Not long ago, if someone asked about a mask, we likely conjured up images of grotesque monster Halloween costumes or glitter-dusted New Year’s Eve party attire.
Now, masks automatically connect to COVID-19 protective gear. Considered as essential as clean underwear, creative folks have transformed facial coverings into personality statements, featuring everything from darling puppy snouts and colorful kente cloth to American flags and mouth-sized billboards for favorite causes.
But there’s another facet to masks and that’s the one often worn by people affected by addiction. In this context, it is a façade that we hide behind to disguise, diminish and even delude other people—including ourselves. This mask gives us permission to avoid confronting the truth about our own, or someone else’s, brain disorder and the consequences of our continued use.
Denial keeps us stuck, whether it’s a parent refusing to admit that her child has an addiction or an adult who just can’t admit that he can’t get through the day without alcohol. We can’t fix a problem that we won’t recognize as real. Perhaps the blessing that can flow from a crisis moment is that denial is stripped away and the truth cannot be ignored. As I’ve heard countless times from people in recovery, “I just couldn’t hide and lie anymore.”
Before we tirade against the tyranny of denial however, let’s also examine its values and virtues. For example, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, famous for her book On Death and Dying, wrote that denial was a natural phase in the grief process. She described five stages of grief that start with denial and then proceed, although not always in a consistent straight line, through anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
This view says denial is not only normal, but helpful. If the loss, fear, loneliness and sadness came rushing in all at once, the feelings would be so overwhelming that the person simply could not function. Denial acts as an emotional traffic barrier, slowing down and compartmentalizing crippling feelings.
Neuroscientists and technology are even demonstrating that denial can be a powerful tool to promote health and wellbeing. For example, Virtual Reality (VR) has emerged as a proven pain management tool, helping patients cope with incredible physical trauma, such as from third-degree burns. VR can act like an analgesic and significantly improve patient comfort, at least in the short term. While more research is needed to assess long-term pain reduction efficacy, VR’s denial mask actually improves life because the brain decides the pain is less and tells the body accordingly.
Perhaps the masks we wear, whether denial or acceptance, mimic the old symbols often found over theater stages: the comedic (Thalia) and tragic (Melpomene) faces that date back to early Greek theater, where actors wore the masks to telegraph their emotional state to audiences.
Denial may be a mask with eyes wide shut. It can be a positive coping tool in the short term and it can keep us stuck in addiction if we persistently refuse to acknowledge what stares us in the face. As we go through this challenging year, perhaps we have a unique opportunity to ask ourselves what mask we’re wearing—and what lies beneath.