Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Living behind a mask (Is it being one’s self?)

Lawrence Climo
Lincoln, Massachusetts, United States

In my retirement in Lincoln, I have found myself looking back at life. Those memories brought me smiles, but that is not what I want to share now. It is the memories that did not bring smiles. It is the memories of embarrassment and remorse after regretful behavior. And because I could not make those memories disappear, I took to looking at them more closely.

What I hoped to find was not a reassuring excuse for what I did or did not do, but rather my reason for that behavior. Putting myself in child’s shoes, I recognized that it was a feeling, not a thought, that prompted such behaviors. I realized they were not simply expressions of who I was back then, either. They were expressions of who I thought I was, and who I wanted to be, or who I was trying to be. Those moments were, you might say, test trials. And what I learned was that instead of blocking out memories that invited embarrassment and remorse, I needed to look again more closely. My take-away was this. Those memories I wished to forget had a meaningful and reasonable reason. It was a reason I felt and then blocked out and forgot, rather than face it and mentally review it. I was, you might say, still young here and momentarily not appreciating that life is an ongoing, always growing, shapeshifting, testing, trying, and becoming experience.

Brian Andreas, the American writer and artist, gently plays with this developmental reality in a character who says: “I’ve always liked the time before dawn because there’s no one around to remind me who I’m supposed to be, so it’s easier to remember who I am.” Oscar Wilde once playfully remarked that: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” And, of course, there was that statement anchored in psychology and applied by David Books in his New York Times Opinion on February 9, 2024: “If you wear a mask long enough, eventually the mask becomes who you are.” But it was really the story told to me by a colleague that nailed this decision and answered that question. Writing personally about the severe and upsetting ups and downs of a foreign student he took in when she unexpectedly became seriously ill and who recovered, but those ups and downs that impacted his family, this colleague could only write a total truth using a pseudonym. When I’d read what he had written I now fully understood that being one’s Self “behind a mask” is sometimes being one’s Self.

LAWRENCE H. CLIMO, M.D., is a Vietnam vet, board-certified psychiatrist, and writer. He has practiced psychotherapy and psychopharmacology in inpatient and outpatient settings and been a teacher, administrator, and forensic consultant. His articles have appeared in professional, academic, and popular journals and magazines, and he is the author of three books, The Patient Was Vietcong: An American Doctor in the Vietnamese Health Service, 1966-1967; Psychiatrist on the Road: Encounters in Healing and Healthcare; and Caregiving: Lives Derailed (under the pseudonym Eli Cannon). He is retired and writes occasional op-eds for Psychiatric Times.

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