The roles we play in our lives force us to become many things at various times that aren’t necessarily representations of our true selves. We carry different masks needed to cope with pain, loss, and stressors of everyday life. Recently, Kevin and I took a trip to Italy that he planned for my birthday and to my surprise this experience offered me much more than a romantic ride down the beautiful waters of the grand canal in an ancient gondola with the man I so gratefully enjoy my life with. It allowed me the opportunity to accept that I’m not ok right now and it’s perfectly acceptable to not be. I’m sad, I’m mourning, and I needed this experience of this trip to accept these feelings.
I was 16 when my father was first diagnosed mentally ill. I can still remember my mother calmly driving me to a friend’s house for the night. She appeared strong and selfless, two qualities I’ve always admired in her. As I packed my bag, I knew things were terribly wrong; however, I placed my strong mask on my face and remained “happy” for my mom, which I now realize more was for myself. Years of unstable medication, sweeping manic episodes under the rug, denial to friends and family, and pretending all was fixed went on and somehow, I managed to hide from all the pain. I chose to focus on the memories of the man who exemplified hard work and persistence. A father who quietly listened to my frustrations all the while fighting a battle no one knew of. I dreamt of the days when the only problem we could imagine was what to eat during that nights Braves game, or if they’d ever win a division title again. For many years these memories helped shape a rather tough exterior. However, within the past few months I could feel the walls beginning to break. Without going into great detail, I have somehow taken on a role of caregiver as opposed to daughter. I’ve made countless efforts to obtain help for my father, advocate for his wellbeing, and each time I fail. And when I feel even a hint of discouragement, I place my ever so dependable preoccupied mask on my face and go about my daily routine. I find ways to keep busy, whether it be with school, the gym, or our business, not allowing myself to feel the pain of losing someone. I go about my day in an "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" way to not feel sadness because that is what I’ve learned is the right thing to do. As a daughter, a wife, and a teacher I have chosen to care for others. I’ve made it my career to put on a happy face and engage children daily. Who has time to be sad, when your sole purpose is to help others find joy?! This trip allowed me the time to think of my own feelings as important, which I highly suggest we all do occasionally.
As soon as we arrived in Venice, a city that I dreamed of visiting my entire life Kevin asked me if I was going to buy a mask. Embarrassed to admit that I did not know of the Venetian obsession with masks, I chuckled and said I’m sure we will look at plenty of souvenirs. Throughout our time in Italy we laughed, we ate, we spoke without distractions, but most importantly we lived in the moment. I stopped to smell flowers, quite literally stopped and smelled gardenias because the streets were lined with them and the scent reminded me of childhood happiness. I sat in the middle of a square filled with thousands of people to close my eyes and listen as a guitarist played, "If I Saw You In Heaven." I looked at my husband with awe and happiness at the life we’ve created. Finally, I allowed myself to feel sad and then immediately angry. I’m not ok with the idea that my father isn’t the man I once knew. I’m angry that my friend, so full of life and love, is gone. But while lying on a dock, in a foreign country thinking of all the ways I was feeling, a sense of peace overtook my body. Taking the time to feel something opened my heart to finding ways to cope with these feelings. Experiencing life and enjoying the moments as they come are important. Allowing yourself to be you and live comfortably within that skin is crucial.
It may seem silly that it took a vacation to provide me with the tools necessary to discuss this. I would also like to apologize to those of you who thought they may have opened up a tour guide on what to see and do in Italy (you can check out our picture here!), but if there’s one take away from my experience I can share is to simply keep living your life while embracing who you are and how you feel. This trip gave me the opportunity to do so. As we walked down the eerily quiet streets the morning we left, I peered into one of the many gift shops at all the beautifully crafted masks and smiled. I no longer needed to cover up the feelings I have and I had Venice to thank for that.