The Mask of Conformity; An Illusion of Safety

“You’re a bookworm!  Bookworm!” Tiffany used to make fun of me for sitting for hours reading all the time.  That was ironic, because until I took up reading, Tiffany was the one always with her nose in a book.  I was slow to learn to read. Looking back, I wonder if I had some kind of learning disability in addition to my ADHD.  I remember having a D in my fourth grade reading class. I was devastated because I had never had a D before. Tiffany was an excellent student in grade school, and I just wasn’t.  I always felt all wrong and Tiffany encouraged that opinion. Once I finished my first chapter book, A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett, I started reading everything, all the time. I embraced the book worm persona. My grades went up too.

By the end of eighth grade, my social life had proven disappointing.  I was cynical about boys, none of whom seemed interested in me. I was cynical about girlfriends too.  Sensitive and idealistic, I isolated myself socially and immersed myself in a world of academics and historical fiction where book characters and historical figures became my friends.  Looking back, I can see that my lack of genuine social connection in my early adolescence has had a long term impact on my ability to socialize. That has been a blessing and a curse.

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My first apartment in college, I had the misfortune to share a bedroom with a cruel girl.  Looking back, I think she probably had a personality disorder. The conflicts I had with her created huge amounts of stress for me. I started having symptoms of severe anxiety.  I couldn’t sleep. I would wake up in the middle of the night, begin getting ready for class, and then go back to bed only to wake a couple of hours later. I went to the doctor because I was certain there was something wrong with my lungs.  After a full exam, the doctor told me and my mom that there was nothing physiologically wrong with me, but that I probably had anxiety. I was in denial. I was still certain there was something wrong with my lungs. I couldn’t catch my breath.  I started going to counseling at the student counselling center.

In trying to deal with my anxiety, I would talk to myself when I thought no one could see or hear.  Talking to myself served a similar soothing function for my anxiety that writing does now. It also helped with my ADHD.  With the help of my counselor, I finished out my first semester with great success. I had an A- in my college algebra class and all As in the others.  I performed in the Messiah concert with the Concert Chorale. My confidence was soaring when I went to my counselor for a routine session the first day of finals week.  My counselor told me that my roommates had called her. They wanted me to move out. My world felt like it had caved in on me.

Their primary concern with me was the conflicts I had with my roommate which they blamed “both sides”, although I had done everything possible to deal appropriately with the conflicts this roommate purposefully created with the coaching of my counselor whose advice I followed religiously.  They were also very disturbed by my habit of talking to myself which they took as a sign of my mental deterioration. They were concerned about me and thought it would be better for everyone if I moved out.  They were doing the right thing. They were concerned about me.

My counselor agreed that staying another semester with this group of girls, and my abusive roommate specifically would not be good for my mental health.  I was trying to absorb the emotions of rejection and the reality of what had happened when she looked at me and said, “Do you talk to yourself?” I felt a wash of shame.  “Yes, I do,” I confessed. “That is strange behavior……” she said. I can’t remember anything else. I cried hysterically for a while and then left the office. I never went back to counseling again.  I saw what happened to people who admitted that they had psychological problems and tried to get help. I convinced myself that there was nothing wrong with me and there never was.

I moved out of my apartment and back in with my parents.  One of my roommates, who was also my relief society president, had initiated the contact with my counselor.  She seemed a little distressed as I tearfully packed my things. I overheard her say, “People just need to get along.”  I rushed to forgive my roommates for what they did to me. I tried to stay in my student ward for the second semester, but it was too weird and awkward.  People who used to my friends wouldn’t speak to me. The boy I liked and thought I would marry despised me.

It’s taken a long time for me to accept the reality of my habit of talking to myself.  For a long time I would deny it altogether. When I was at Utah State, one of my roommates caught me talking to myself.  She confronted me about it and I vehemently denied it and accused her of making it all up. Before that incident we had been friends.  Afterward we weren’t close. At least she knew that I was not crazy and SHE was the one making stuff up.

When I finally told my counselor in Carrolton years later about talking to myself, he didn’t seem to think I was crazy.  He told me that talking to yourself isn’t a sign of mental illness in most cases. He helped me process through my feelings about my experience in college and get to where it doesn’t hurt so bad.

Now when I am giving myself a firey speech in the bathroom, and one of my kids walks in, I just glance at them with a sheepish grin and ask what they need.  I’ve accepted the reality that it is one of my little quirks. It’s part of who I am and its a little weird. Just like having a mental health blog is a little weird.  Just like going to counseling every week is a little weird. Maybe all of those things together makes me more than a little weird. That’s okay. Being normal is overrated anyway.

Still, whenever I have an issue come up with my relief society president, all of the old feelings I have come back to the surface.  That first semester of college, just eighteen years old, I feel like I can never trust anyone in my church leadership again; that I will always be unwelcome among the “normal” women of the church.  Women who don’t go to counselors and don’t talk to themselves and don’t have the misfortune of being abused by cruel people fate happens to put in their lives. People who have the luxury of being just like everybody else, or appearing to, have safety in numbers.  Those of us who have been bent around by life don’t fit as well. We stand out even when we try to fit in.

In accepting myself and my flaws, I think of Mater in the sequel to Cars.  He refuses to allow anyone to fix his dents because he sees them as souvenirs of a sort.  The person that I am is unique and created by God. What mortals see with their limited vision as flaws are part of His divine design.  Who am I to criticize His creation? Why do I feel the need to hide myself from the world behind a mask of conformity? What would happen if I just allowed myself to exist without judgement and shame?

My counselor used to ask me over and over, “What would happen if you gave yourself a break?”  I would worry and explain and make excuses and circle around to do it again and he would ask over and over, “What would happen if you just gave yourself a break?”  I don’t know that I know the answer to that yet. What would happen? Would I become a drunk? A candy crush addict? Would I max out my credit cards? Would I go to jail?………Or would I find out who I really am beneath the expectations and demands of others?  Would I be able to make meaningful connections with others who feel like they don’t fit? Would I be able to help inspire others to be a little quirky in their own space? Give themselves a break?

I dare to be me.  I dare to speak out.  I dare to have faith that I am wonderfully and fearfully made.  I dare to allow myself to exist in my broken; to make others uncomfortable with my non-conformity.  I dare to be that house in the suburban neighborhood that defies the HOA with a coat of green paint.  I dare to trust in the Savior to shape me, not the society of people around me. Living under an umbrella of shame hasn’t protected me.  It has only stifled me and served my enemies. It’s time to put fear aside and live in the sunshine.  


By Jenny Joseph

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

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