I remember loving dressing up. I remember loving Halloween.
My parents were strictly religious, for most of my childhood, but they still, for one reason or another, fully accepted Halloween and the annual costuming and treading through the cold for candy when I was quite young. There is a photograph somewhere of me and my siblings dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz. And those cold nights of costumed begging were so lovely.
I made a huge event of Halloween for my daughter when she was young. I think I remembered how enthralled I was with the act of turning into something or someone new, and I wanted her to have that joy and fun. …and maybe I also wanted to eat her candy after I tucked her into bed at night. What parent doesn’t?
My daughter still loves Halloween, and we celebrate it like Christmas, with presents and decorations and parties and moments of tradition. It is a beautiful part of life in our family, and will likely continue to be such for generations to come.
But today, as I started dressing in ways that will accommodate my black cat costume, and wondered if the weather would turn my face-painting into trails of black running down my face, instead of the cute kitten face I have planned, I began thinking about costumes in a new way.
I’ve always been one who loves to pretend. Theater and dress-up and imagination and creativity were always a part of who I am. And I love that part of me.
But I have used that part to my advantage for a reason. I had to pretend. I had to lie. I had to shut out the bad I saw in me and my situation and become a different person in a different place inside my head to survive.
I got so good at pretending, that eventually most of me forgot the other girl—the one suffering and struggling in silence.
I apologize to that girl. I’m sorry I left you there in that little box and kept up the pretending for so long. I apologize to my sister, because I worked so hard to forget that girl that I couldn’t care if another was suffering the same way, and I left her to suffer and went on pretending.
I didn’t do it knowingly, of course.
The mind is beautiful and terrible in its abilities to shut out what we can’t survive at the moment. It is equally beautiful and terrible in the way it brings back those moments later, for us to confront in a time and place when and where we might be able to survive facing them. But it leaves us pretending in the meantime. And, frankly, there are days I still pretend.
I still fold up the pain and tuck it in a corner and go out with my head held high, pretending I’m not crushed and abandoned and suffering. I pretend I’m not a mess of contradictions and confusions. I pretend I’m not afraid of everything all the time. I pretend I’m not depressed and crazy and poor and struggling and in pain. I dress up in my costume every time I leave the safety of my home.
Therapists often use the terms “button up” or “zip up” to describe this phenomenon. It isn’t so much a lie as another coping skill. You walk into the office kept and held inside your costume, and the therapist works to get your real self to come out. But only for 50 minutes. And then it is the job of the client to zip up, and put the pain back in its place to walk back out of the office put together and not pouring out the pain and the secrets. And eventually, the work we do for those 50 minutes a week is meant to bring me to a place where I am integrated. Where the pretend woman and the pained woman are one and coping together with life, having found those incongruent places and found a way through them to a more whole self. But, until I get to that point, I still pretend.
My costume feels more genuine than my true self some days. And I know that it is working at fooling many in the world.
People call me strong, or brave, or fearless, or brilliant, or beautiful, and I hear it and can’t figure out how they could see that in me. And then I remember that the costume is exactly that, and that many of them don’t get opportunities to see the scared little girl crying in the dark. I don’t let her out very often. I’m an excellent pretender.
But I am starting not to feel as guilty about keeping that strong self out in front of others, whenever possible. I’m starting to understand the ways that zipping up saved me from more suffering, and the ways that it helps me function in the world today, and to feel less like that self is a complete fabrication. I’m starting to see that those parts of the costumed self are me. They may not be the whole of me, but they are me.
When my daughter put on a princess dress and tiara when she was six years old and went out into the night to trick or treat, you could see the princess inside her come out. The way she walked and waved her scepter and spoke were all royal. She was that inside, and putting on the costume just let it out for a night, without judgments or questions or disbelief. And my costume is similar. It lets me be things I am somewhere inside, even if I don’t always recognize or acknowledge those things. I am my costume and I am also the little girl fighting to find her way through suffering and confusion.
And all of us wear a costume. My zipped up self might be more distant from my whole self than that of some people, but we all zip parts inside of the costume, and we all present what we want others to see. And that can be helpful and that can keep our hearts safe at times, but it can also keep us distanced from one another and ourselves.
So, I am challenging myself to look at both parts of myself today, as I paint on my kitten face—to look at the costume and look at what lies beneath, and to see where I might connect those two, and what might have felt unsafe to uncover before that I might want to expose now. I’m looking at who I want to portray and asking why that is the face I show, and why I might not want to show other aspects of myself. I’m digging down and trying to see beyond the costume. Claiming both the external and the internal parts of myself, and owning and honoring them, will bring me closer to wholeness and the ability to present all of me.
And I think that I need to be able to present that whole woman to myself, as much as I need to present her to the world. I’m learning to see all of myself. And it is a beautiful awakening to see the whole, and to accept the strong parts and the weak parts, the brave and the fearful parts, the brilliant and the baffled parts, and the beautiful and the ugly parts.
I know that it will be an amazing moment when I can love all of that woman and I can stop the constant cycle of setting myself free and buttoning myself up.
It will be fabulous to just be me, unbound and undivided.