The Trip I Didn’t Take

by Nancy King

Over the years I have traveled both here and abroad to teach, hike, visit friends, explore native crafts, attend conferences, and wander, with no destination or agenda. I have been kidnapped in Spain, abandoned in Japan, lost in Thailand, confronted by fleeing refugees in Hungary, frozen in Denmark, and awed by the kindness and caring of people with whom I had no common language. In my travels I have dealt with strikes, thunderstorms, ice, and tornados. Yet the trip I didn’t take, which involved no outer danger, no worries about the elements or travel arrangements or passports, turned out to be the most difficult trip of all—an inner voyage, to a place inside myself, a journey I had avoided for most of my life. 

It began with an invitation, to make a trip to see his newborn daughter. The parents told me I needed to have a pertussis shot, something both my Eastern and Western medical personnel advised against, given that I have a chronic form of leukemia and am not in remission. He told me that if I couldn’t have the shot, I would need to wear a mask and gloves if I wanted to hold the baby. In emails and in phone conversations I agreed to do this, as well as anything else needed to protect the child’s health.

The day before my scheduled flight, he abruptly cancelled the visit, leaving messages on one friend’s voice mail and another friend’s email that I needed to be taught how to behave. He accused me of refusing to wear gloves and a mask when I held the baby, which was patently untrue. But, because of his rage, I spiraled down into a place of darkness and despair, out of touch, out of reach, and unable to pretend that this was just another bad moment in my difficult relationship with him. He could not hear me. He could not listen to what I had to say. He insisted that I refused to wear the gloves and mask.

Who wouldn’t agree to wear a mask? Certainly not I. All my life I have metaphorically worn a mask, hiding my feelings behind an “all I want to do is please you” façade. This time, my health was at stake. This time, the mask of my own making was preventing me from breathing. This time, accompanied by the frightened beating of my heart, I found the courage to travel to the center of myself, determined to find a way to tear off the mask, to feel what I was feeling without mediation, without pretense, no matter what the outcome. When I surfaced, I knew I could no longer live as I had before. I needed to find a way to jettison the mask and live a more authentic life. I wanted to learn to speak truthfully, to stop the “pleasing at all costs” habit, which I had learned as a young child when it was dangerous to upset those around me.

The outcome with him was not good, but it was more than time to stop being afraid of his outbursts, more than time to stop hiding my honest reactions to him, more than time to stop pretending that things were normal. I find it ironic that this break in our relationship happened over wearing a mask—the mask he claimed I wouldn’t wear, the personal mask I could no longer bear to keep on.

This journey into living truthfully may have had a clear beginning, but it has no ending. Lifelong habits are difficult to break, even when one wants to as much as I do. The first time I blurted out what I was feeling to someone, I wanted to take my words back, to apologize, but I didn’t, no matter how bad I felt afterward. With practice, I have learned to blurt less, and to speak a bit more diplomatically. Sometimes, when fear overtakes me, I pick up the mask, almost ready to put it back on, but I resist. It is difficult. And, I know that my well-being depends upon keeping it off.

It is not only with him that things have changed. I am no longer willing to be in relationships where I am told I’m not allowed to talk about what I’m feeling. I’m no longer willing to pretend that what is happening is not.

In the past, I lived in fear; afraid of being told I was too intense, too serious. Now I know that this intensity, this seriousness, was in large measure the result of tamping down my feelings. The rigidity, caused by constantly trying to be what others wanted me to be, to please, did not allow for the spontaneity of laughter or crying.

I haven’t yet made it to crying, but I’ve been laughing a lot. Life looks and feels a whole lot better than ever before. Taking off the mask, under very difficult circumstances, was the ticket to living a happier and more authentic life. I am on my way.

Nancy King s most recent books are three novels: A Woman Walking, Morning Light*, The Stones Speak*, and a nonfiction book, Dancing With Wonder: Self-Discovery Through Stories. You can read excerpts of her books, as well as order them, on her website

[photo by h.koppdelaney via flickr creative common license]

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