I confess. I do it. Maybe you do it too. Before leaving the house, or even picking up the telephone, I take a deep (ish) breath and slap on a big smile.
My reasons for doing this are many and varied. I don't want people to feel intimidated or uncomfortable by seeing that I'm having a bad day. Or even just what I consider to be a normal day. People have enough problems of their own without worrying about mine, I tell myself.
Wearing the 'big smile mask' does have its benefits. No-one wants to live inside a perpetual pity party, and sometimes you do have to fake it to make it. Far from being hurt or offended when people tell me that I don't look sick, my mask awards itself bonus points. I'm saddened when people offer me a seat on the bus; sometimes I tell myself that I must look radiantly pregnant, rather than pale, dizzy and nauseous.
I try to forget about the face behind my smiling, kind, generous and bubbly mask. The face that sometimes just wants visitors to go away so that it can be freed from the stifling burden of the mask, but that resents the loneliness and boredom of being mostly housebound and alone. The face that is pale from anaemia (and from lack of sunshine, and from the autonomic dysfunction that thinks blood is better stored in my feet than my head); the eyes that are ringed with the darkness of too many broken and sleepless nights; the mouth that is twisted with pain. This face cries out for people to care, and for them to offer the help that the mask so proudly refuses
This face is part of my reality.
But maybe the mask is also a part of my reality.
The mask allows me to step outside myself. It allows me to feel that the smiles directed at me are friendly rather than pitying, and that offers of help are chivalrous rather than dutiful. It allows me to focus on being the me that is buried beneath the hefty weight of chronic illness.
Maybe, in fact, the mask is simply a copy of the 'real me' that has become trapped under another mask - the mask of chronic illness and disability. Displaying this mask, though an inadequate, pale imitation of what I might be without the illness, allows me to be me.
And with that, I take another (not very) deep breath, slap on some bright lipstick, and take my mask out into the real world with me.