The Mask and the Face

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“Isabella in Black”, Titian, 1536 / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In portraiture there is a convention called the mask. The mask replaces the sitter’s “real” face with something that, while it may visually resemble the sitter, is an idealized and/or relatively generic depiction.

A rather extreme example of the mask would be Titian’s 1536 portrait of his patron Isabella d’Este, in which, despite her being at least 60 years old, she is depicted as looking very much like an idealized, youthful, beautiful woman in her late teens to early 20s. This portrait Titians second attempt, painted in response to her negative reaction to Titian’s more veristic initial portrait of her.

Many of us with mental illness know how to put on that kind of mask. I know how to act “normal”, despite racing thoughts, anxiety, paranoia, suicidal ideation, and the kind of hellish energy radiating from somewhere deep inside me that I can only describe as my soul burning. I can act “normal” while depressed. I can act “normal” while manic. I can act “normal” almost every day. But this act is just an act. And I will break character. I can’t keep it up forever.

This act of wearing the mask is exhausting. It is all-encompassing. It is like putting up a wall inside your brain that holds back all bipolar symptoms. But the force behind that wall is greater than the wall itself. It will break. It is only a matter of time. And that break is damned near unbearable.

When the wall comes down, and it always comes down, I lose control. It is as if I become a spectator, observing myself, my behavior, my decisions, aware of everything that is happening but powerless to do anything about it. The energy spent building that wall, wearing that mask, depletes all of my emotional reserves. I have nothing left but a kind of adrenal, instinctual, animalistic response. Whatever is left when the wall comes down, when the mask comes off, whatever that it is it is not “me”; or at least it is not the me that I would ever want to be.

There is a practice called mindfulness, which is kind of a fad at this point but is also an effective coping mechanism. Rather than spend all of your energy fighting back the sea of racing thoughts and emotions and “acting” normal, mindfulness dictates that you observe those things, be aware of them, honor them, don’t judge them, just be aware and view them dispassionately. This can help you process emotions and events better, and will lead to less of the kinds of episodes that come when emotional reserves are completely depleted from “faking it”.

I can’t say that I am any good at mindfulness. I am working at it. It is one thing to be aware. It is another thing to be dispassionate. And the mask, the wall, has been my coping mechanism since long before my diagnosis. It is not an easy habit to break.

It is time, however, to show my face, even if it is weathered and wrinkled. It is time for me to put away the mask. It is ill fitting, exhausting and just as ridiculous as the one that Titian painted for Isabella d’Este.


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