I Can See Clearly Now
The Masks that We Wear
I am in the Swiss countryside for my childhood bestie’s wedding. Despite the dense fog stubbornly asserting itself amidst the alps, the atmosphere is deeply beautiful. There is a sense of serenity, a feeling of closeness with Mother Nature.
My family has been traveling for the better part of the last three weeks, which have seen us from our current home of New York City to my hometown of the Bay Area to my husband’s hometown of London and we now find ourselves in a country that is brand new to us all. Reconnecting with loved ones is our primary reason for travel nowadays. With my husband’s endless travel for work and my general growing need for Quietude, we find ourselves craving the comfort and coziness of home over the constancy of movement.
At the welcome dinner last night, I was reunited with many familiar faces, most of whom I had not seen in several years. I was not prepared for how it would feel to see how much I had changed in the reactions and uncomfortableness of others.
Growing up, I unintentionally came to negotiate two personas. At home, I felt uneasy… that pit-in-my-stomach feeling accompanying my every waking moment in varying degrees of intensity. I lived in a persistent fear of what might be wrong with my mom. Was it a physical illness that would lead to her premature death? Was it a supernatural force that would bring evil upon all of us? Was it possible that she might snap and turn on us? Year after year, with every mounting hospital visit, I would wonder: Why can’t the doctors do anything to help? Something must be really wrong if nobody can help her.
As I mentioned in a previous post, nobody explained anything to us while we were growing up. We were well-trained to keep our mouths shut about what was happening. We had no space to ask questions or to receive comfort. All we could do was develop our own ways of coping.
It seems impossible that I remember starting to journal around age five or six, considering that my son is five and barely has interest in writing his own name. But I still have my old journals from the mid 80’s. My household was strict and Catholic. I presume that’s why my first journals were addressed not Dear Diary, but Dear Jesus. I wrote to Jesus a lot. It was how I prayed. Maybe being written down, my prayers would hold more weight. I always prayed for my mom to get better, to be okay. Sometimes I prayed to have this life over with soon, since I had learned all about how wonderful Heaven was, so, could we just speed up the process to get there? I am still haunted by reading something I wrote as a child: “Please take me away to where you are. I don’t want to be scared anymore.”
I wrote privately about my fears and on the outside, I tried to “be good.” I never wanted to upset my parents. By age ten, I was doing all the dishes and everyone’s laundry. Not as chores, but because my mom was not able to manage it. I liked having responsibility, though. I was good at getting things done. I was good at following directions and I was obsessed with trying to do things perfectly. I was also like this at school and got all As through most of my school life.
In hindsight, I understand what was happening. The more I focused on doing all these things and doing them perfectly, the less scared I felt about my mom, the less out of control my life felt. I didn’t have time or headspace to linger in fear and worry. My parents had already built a foundation of silence and I had been taught never to question my elders so it was best to not think about any of it or to talk about how I felt. It served me well to keep myself busy with life outside of home. I ran for Student Council most years. I was annoyingly obsessed with being friends with everyone. I remember a group of Mean Girls telling me off for being fake, for trying to be everyone’s best friend. I was genuinely caught off guard at the time. What was so wrong with wanting everyone to like me?
I now know I was searching for the love, warmth, and safety that was missing from home.
I even tried to get close to my teachers; I came to be known as Teacher’s Pet. I wanted — needed — everyone’s approval. One year, I was voted Most Talkative, something I still don’t really know how to feel about. Partly because it doesn’t really seem like a compliment but perhaps mostly because it doesn’t remotely describe me in the present. When I told a good friend about this recently, someone who I met a few years ago, after I became a mom, her jaw dropped and she asked me again and again in disbelief, “Wait, YOU, you were Most Talkative in school?!?!”
I continued to operate through this persona into my early adult years. My college friends came to accept me as the director of our social lives. I hosted all kinds of parties at my townhouse in Santa Monica. Once, a birthday party I threw for a group of friends and myself hit capacity at over 400 people.
Somewhere along the way, I found yoga. My relationship with yoga started off noncommittal and non-exclusive. But a few years in, after having met the right teacher, it became my life. I was instantly addicted and re-ordered my life to support my practice. The way I see it now, it was Quietude pulling me in. It was a beckoning from my soul, an invitation to slow down and sit with mySelf.
But then, I turned it into my work. Of course, it was my overflowing passion for yoga that took me into teaching. I remember having the thought: I wish I could just be in the studio all the time, which was followed by the thought: Well, why can’t I? But becoming a teacher also took me away from the quiet of the practice. It wasn’t just about the simplicity of being anymore. It was now about procuring time slots, negotiating pay, counting heads, and planning sequences. It was about looking and being a certain way. Becoming a teacher necessitated an externalization of my inner work and became another platform for my carefully curated persona.
It never occurred to me that any of this was a problem. I felt it was quite the opposite. I felt good about being someone that brought friends together. I felt good about having dedicated my life to helping others find ease in their bodies and peace in their minds. My family and friends also approved; they commented that I was so much calmer and more patient post yoga. In fact, my friend whose wedding we are at in Switzerland has jokingly told stories about pre-yoga Leah versus post-yoga Leah.
Through all of this, that pit-in-my-stomach feeling was never very far. Sometimes my mom would have a long stretch of being well. But I was never convinced it was all going to be okay. It was more like I was holding my breath in anticipation of the next crash, the next phone call that would plow into my life, telling me I had to come home now and urgently get to the hospital. My heart still drops into my stomach when I receive a call from “Home”; it has too frequently been bad news on the other end.
But I continued to carry on the same as I had learned to cope as a child, my identity as a yogi and yoga teacher more deeply enabling this. Think positive! Be happy! Be grateful! The sun is shining! Manifest only good things!
I wholeheartedly believed in this mindset. And people liked being around a person with this mindset. It was easy to digest who I was.
I was so tightly enmeshed with this identity that even seeing my mom in a self-inflected coma did not challenge it. At the time, I amazed myself with my ability to be so strong and positive. I didn’t realize that I was deep in traumatic shock. Instead, I thought: Ah, it’s all the yoga and meditation that has empowered me to be so at peace with what is. To recall this now makes me cringe and would make me wish I could go back and slap some sense into myself if it didn’t make me feel so sad and sorry for how scared and lost I was.
What finally undid my mis-identity was becoming a mother myself: the terrifying first days of my son’s life in the NICU when we were awaiting test results to tell us whether or not he had a brain infection and the postpartum depression that came with all the bells and whistles of panic and anxiety. The coping methods that had heretofore served me no longer worked. I couldn’t positive-think myself to feeling better. Sitting in meditation made me feel like I needed to run for my life. Being in Child’s Pose made me feel like the walls were closing in and crashing down on top of me. I went to get acupuncture thinking it would help and ended up screaming for the acupuncturist to come back into the room, crying tears of shame, the needles painfully pinching me as my body trembled in fear. I felt like I was prey being chased by a predator in the jungle except when I looked around, there was no predator, no jungle.
At first, I blamed pregnancy, the traumatic birth, and motherhood. All of this was what took my identity away from me and turned me into something I did not recognize and refused to accept. I thought about everything I used to be and I kept trying to go back. I had a death grip on the past and as time continued ticking forward, that grip became more painful and more impossible to hold onto. I was being ripped apart by it.
With time and a lot of support from loved ones and my therapist, I came to see more clearly. No, everything had actually not been okay before I became a mother. Yes, in fact, it was terrifying to grow up as I did. No, the old ways of being no longer apply. Yes, there is a way to Truth.
My process of healing has been steady, but slow. What’s curious about life is that no matter the depth of grief or severity of trauma that may be punctuating your present, it continues on. On top of which, raising a child is demanding, obviously. Even if a quick fix or overnight transformation could be possible, which it is not, I had no time or space. I have worked hard and practiced a lot of patience to get to where I am today: accepting of my life with all its imperfections and rejecting participation in anything that does not feel true for me. I am less in “lala everything-is-wonderful land.” I am more real, I am stronger than I thought was possible, and I know I can handle sh*t hitting the fan.
But last night, I found myself wanting to disappear. I had not thought about how different I would seem to all these people who had not seen me in recent years and how confronting it would feel to be reminded that I am not who I thought I was.
My friend’s mom didn’t even recognize me at first. I went up to her, smiling brightly and waving both of my hands emphatically. She returned a blank expression. It took a minute for her to register who I was. “Are you…Leah?” she asked, genuinely uncertain. “Yes! Hi Mom!” I greeted her, as I always had when I was a kid. “You look so different,” she said hesitatingly, still not convinced it was me. “Oh, maybe because I’ve gained weight?” I awkwardly joked. “No, no.. you just seem.. more elegant. Something is different about you.”
Everyone I spoke to asked, naturally, if I was still teaching yoga. When I would answer “No, I don’t teach public classes anymore. I’ve been focusing on writing about mental health,” the conversation would get stuck. Even though mental health is more openly talked about these days, I find that most people don’t really know what to say. It was so much easier when people could talk to me about not being able to touch their toes or how they’ve been meaning to try meditation.
One friend determined that it was living in New York City that had changed me. Hardened me. But it was a good thing, she said; she actually preferred that I was more grounded and more real. I couldn’t tell if either of us believed what she was saying.
I have learned that although I am capable of playing into the expectations of social extroversion, being a Most Talkative social butterfly simply isn’t who I am. At my core, I am an introvert. I am overwhelmed when a situation expects me to be different, to pretend. I am slow to jump into the rhythm of the flow of others, particularly when that flow follows a surface-level current that is trying to pull me back into a former way of being that not only no longer serves me but is virtually impossible for me to even feign.
I am self-conscious of all of this. In many ways, it was easier when I wore the mask.
But I won’t go back to living in denial or pretense. I will continue choosing to see what is real and true, even if it means going through uncomfortable, messy, and even painful moments. Those moments that nobody is posting about on Instagram but that are the ones that bring you closer to who you really are and to what is really important. I will take deep breaths through those moments and try to remember that clarity waits for me on the other side.
Just like this fog that I know will eventually clear.