Imaginary Box in Your Pocket

Mask or No Mask, That is the Question

Sheena Monster
12 min readDec 8, 2022
Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

It’s cold outside. The thermometer reads 41° F, but the chill on the breeze makes it feel colder. I got up earlier than usual, and soo it will be earlier still. I had an interview. Got the job! And then found my bank account restricted. WhatTHEfuck.

On hold for over an hour, staring ut the window at a cold and dreary day. It’s 1:15p and it looks like 7a — except not blue. You know; that blue darkness of early morning, or under the shade of your favourite shade tree. This is not that. It’s more grey-white, and it’s harsh on my eyes. The notorious tunes and advertisements scream at me from the speaker on my phone. My eardrums are reverberating and I can’t turn it down any further…my phone is two feet away. Why is everything, including the sound of my own voice, always so loud?

I should be diligently working on my assignment, the one that was due two days ago. But I haven’t been able to focus that much mental energy. The final project is due on Sunday, and I’ve not even started the last milestone. This bothers me almost as much as the stress of the guilt and shame that comes with burnout. Trying to explain this kind of exhaustion is, in and of itself, exhaustive. The energy required to even be awake is enough to wear me out most days. Tack on the shame and guilt and embarrassment of needing any accommodation at all and you might as well take me out back and shoot me. You won’t though, will you? You think it’s cruel and offensive for me to say so, too, I bet. I question your understanding of the words.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Imagine, for a moment, you exist in a world that ousts you. Imagine everyone you grew up around, everyone you’ve accepted as examples of friends and lovers all expect you to change. Not change morally questionable behaviours, but bothersome — inconvenient — behaviours that you have no control over. Like asking for motives to be explained, or conditioning problem-solving skills in ways that do not make logical sense. Imagine being told that you are loved and valued, all while being shown that you’re only wanted and accepted if you can shrink yourself to fit into the box they have made for you. Try as you might, you cannot fit into this box, though, as not only does it not exist but the walls keep changing — the rules keep changing. Still, you learn to play the games of imaginary boxes and shifty rules, the games that do not make logical sense; gaslighting yourself into accepting the mask you wear as your own face. All the while you know, deep down, it’s all a façade created to attain the approval and acceptance of people that do not actually like you. They may think they do, sure. Some of them truly believe they like you and convince themselves they want you around. They do not. In truth, they only like the carefully curated mask you’ve made yourself wear.

So, you learn to wear this mask with pride, reaping the benefits of the status and acceptance awarded for making yourself easily digestible; until if feels wrong to take it off, even when you’re all alone. Then, one day, the mask you created and have worn with such pomposity becomes tarnished, from all the debris and backlash of forcing yourself into the box created for you (not by you), and that mask begins to slip. As time goes on, with that mask peeling and cracking, every ounce of extra energy goes into stopping the breakage — into altering yourself further to fit within fictitious barriers. Eventually this depletes your energy reserves and begins to consume you — all of you, which in turn syphons energy from other sources to compensate for the depletion. Over time, all energy is drained and you spiral into burnout.

Now, imagine your tanks are empty and waking up becomes physically painful, but everyone around you continues to ask for that broken, damaged, and contrived disguise. To maintain your sense of safety and validation, you concede. You start shutting down the functions that do not serve those around you. As I’m sure you can guess, this eats away at you, disintegrating until you have nothing left; and those same people you’ve come to rely on see you collapsing before their eyes, only to leave you where you drop.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Does any of that sound fair or pleasant? Is that not cruel and selfish?

My guess is that you are shaking your head right now, that you’re asking how could anyone be so disloyal to those they profess to accept and love. Little did you know, this is only one phase of the cycle. Take a deep breath, it’s time to just dust it off.

So, there you are left alone, broken, and depleted but still breathing. There’s a choice to be made: catch the midnight train to whichever afterlife you believe awaits, or figure out a way to push forward — and there’s a catch. If you give into the exhaustion and hop onto the midnight train, you’re forever remembered s a selfish coward. They will talk of you as if you didn’t do enough to get help, tell themselves that you seemed so happy and that they never saw it coming. This is what they’ll say, and they’ll believe it. Should you choose to fight for every breath and find a way to persevere, you have to rebuild yourself from scratch. Depending on how far you’ve fallen before you landed at rock bottom, you may lose faculties and cognition; and there may or may not be irreparable damage, there’s really no way to know until you get there. I know, this all sounds so extreme, but it’s the very real precipice we land on.

Photo by 2 Bro’s Media on Unsplash

Say you decide to push through; remember, everyone you trusted dropped you. The swelling of your wounds and all the broken pieces are too much to fit in that box. They’ve kept the way they like it, just for you! They tell you that you’re exhausting, they say they miss the old you; the fun you. They reject the maelstrom constantly brewing beneath the surface and they dismiss the hurricane that washes it all away. Glorious in her destruction, Nature will take her course. Like Nature, you find new ways to grow and heal — to become stronger and sager than ever before. You’re different now, but, somehow, still the same. You’ve put yourself together again, new growth filling the empty spaces of things lost in the wreckage. Not everything works like it once did, but you continue to mend what can be salvaged of that old mask. You’re not smaller, but you’re contained — you can fit in their box again; you’re more palatable.

They call you resilient and commend your strength, speak of your future as if they’ve lived it for you in advance. The condescension that lathers their every word hits a little differently each time. This is a new phase for you, so you listen anyway; feeling your way over the haughtiness and reaching for the wisdom they claim to share. You eventually understand that they truly believe that they know better for you. Over time, as you evolve and heal [because, you know, you’re still — always — creating, shaping, and maintaining boundaries; always growing] that old mask shifts and chips. A fragile safety net, but still a sturdy crutch. A common familiarity between you and those that say they know better. Some connected by blood, some linked by circumstance alone; none have or will live your life for you — but that doesn’t stop them from thinking they do.

You do your best to understand. They have their own experiences, their own lives and perspectives. So, you bite your tongue and move forward with an agreement to disagree, but forgetting is a statistical improbability. This cycle has played through so many times for you at this point, you question your own sanity every time they tell you you’re wrong. They may mean well, sure — some of them. Their intentions do not override the impact. Still, you try to wear the disguise they have grown to accept, all the while you’re confused and pushed to the back burner. Every way you twist it in your mind, you cannot figure out how they don’t notice the damage. For you, the mess left from the storm is everywhere. Boundaries and walls and safe havens are in shambles all around, but everyone is oblivious to the disaster at their feet. Unless, of course, they happen to trip over or trample your progress. That’s when they remind you that your mask it tattered, that you’re not what you once were. This goes on until the mask bursts to pieces.

There then comes a new choice. It’s terrifying, this choice — unknown: recreate a new mask from the pieces and power of the last, a carbon copy; or, leave it where it lay. Again, there is a catch. A new one. If you rebuild the mask they’ve come to love, you slowly but certainly lose all the progress you’ve made since last you fell. All the new and lush positive growth that contributes to your vitality and your fortitude, your survival. In time, you will burn out, again, and repeat the cycle. Should you choose to leave the mask in pieces, you will lose people you’ve come to depend on for better or worse. Some will feel like losing a limb, and there is a risk of phantom limb syndrome from time to time; some you’ll hardly notice are gone. In your wildest dreams you’d never guess some of those that will betray you, but at the end of the day it’s relief that envelopes you. Peace fills the space they once devoured. Trauma breeds wisdom in the solitude that awaits. You’ll grow to appreciate and learn and utilize the tools you find there. In this solitude, you’ll continue to grow and reflect, pruning and enriching the life your previous self always shied away from. Why? — choose your excuse; fear of loneliness, fear of rejection — abandonment. The cycle has gone on for so long, what’s right and true and good feels like a broken fantasy. A dream too wild and free, only the forsaken few dare to brave the mystery beyond the corridor.

Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash

As you can imagine, fixing the mask and losing yourself (again) may have felt familiar, but the predictability of the end goes without saying. You choose to break the cycle. Fuck it may even be your final thought before you leap for the unknown. In this new space, you still fall; you still bleed, but this time you bleed their poison. It still hurts, there is no growth without pain. Instead of drinking from their vile, you nourish yourself on the vegetation you’ve sown. You branch your course and shape your path in whichever direction you wish, unlearning what they taught you, teaching yourself from what feels natural. Recognizing new threats comes easier now, they’re wrapped in the red flags of the past. Lived experience sharpens the tools you’ve developed along the way.

There’s an incline on this journey, of course; an up-hill climb, as the old adage foretells. It’s hard not to notice, but the plateaus are forgiving. Naturally, in times of reflection, you look back and see the path you’ve carved and the progress you’ve made — admiring the twists and the turns. The air smells crisper, the waters taste sweeter — even bitterness is embraced, the thorns to the roses. So, you rest a while and go again when more growth is needed.

Photo by qinghill on Unsplash

Through the years, those people you thought you lost trickle in from wherever life has taken them, that awful box in tow. That familiar warmth builds on old wounds and your mind begins to spiral into that forsaken role they wrote for you long ago — why are they back; what does it mean? The questions flood in like a southern rainstorm, and you resolve to feel the rain. You’ve weathered worse, so you watch for the beauty in the fierceness of the shifting winds and booming thunder. Those cancerous limbs, the cowards you released now stand at the corridor in awe. They revel in its unique magnificence, and they declare their adoration and envy for all to hear. They rejoice in your resilience and beg for a map through the labyrinth to you, craving access to you. You oblige, of course, why wouldn’t you? They begin their trek, growing angry at every obstacle they assert inconvenience at every viewpoint — they yell to you and demand that your garden, your masterpiece must be altered to comfort them. They insist this isn’t you. They berate and devalue your authenticity, blame you for their discomfort in this place you’ve built — a place not for them, but for you. Accusations and unsolicited, baseless opinions fly new red flags.

They chastise you for defending your space, for maintaining these new boundaries you’ve designed to protect your being. It feels different this time. This time, you are empowered, emboldened by the growth they are not equipped to conquer. They take their jabs and they shoot their shots, and you stand your ground. It stings, no doubt; but it doesn’t burn and ache like it used to. With cautious curiosity you sit with that epiphany. It’s with you in that stillness that they back away, retreating to the gate. From there they sling their insults, demeaning and degrading all the things that nurture you in their absence, and you…you absorb the serenity in the distance between you and them. It is in that moment you understand the assignment, that you see the difference this time. You let it ben allowing silence to speak on your behalf, until they defer.

Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash

Their arrogance repeats this cycle, and you learn to see the humor in their ludicrosity. The blade of their words don’t so much as nick you now. A tinge of guilt and grief kiss the wind, but it’s gone before you can name it. Rumors of you hover on the tongues of those that know your name, but few know the truth. They speculate. Fewer still come to your defense. You notice this, of course you notice them, but you no longer declare your allegiance outside of yourself. Protests pierce the silence from the gate to you fortress, imploring you to take off the mask! But they never stop to see what paves the ground they stand on. They do not understand the mosaic beneath their feet is made of the remnants of the guise they so cherish, that the lie that placated their cognitive dissonance is now a cenotaph to the a sacrificial version of you.

You’re not happy, you see, but you do feel whole. Whole things are destroyed by natural disasters every day. With solitude comes peace, but with it also come a profound loneliness that lingers just out of reach. It doesn’t hurt so much in the middle, and less at the top — but when things fall apart again, and they always do, there is often no one there to bandage the wounds. Nothing to abate the ache of a new cycle repeating, one with familiar choices and similar results. You’re alone; for better or for worse, you have to choose to show up for yourself. Sometimes, rock bottom has a basement and that’s where you land — alone. Is it cruel and selfish to want the pain to stop; where is the kindness in forcefully shrinking another to fit in your pocket?

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