’t have to get into any in depth conversation about anything beyond the weather. That secret hope, when you’re traveling between stops in your itinerary, whatever you do, don’t look at anyone, they may want to have a conversation, and that’s bordering on impossible today. Depression level: 3 with one foot on the edge of 4. Almost finished, just have to make it to the bus stop and you’re almost home, keep looking down. I glanced up to check the timer on the crossing signal to see how long until the light changed, and spotted my BFF out for a stroll with the trauma dog she is training with. Thrilled to pieces to see her, have not seen her since before the holidays, and I have absolutely no speech functions ready to use. I am so into my internal conversation and buried deep in my head, I’m scrambling to focus on her words, while hoping like hell that the mask doesn’t slip. Can’t fool the dog, she’s doing as trained and is pressed right up against me, literally leaning in. Thankfully the mask is holding, they don’t pick up that my anxiety is red-lining in that moment and they make the dog move away and sit. Light changes, and I think it was starting to dawn on her, my friend gives me a tiny nudge toward the road, and I’m off across the street to catch the bus I can see coming a few blocks away. Stare at my hands throughout the bus trip south towards home. Once home send her a note to clean it up. Some days bite, ya know?
Over the Christmas-New Year’s holidays. For some reason, it was really rough this time around. Thought I had plans in place, but no communication and the expected person was a no show. Ah… see, again. Don’t let people get close, you will always end up disappointed. Depression level: solidly in 4, but safe. Treasured friend reaches out and we exchange a few messages. She’s an Empath as well, and quite obviously picked up something, and reached out in love. In horror, I realize, that the mask has slipped almost entirely off and she’s seen what’s behind it. Damn! Shove it back into place, with a forced smile, and verbally stiff-armed her with a version of all is good here, nothing going on at all. The mask slipped, the defences were zero, and I damn near got caught, so I thought for a brief moment. I actually did get caught, she saw it, but let it go in the moment. Nat and I had a long chat a day or so after, and she said, you need to clean that up with her. I did. I still owe her a massive hug to go with it. Soon, I hope, I can accomplish that when we next meet for coffee, and I can remind her that I honestly do adore her big-hearted nature.
This one will be where you see reality and logic solidly at work to keep both the mask firmly affixed and the armour properly positioned to ensure there are no gaps (turns out I missed a few spots that day). Without going into way too much detail (and they honestly don’t deserve that much space), we were about to have a historic moment happen that coming Monday in Toronto, but also in cities from coast to coast. A truly history-making moment. And with progress, comes an abundance of hate, particularly from those who may have to cede some of their endless loop tale of woe and self-imposed misery. The online attacks began before I had even left the radio studio to walk home. It came in waves throughout that day and over the entire weekend. Hit every single last PTSD trigger, and it was like riding a roller coaster of emotions all weekend long. This triggered the insomnia that I am still dealing with 3+ months later. It was a brutal weekend, and every time it seemed like things were settling down, the same instigators would throw more fuel on the fire online. It had escaped notice locally, but was being watched in other areas, and by Sunday, people were actually picking up the phone and calling to check in, while wondering why nothing was being said or done in town. Just like being back in school all over again. When triggered, the trauma or traumas associated with it from the past come up and are replayed continually in your mind. It’s like being in a waking nightmare that you are looking to escape from and cannot.
Then the morning of the event. Depression level – 4, safety is questionable to completely non-existent. I had been asked to arrive a few hours before the scheduled start to handle any photos and an interview for that day’s service news video. I’m sitting in the lobby waiting, and Danielle walks by. She moved towards me to give me a hug, and I backed up a few steps. She asked how I was doing (no mask in place yet, and I know I was showing every trigger episode from the weekend, let’s be honest, I looked really rough). I finally had to bring the reality and logic part to the fore. I said, “please, don’t be nice, I cannot handle nice. I’m barely holding it together right now. I’m doing my best to get myself to a place where I can function throughout this and get back home again without losing it completely.” I had cancelled a speaking engagement I had been booked for after this event concluded… if I can barely get through this, how the hell am I going to hang on through delivering an hour long talk? By this point I am literally gluing a mask in place and hoping I don’t have to interact with anyone being nice before the glue sets and I can be concealed behind the fake smile and underneath the sense of humour/suit of armour. Normally, I would be able to speak at something like this, knowing ahead of time the main points I wanted to cover. I couldn’t even manage that. I went with something pre-written that I had on my iPad, just in case, and this was the case it was needed. And then I stumbled on a phrase. I know from my experiences in media, I really suck working from a script. Like I needed more proof today! Weather and traffic were not in alignment and Nat and Kim were delayed getting into the city. Once the formal portion was completed and pictures were taken, everybody was shuffled off indoors for the reception, I had to do a stand-up with the media present. Two saving graces in this moment, my BFF is over the right shoulder of the media, and my friend Meaghan is just to the left. If I turn my head to look at her, she will step in and wrap things up.
Then dealing with the issues in the post-event reception. People who were there to circulate and have conversations could not, they were tied up by a few who had their own agenda to run, the purpose of their presence be damned, they wanted the spotlight and took it. Whatever. Finally get a text that Nat and Kim are about to walk through the front door. I grabbed our friend Pete and said, come with me, we have to fetch the family! We step into the elevator and I let out this long emotional sigh. “You struggling today kid?” he asked. “Yup.” Can’t say more, can feel the tears about to spill and I cannot let this happen right now, have got to tighten that mask and hold it together. Nat and I took one look at each other on the elevator ride up and we instantly both knew we were not up to this but had put our masks on and would power through it anyway. We walk into the reception together, Nat turns and looks me in the eyes and whispers, wow, there is a lot of hate in this room. Yup, two Empaths who are literally joined at the hip mentally since we first met, and we both knew it. Drop our coats, take a few photos, and we both needed the moment we had just then. We never even realized until 5 or 6 hours later when Kim sent us both the photo she had quietly taken of us, just being our whole selves with each other. Nat added the caption, and every person who has viewed it has had the same reaction, “If that is not love, then I don’t know what is,” or some phrasing similar to that. Here’s the picture:
It also shows something else. If you look at it, we are both without any masks in that moment, there is no suit of armour for either of us, we are just completely with each other in the moment, and all the energy that went back and forth between us was truly amazing. That’s who we’ve always been with each other. It was damn cold that day, that’s why all the wool hats and gear. And when we sat down, we were in constant physical contact, and we had both fixed our masks in place again. We would discuss it in great detail some time after, what was going on for both of us, but we had to be there for each other that day. She’s my sister and I love her beyond words, I would do anything for her. Nat is one of those rare trusted people who sees me without masks, armour, filters… just the raw, bruised, battered, damaged woman underneath the dark humour and sassy exterior.
I’ll give you one more example of what happens when something gets beyond the mask. I was having a conversation with someone via a messaging app, and I was just venting a year’s worth of frustrations, anger, upset, and being peeved about the lack of progress and all the things that fell by the wayside that were planned to be done the previous year. Sidetracked by general fuckwittery. It came to a screeching halt with one question they asked, “Is this a mental health thing?” Let me tell you where I was in the moment that happened. I’m 12, a massively drunk relative has hold of me to keep her balance with a handful of my hair, and she has just backhanded me across the face for the umpteenth time during that outburst (Mom was at work, she would have lost her temper in an epic fashion had she witnessed that). In the blink of an eye, I went from 54 in the present, right back to 12 and under attack. Is it reality, no, but it’s what happened in that moment. The trust built over years, instantly erased. By the end of that conversation, I was so stiff I had to go stand under the shower to loosen up. Okay, you’re flying solo right now, it’s self-preservation time. Put on a mask to get through the next meeting and some official duties the weekend following, then resigned from that role. I discussed it with a friend and fellow author, and he agreed, it’s past the time for you to go, he said.
I was asked during a recent lecture, if I thought being so open about my mental health, my “warrior” status, what I battle daily, and the hope to reach someone who needs to know that they are not alone by my openly discussing it… has it had a personal cost? Yes, it has and it will continue to have a personal cost. But, it is a price I am prepared to pay to finally put an end to the stigma around mental health. To see first responders and affiliated jobs and their family members receive the support they should have received long ago for occupational stress injuries leading to PTSD and more. The personal cost showed up in that comment, “is this a mental health thing?” Yes, there has been a high personal cost. But, there have been amazing moments too. Like, Laurie introducing Nat and I, without realizing what would happen from bringing two activists and advocates together. That hug photo, I sent it to Laurie with a note, “You are responsible for causing this.” Laurie is finding out by reading this collection of words, that she is more than a friend now, she is our chosen sister, along with an abundance of love we both send her way. You are joining quite the family, and you’ll love Katherine as much as we both do too, she’s a totally adorkable kid sister. 💙💙
Certainly you didn’t think I would let you go without at least one bit of humour. I have a graphic that I sometimes use in my lectures, and it says, “Sometimes I question my sanity, but the unicorn in the kitchen told me I’m fine.” 😂😂
I hope this look behind my masks and beneath my armour has at least been educational. It is not the same for everybody, but it is my reality. All there is to do with this now is to simply understand.
Okay Nat, I wrote what you asked me to, you owe me a cookie and a hug Sis! ❤️❤️
Remember to LOVE each other INTENSELY.