It is such a pleasure to welcome Vicki Cottingham to my guest blog series Unmasked: stories of authenticity today. With courage and vulnerability she shares how difficult it was to remove her mask due to ill health and misunderstandings.
I am very familiar with mask wearing. I became ill with M.E. (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) over twenty years ago. I also suffer with chronic migraines and depression. In the beginning it was particularly hard to adjust to. Whenever I prepared to meet with anyone I would make sure that my mask was firmly in place.
People in my life, such as family, friends and church, knew I was living with this long-term illness, but I didn’t like to talk about it. If anyone asked how I was, rather than be honest with them and tell them ‘I’m really struggling, I’m depressed and my poor health is getting to me’, I would tell them that I was fine thank you and then quickly change the subject. I would paste a smile on my face while inside I was an emotional mess.
I was afraid of being judged, afraid that people would think I was just being lazy, or a hypochondriac, or making a fuss about nothing, because everyone gets tired, and everyone has aches and pains, don’t they?
I was afraid of people’s misunderstanding, because being misunderstood just felt so painful. For me, being misunderstood was actually one of the hardest things to cope with when struggling with an unseen illness. Before my diagnosis, I remember my GP telling me all I needed was to get out in the fresh air, and go for a walk on the Downs. As if that would be the solution to whatever was ailing me.
When asked how I was, there were some people who weren’t really prepared for an honest answer. They were just going through the formalities of asking how I was. After all, that’s what we do, don’t we? We politely ask someone how they are today and expect the response to be ‘Fine, thank you’. The truth was, I was far from fine, but didn’t feel able to share what my life was really like. I couldn’t face dealing with people’s misunderstanding of me and my illness.
People would say to me how well I looked and then ask me how I was. I didn’t then feel able to say that actually I felt really ill that day, that it had been hard to get to church that morning and that I would need to rest for the remainder of the day as a result. Because I was so hurt by misunderstanding I resolved to keep my mask on to avoid being hurt any more. I thought it was better to keep the truth to myself, and so I hid behind the mask that I had perfected.
Now that I can see things more clearly, I realise that it wasn’t others’ fault that they didn’t understand what M.E. was and how it affected me, because at that time very little was known or understood of the illness. I also know that none of these people intentionally set out to cause me pain. I was overly sensitive as a result of the illness and was also struggling to come to terms with it myself.
Impossible to maintain the mask
I feared being vulnerable and letting people see the real me. What if I broke down and cried in front of them? What would they think of me? I felt I had to pretend I had it all together. It was all pretence and the mask was my protection.
I found that wearing this mask for any length of time was hard work. It took a lot of energy. Energy I didn’t really have and so I felt drained by trying so hard to keep it from slipping. It was impossible to maintain and was certainly not a healthy way for me to live.
In my season of mask wearing, while I was distant with others, my relationship with God grew stronger and deeper. Over time he enabled me to remove my mask.
What helped me to take off my mask
There were two things in particular that helped me to remove my mask and be real. First, was my relationship with God. When it feels like everything has been taken away from you, all you are left with is God, and God came to mean everything to me. He reassured me of His unconditional love for me time and time again and, because He loves and accepts me I have no fear of His rejection, His displeasure or His judgement. It says in 1 John 4:10–18 (NLT):
This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins… We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect… Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear.
God created me deliberately and so He knows and understands the real me. I can be completely honest with Him; I don’t need to hide who I am, how I’m really feeling or pretend that I have no problems or struggles. As Psalm 139:1–4 (NLT) says:
O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.
It is very freeing and liberating when we realise that with God there really is no need to pretend to be something we are not, that we can be who we really are: ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ John 8:32 (NLT).
The other thing that helped me was having real, intimate friendships with others. I said how some people just didn’t understand what I was going through. But there were others who stood by me and offered me friendship, even when they didn’t fully understand. They have given me practical help, have listened to me as I’ve explained how I’m really feeling and the struggles I’m having, and they have prayed for and with me. They have shown me that they really care about me. They have given me love and acceptance. I found that there was no need for me to wear a mask when I was with them. I was able to be real and honest with them.
Over the years I have learnt the value of these friendships and God has blessed me with some great friends. These genuine, intimate friendships take time to develop – they don’t happen overnight, but they are definitely worth investing in.
In these friendships we: ‘Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honouring each other’ Romans 12:10 (NLT). These friendships mirror the relationship we have with God. In John 15:12 (NLT) Jesus says, ‘This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you’.
Giving permission to others
I have found that when I am real with others it also gives them the freedom to be real with me. It’s something we all need – to be free to be who God created us to be. In this kind of environment, we feel safe to be ourselves, rather than pretend to be something that we are not. We can share our struggles, our fears, our sins, our problems etc., and know that we are loved and accepted. It’s in this kind of environment that we can all have the confidence and security to remove our masks and be real with each other.
Vicki Cottingham lives in the South East of England with her husband and two teenage children. She has a love for God’s Word, studying it and sharing it with others through the written and spoken word. Her joy of writing led her to writing a regular devotional blog called Hope for Today.