As a high school junior, one of the books I read in English class was The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay. The main character – nicknamed Peekay – is a British boy in South Africa during the apartheid, and the novel follows him through his various life struggles. At that time, it became one of my least favorite required reading books.
However, there is one part of the story that has remained with me through the years, a paragraph of self-reflection by the protagonist:
I had become an expert at camouflage. My precocity allowed me, chameleonlike, to be to each what they required me to be….While this posturing was so finely tuned it was no longer deliberate, it had nevertheless been born out of a compulsion to hide. As a small child I had discovered that only two places are available to those who wish to remain concealed. The choices are to be a nonentity or an exception. You either disappear into a plebeian background or move forward to where most others fear to follow.
At the time of reading, I could not have understood how meaningful these words would be, or how closely they have paralleled my own life.
“Only two places are available to those who wish to remain concealed. The choices are to be a nonentity or an exception.” This, this I can relate to. For all of my life up to around 2007, I had chosen to be the nonentity. I was never happier than when left to my own devices, free to disappear into my books or into the woods behind my house. Painfully shy as a child, I strove to blend in. This was in part due to my obvious status as a token minority, but even before I attained the level of self-awareness that I was Different from my peers, I rarely called attention to myself.
In high school, I was quiet, studious, kept my head down, and ignored the hormone-fueled dramas of the other teenagers around me. If I stay quiet and just keep studying, I thought, nobody will have any reason to look my way, and I won’t get in all those fights everyone else gets into. There were self-image issues there, certainly. Every part of my posture and body language aided my camouflage: shrinking into myself, slouching, rarely making eye contact (and never for very long), and only wearing neutral colors and never dresses or skirts.
There are benefits to all of this. When you become adept at blending in, it’s more difficult to be singled out for harassment – whether while walking alone on a street, or by classroom bullies, or by authority figures. It’s easier to avoid drama – both becoming embroiled in it and creating it for others. And when you’re in the “right” demographic, it’s even easier to become invisible while, say, going through airport security.
(At least, until there is a Chinese terrorist attack on American soil.)
It has been hard for me to break out of this shell I’ve built around myself. This is exactly how I described it to my first partner, Tim: a hard, impenetrable shell. It was my sophomore fall at college, and my chameleon was entirely too successful. I made for a perfect casual friend and listening ear – I empathized easily, talked little, and never had any outward personal dramas. But because of that shell, that mask of aloofness, I never developed any especially deep or intimate friendships.
I felt incredibly lonely.
Peekay continues, on that same page:
My camouflage, begun so many years before under the persecution of the Judge, was now threatening to become the complete man. It was time to slough the mottled and cunningly contrived outer skin and emerge as myself, to face the risk of exposure, to regain the power of one. I had reached the point where to find myself was essential.
I had reached the point where the misery of being trapped in my shell far outweighed any risks I might take. It is the reason I was able to rationalize driving five hours across two states to meet Tim for the first time – and then have sex with him that night. I felt I’d been passing through the world like a shadow, barely leaving a trace. I had nothing to lose.
It is hard to remember that version of myself, only a few years younger, and the gratitude I felt that Tim might be the one to break that barrier down.
Well, the rest is an old, battered, and retold story on this blog now, but of course my trust in him was vastly misplaced. I sought solace in a couple other serial relationships, each shorter than the last, and each snapping pieces of my shell back into place.
A lot can change in a very short period of time, and I’m happy to report that I am still intact and have sloughed the greater part of that contrived outer skin. Still, twenty years’ worth of skin is difficult to shed all at once. I still have issues with intimacy and closeness, being honest both with myself and to others when I need help, and expressing my needs. It is terrifying every time I expose my weaknesses and vulnerability to others.
In short: I am learning to be visible.
I am still not very outgoing or social; I’ve come to accept that as a part of my introverted personality. I still find it draining and taxing to be with people for a long period of time. I still hate having pictures taken of my face.
And when I get close to someone – deeply, breathtakingly close – there is still a part of me that recoils, my self-preservation screaming that this will only lead to Bad Things, better to back out now before the inevitable happens. Look what happened before. My inner chameleon, hissing at shadows, skin rippling to pull my camouflage back into place.
Here’s to hoping I can win this battle again. That it will be worth it, and that I can prove myself wrong.