As I look into the mirror, a 9 year old me stares back. My hands move to touch my stomach, my arms & thighs. My fingers pinching and pushing my youth as I go.
“What is this?” I think, “when did all of this get here?”
All of a sudden, I feel her. She sits in the corner, vibrant and loud. I can feel her eyes on me, waiting for me to strike up a conversation.
“What do you want?” I say.
I feel her right next to me. I turn to look at her and it’s another nine year old me looking back. She looks me up and down. Pinching and pushing my youth as I just did. Then at last, she rests her hand on my heart.
“I can make that feeling go away. The feeling you get in your chest. The one that feels like some insurmountable weight is pressing down on you, leaving cracks and bruises in its wake. The feeling that makes you feel that at any moment you’ll explode and burn in a thousand different pieces. The fear that all that will be left is that never-ending pit of loneliness and despair. I can make that go away.”
“Really? Will you show me?” I ask.
No, I beg.
“How can you make it go? What do I need to do?”
“Just listen and do as I say. But you must believe me. It will only work if you believe everything that I say.”
I grab her hand.
“I believe you. I’ll trust you.”
She smiles again.
“Good. You better.”
The whispers begin and I believe and act on every word.
Through the coming years she shows me ways on how to build an armor. First it starts at my feet, then my legs. My eleven year old self smiles at my reflection in the mirror and I think,
“I’m doing it. I’m getting better.”
“Not yet,” she whispers, “there is more to go.”
I begin building a breastplate and a shield. I put it on.
My thirteen year old self looks at my reflection in the mirror and smiles.
“I’m doing it. I’m getting better, getting lighter. That crushing weight is leaving.”
For a second I feel my chest squeeze. The breastplate seems to be getting tighter and tighter. My mind is rushed with anxiety fueled thoughts.
“I’m stuck. I am STUCK. I need to get this OFF!”
I pull and pull but the breastplate won’t come off.
All goes still.
The squeezing stops.
“Don’t you trust me?” she whispers.
“Yes,” I whisper, “yes, I do.”
“Good. You better.” she snarled.
A couple of years pass and she begins to show me how to build a mask. Not just any mask but one that will completely form to my face. One that no one would even be able to see but only I would know is there.
It’s simple but complex. It’s hard but soft. It fits every curve and scar on my face, that at times it even tricks me into believing that it is my own.
“Why do I need to build this mask?” I ask her, “what does this even protect?”
The laugh she gives catches me off guard.
“Oh Emily. You still don’t get it? No wonder it’s taken so long to get this far. This mask, my dear, is the most deadly and protecting of them all. If no one can see what’s truly going on, you will truly be safe, free and accepted. If no one knows the real face underneath, you have the upper hand. You become the master.”
I look in the mirror and peering back is a sixteen year old me. She stands next to me.
“Put it on,” she whispers.
“If I put this on, I can take it off whenever I want, right?”
“But of course. Whenever you want.”
As I look at her when she says this, I see chaos behind her eyes.
Is this a lie, perhaps? No. It can’t be. She’s the only one I trust. She’s gotten me this far.
I pick up the mask and put it on.
It seals perfectly onto my face. Every crevice, line and bone is perfectly sculpted and sealed. I look in the mirror.
It’s me and it’s also not me.
The mask starts to squeeze and I can’t breathe.
“What is happening?!” I scream but it seems like a whisper. With the mask on, nobody is listening. Nobody is seeing.
“You wanted protection, did you not! You wanted to be safe! Well this is IT. No more pain, no more emotion. NONE OF IT!” she shrieks.
I pull and tear, my fingers burn as I try to tear it off.
“NO!! NO!! Get it off!” I scream and I scream.
I look in the mirror. My friend is gone. I am alone. I yield.
Years pass. The mask feels familiar. It fits perfectly yet it does not fit.
I am seventeen, I am eighteen, I am nineteen.
I begin to pull again but it still burns. Tiny flakes begin to come off.
“What are you doing?” she hisses.
“I’ve forgotten what I look like. I want to see.”
“It’ll only bring you pain. I’m trying to help you,” she warns.
“I am trying to help me, too” I reply.
I am twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two.
More pieces of the mask are chipped away. There are scars. There is searing pain. But there is also me.
I am twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty five.
Half of the mask is gone showing the pain, the fear, the hurt. Revealing the battle faced alone.
“You’re a fool,” she says.
I am twenty-six, twenty-seven, now twenty-eight.
Staring at myself in the mirror I see my twenty-eight year old reflection. I smile. Parts of the mask are still there. My skin is raw from peeling and tearing it away as I tried to build a new mask again in the past years.
The battle has not been friendly & the whispers I trusted, that were never mine, still echo in my mind.
But I am alone.
She is not here because she is not invited.
The unmaking of my mask is a task I have to make alone and she is not welcomed here.
Nine year old me and my best friend.