by Patrick A. Means
Lay down the mask and give up trying to look perfect.
It’s like a bald man with a bad toupe’; you’re not fooling anyone anyway.
“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Mark Twain
I could feel my heart thudding as I mounted the platform to the applause of the staff crowding the auditorium. I had just been introduced as the new national director of the Christian youth ministry I’d served in since college. I was thirty years old; I had a book out that was doing well; I’d traveled and spoken a lot, and now–this position. It was possibly the happiest moment in my life. And I remember the feeling lasting about three hours. For me, success has always been a drug with a very short half-life.
I’d grown up feeling like the quintessential outsider, an insecure kid from the boon docks, desperate to find someplace to belong. It became my goal to earn my way into insider status by working very hard and performing perfectly. So I plowed through high school with decent grades and a lot of activities and was rewarded with the “Most Likely To Succeed” award and a scholarship to a good college. After college, I married a young woman I’d met as a summer intern in a church, and we both joined the staff of a large nondenominational youth ministry. I loved working with young people, and my work was gratifying in many ways. But there was a restless drivenness that seemed to swallow up any moments of satisfaction I experienced. I ignored the warning flags along the way: the bouts of anger or depression that inevitably followed a failure to get a coveted promotion, or a public mistake, however small.
I was traveling about fifty percent of the time, with long hours at the office when I was in town, and not enough time with my family. I never felt like I was doing enough. It never occurred to me that there was just the tiniest chance that I might be a workaholic. After all, I was doing all this for God.
Then, on one of my trips, my flight was oversold and I was bumped up to first class. Right after we’d taken off, the flight attendants came around and offered everyone free booze. I’d been offered booze in coach class hundreds of times, of course, and had always turned it down, both because of my father’s alcoholic history, and because the organization I worked for had a no-drinking policy. But somehow the fact that this booze was free made all those little bottles glitter just a little more brightly. “This will just be an experiment,” I told myself, and chose a little Smirnov. Right away, I liked the way it warmed me and took the edge off my tension. This started a high-altitude drinking ritual I followed on every flight from then on, or at least every flight where I didn’t recognize anyone. I remember the first time I drank enough to send me floating into that hazy, disembodied space where all the issues of life suddenly seemed so simple, and I marveled to myself, “So this is what it’s like to feel no fear.”
So now I had secrets about what I did to add to the secret about who I was–a scared kid who’d never figured out how to be comfortable in his own skin. As the distance between my inside and my outside grew wider, my mask began to slip more and more frequently. One day at a conference for college students, I was going through the lunch line with a student after having just given a talk onstage that had the audience laughing and applauding. The student kept trying to engage me in conversation, but my pain and depression had already crowded back in and I had begun to shut down emotionally. After a few minutes, the student looked at me with a hint of irritation and said, “Boy, you’re sure a different person down here than you were up there.”
I felt most comfortable when I was speaking to an audience. I had always felt most at home in the world of words, spoken and written. They were the tools I used to create the persona I projected to the public. That persona was confident, competent, visionary–someone who knows who he is and where he’s going. The truth, of course, was that I hadn’t a clue, and wouldn’t have for a long time.
One of the main problems with masks is that eventually they only fool the people who don’t know you. My wife certainly wasn’t fooled; she had a ringside seat to my Jekyll and Hyde circus routine. And later, when I was in the dying throes of a four-year affair with my best friend’s wife, my staff team wasn’t sure what the mask was covering up, but they knew something smelled bad. They watched in dismay as I retreated into petulant isolation, abdicating virtually all of my leadership responsibilities. They were on the verge of organized mutiny when, a month later, the affair was discovered and I was fired.
Wearing a mask is all about projecting an image and seeking approval and fitting in. I still struggle with the need to fit in. Ten years ago, I hit bottom alcoholically and began attending a variety of community-based sober support groups. After the first few meetings, I realized to my dismay that I stood out like a poster child for Republican family values. So I made a trip to a second-hand store and bought a few tired-looking sweatshirts and jeans so that I could fit in better. Of course, I eventually found out the people in the meetings couldn’t care less whether I showed up in boxer shorts or a tuxedo. But I felt naked without a costume, without a defined image. I think I was afraid that if I looked underneath the set of clothes, I’d find out there was nobody there, like one of those Disney cartoons where a ballroom full of suits and gowns swirl around without benefit of bodies.
I believe that most of us wear a succession of masks throughout our lives, shedding one when we reach a certain level of awareness, only to discover that there is another one underneath, like those Russian dolls that you keep opening, each time finding another one hidden inside.
A tool called the Johari Window has helped my understanding of the role of masks in my life. This is a diagram used by many corporations in team-building workshops. It visually captures four areas of a person’s life: Open, Blind, Hidden, and Unknown.
The Open part of my life is my public self. This part contains information about me that you know and that I know. These are the facts about me I’ve been willing to share. If I’m wearing a mask or projecting an image, this is where that image shows up. The Blind part of my life contains facts or insights about me that you see, but I don’t see. (This is sometimes called the “bad breath” area.) For instance, you may see my character defect of grandiosity, but I may still be in denial about it. The Hidden part of my life contains information about me that I know, but you don’t know. In some relationships, for example with people I don’t know well, I may have a very large Hidden area, whereas with my inner circle of recovery friends, this area may be very small or even nonexistent. The fourth part of my life is the Unknown part. This is information about me that is unknown to me and to you. This part is often called the unconscious. Throughout our lives, these four areas are in a constant state of growing or shrinking, depending on how secure we are to share honestly about ourselves, how many secrets we carry, and how much feedback we allow others to give us about our blind spots.
Every time I take off another mask in my recovery journey, I slowly shrink my Hidden part by disclosing the truth about me to others. Recovery is also helping me reduce the size of my Blind area as I invite friends, therapists and others to give me honest feedback. The Unknown part of me is shrinking as I become more aware of what’s going on inside me emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. As I take these small steps, the Open part of my life has gradually become larger. Writing this book, in fact, has been a deliberate step toward reducing the size of my Hidden area and increasing the size of my Open area.
But the process has moved at glacial speed. One particular week two years ago when my marriage was collapsing, and my wife was pressing me to take a lie detector test, and I was afraid of losing my job, I rushed to my therapist and breathlessly spilled out my tale of woe.
“This is great, Pat,” my therapist exclaimed. “It’s the first time in a year of working with you that I’ve seen you express any sense of neediness. Every week, you come in here smiling, looking like you’ve got it all together. Now, maybe we can make some progress.”
Yup, I was even trying to look perfect in therapy, paying the guy good money so I could impress him with how well I was handling life. I’m not sure what the term is for that particular form of insanity, but I do know that I qualify.
Take God with you into every situation.
Rely on your conscious contact with him to give you
serenity in the midst of circumstances you cannot control.
“There are just two things you need to know about God:
1. He exists. 2. You aren’t him.”
Sign in A.A. meeting room
The January gusts swept off the ocean, driving the dry sand over the wet sand in shifting, swirling patterns like smoke. It was mesmerizing as I trudged up the deserted beach. I had come to this Oregon coastal town for a week to think and to try to get some sense of direction from God about what to do with the mess in my life.
My marriage was crumbling, and I had put my job directing a faith-based recovery agency at risk because of looking at pornography several times while working there. On top of everything else, my wife thought I was having an affair, and was demanding I take a lie detector test as a condition for staying in the marriage. I wasn’t having an affair, but I was afraid the lie detector test would reveal my little secrets. Good gosh, how did my life turn into a daytime soap? Again.
But as the week unfolded, I didn’t care much for the direction God was giving me: Do the hard thing, he seemed to say, Come clean and I’ll walk with you through it. Because that was not the advice I wanted to hear, I’d spent the last couple of days pacing up and down this stretch of beach trying to bargain with God. The deal I was hoping he’d sign off on was that he’d let me go ahead with my life as is, comfortable and undisturbed, and in exchange I’d be stunningly honest from now on and work the most rigorous recovery program since Bill Wilson first visited Akron, Ohio. But God kept saying, Do the hard thing and I’ll walk with you through it. That response captures for me one of the most disconcerting paradoxes about God, as I understand God. He can be as comforting as a nursing mother, but is never willing to let me be comfortable for very long. Or as the saying goes, God loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way. That set of seemingly contradictory characteristics is one evidence for me that I’m not making God up. The God I would invent (and frequently have) would be like the doting grandpa who always gives me five pounds of chocolate even though he knows my mother wouldn’t approve. Or perhaps more accurately, a grandpa who would give me the chocolate even though he knows I’m a diabetic and might die of insulin shock. This God would always be accommodating and tolerant of whatever I do–kind of a sugar-daddy deity.
So that’s when the trust issue comes up. How can I trust a God who may ask me to do something difficult? I’d find it easier to trust a sugar- daddy deity because then I’m in control! I can’t play the puppeteer with this other God who loves me too much to let me continue to live an incongruent life.
I didn’t make any headway with God that week, and after I returned home I continued to try to bluff my way out of the lie detector test. But my wife wasn’t budging. So I went to my most trusted friend. I had not told him about the pornography either, so I was still posturing. I said, “My wife’s still pushing this crazy idea about a lie detector test. What do you think I should do?” He said, “Why don’t you ask God what he wants you to do?”
So I went home and I asked God. I think the only reason I was willing to do it was because I was hoping God would be worried about his reputation getting tarnished, me being one of his children and all, and he’d say “No, Pat, you don’t have to tell anybody. It’s better if you just leave it between you and me.” As if I’d really thought that one through. But, no, he said, “Tell your friend the truth.”
So I went back to my friend and said, “God told me to tell you the truth.” And I told him about the pornography. I expected some expression of disgust, or that he’d tell me it would be better if we weren’t friends anymore, but instead he said, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I want you to know I don’t think any less of you now than I did five minutes ago.” And he came over and gave me a bear hug. And then encouraged me to do the hard thing. You’d think he and God were in cahoots.
A few days later I disclosed the policy violations to the Board of our agency and to my wife and resigned my position. Over the next week I dropped in on several of the recovery groups in our program and told them about my resignation and the reasons behind it. Then I took and passed the lie detector test.
My marriage staggered through another 15 months and four therapists and collapsed from the accumulated wounds.
One day, a few months after I had resigned, I was listening to a meditation recording, one of those that describes a scene, asks you to place yourself in the scene, and then see where your mind takes you. It helps me relax and get in touch with what’s going on inside me. The narrator suggested I picture myself in a small boat crossing a river. There’s someone standing on the other shore, and I’m asked to identify who it is. So in my mind, I’m bobbing along in this boat, moving toward the other side. As I got closer I see that the person on the other shore is Jesus. I want to clarify that although Jesus is my higher power, he is not the Jesus of the fundamentalists. That guy’s scary. He prompted those bumper stickers that say “Jesus is coming back. Look busy.” The Jesus I’m talking about is the one who told the parable of the prodigal son, the kid who took half his dad’s retirement nest egg and had a three-year binge with drugs, alcohol and wild women, and then staggered back home to face the music, only to find that his dad had been sitting in his SUV at the gateway to the ranch, watching for him every day for those three years, and that not only did his dad not rebuke him, he wouldn’t even let the kid say his little memorized apology, but instead drove him back to the ranch house, horn blaring, called everyone in from the fields and threw him one hell of a party. That Jesus. So in my meditation, he’s now waving from the shore. When my boat crunches up on the gravel beach, he comes over and gives me this monster hug just like the one my sponsor gave me when I told him the truth. He puts his arm around my shoulder and we walk up the beach together, and he says, “Everything’s going to be alright, Pat. I’m on your side, always have been, and we’ll walk through this together.”
It’s been almost three years since I tried to bargain with God on the Oregon beach, and he’s been there for me. One day at a time. I get up every morning and have a meditation and prayer time over breakfast. I tell God my fears du jour and then try to listen to what he has to say about them. I’m reenrolled in graduate school to finish the degree I started 15 years ago, which is both exhilarating and terrifying. The critical chorus in my head thinks that is the craziest idea they’ve ever heard. They remind me that one-third of my brain cells died during my alcoholic career, one-third have died of old age, and the other third are all in the assisted living wing somewhere in my frontal lobe. I guarantee you, these jokers will never make it onto the inspirational speakers’ circuit. So that’s one of the fears on the list. Or I may tell God that even after all this education, I’m pretty sure I’ll end up being one of those guys who pushes the 80-foot-long stack of shopping carts through the K-Mart parking lot. At that point, I picture him looking back at me with a hint of a smile, and asking me if I’m all done whining, because he’s got plans and we need to put the pedal to the metal.
Hey, how can you not trust a God like that?
Excerpted with permission from The Boundaries Book: Twenty Uncommon Tips for Reducing Conflict, Developing Healthier Relationships and Enjoying Life More by Patrick A. Means (Crossroad, 2005), ISBN: 0-8245-2318-0