It’s unfortunate that people wear masks to hide their fear and shame. That they feel a need to do so to avoid stigma. One does not have to look very deep to see the masks people wear, the courage removing them takes, and the healing that doing so enables. We are all human. We are all unique. Don’t judge. Understand instead.
In the quiet of my summer break, I have taken the time to contemplate masks and the people who wear them. To think about how in June 1998, my friend and colleague, Chris Nihmey, had received a call from the Ottawa Catholic School Board. An offer of a teaching position, his first, was eagerly accepted.
The prospect of a new job and a bright future excited him. Feeling omnipotent and energetic, he was going to be the “best teacher out there!” Strong, fast and ready to take flight, he was on top of the world.
That same September, I started my first teaching contract in a school just five minutes away from the school where Chris was teaching. Like most new teachers, I was anxious about the responsibilities and challenges I had been given. I struggled to succeed the best I could.
While my nerves waned and I moved on in my career, by December 1999, Chris had resigned his position. His euphoric feelings of the new job, verge-of-greatness, and world-his-for-the-taking had morphed to dread, anxiety and fear. None of us, including Chris, had any way of knowing what would come next. We could not see through his mask of normalcy.
Manic episodes and behaviour changes caused alarm among family and close friends. Chris, feeling utterly overwhelmed and alone, depressed and suicidal, spent weeks in self-imposed confinement in the basement of his parent’s house.
“It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed…
And it’s not easy to be me” (Superman, Five For Fighting)
I know now, that Chris battled through and recovered from mental illnesses. That by 2003, he had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Life-changing and debilitating disorders. None of which define the Chris I know today.
I know him as a much-beloved educator whose mere presence at the entry door to the school elicits elated looks and a flurry of questions from students: “Mr. Nihmey, are you our teacher today?” I also know Chris as a cherished son to Michael and Rommie, brother to Julie and friend to many. As well as a published author, an inspirational speaker and tireless advocate on Mental Illness. Chris is a servant leader to others who battle mental illness. He has been volunteering at Royal Ottawa Place (a residence affiliate of the Royal Ottawa Hospital) for the past 8 years. You may know him as a Canadian Ambassador and 2017/2018 Face of Mental Illness for the Canadian Alliance of Mental Illness and Mental Health.
Chris, by courageously removing the mask he once wore, has come out of hiding. The mask that hid the pain he once felt, left him alone and overwhelmed. It prevented me, and others from supporting him in his time of need. Shedding the mask, stepping out of the darkness and giving voice to the pain was the path of healing for Chris. And ultimately a source of love, admiration and respect.
There are many types of masks. The one Chris wore, is but one.
As educators, pressures to be or act a certain way can lead us to wear masks. The belief that we must be the perfect teacher; be like the mentor teacher down the hallway. Family and personal issues that get shoved into the background when we pull into the school parking lot. Tears shed on the way to work or behind closed classroom doors that no one ever sees. The emotions and personal artifacts we hide when students arrive each day. Emotions hidden, only for them to rise up again at any given point.
Masks may vary, but, we do wear them. And all too often we are afraid to remove them.
As educators, we set high standards for ourselves. Sometimes, unrealistic expectations are set for what we are able to achieve. In media, we are often compared to superheroes with superpowers. This is represented by the question: “What is your superpower? The response: “I teach.” Let’s be honest. We are not superheroes. In education, there are no capes, laser vision and magical powers. The only masks we wear, are the ones we choose to wear to hide our pain, fear, shame and so on. We are only human.
Unlike superheroes, we truly show our courage when we are unmasked. Only then are we able to save ourselves, and with that, save others.
Chris lived and worked alongside many of us for years with the weight of serious mental illnesses. He silently suffered in shame. By publishing his book, Two Sides To the Story – Living a Lie in 2013, he was finally able to remove his mask and open his heart to the world. The burden Chris had carried alone, can now be assumed by others.
Mental Illness affects 1:3 Canadians in their lifetime. It can affect a person’s thinking, mood and behaviour. It does not stem from personal weakness or defect. But rather, from genetic, biological, psychological and environmental stressors. Mental illness cannot just be overcome by simple willpower. It requires ongoing treatment, support and, honestly, a much more open-minded and compassionate world than the one Chris found himself a part of in 1998.
Stigma is dangerous. It keeps people locked behind closed doors. Ashamed of what they are feeling. Afraid of who they are or might be. Not seeking the help they so need.
My work in Special Education has helped me see this from a different perspective. I have come to believe we spend too much time determining what is “normal” and trying to “blend in” and too little time realizing the gift of uniqueness. Each brain and body functions similarly, but uniquely. Each has strengths and needs. Each has highs and lows. Each, like our fingerprints and DNA, is unique.
Ending stigma is up to all of us. There are no innocent bystanders when suffering is in our midst. Oppression ends when we speak up and act. When we stand beside those who feel marginalized and believe they must don a mask to fit in, stigmas evaporate.
The subtle and overt messages we send to others encourage mask wearing and sustain stigmas. Listening with our hearts gives confidence to those who are struggling. That confidence encourages them to remove the masks they wear and speak their truths. We have to create a safe space where people feel confident removing their masks and not fear reprisal for removing them. In doing so, we will give others a chance to heal. Ultimately, “The greatness of humanity is not in being human it is in being humane.” (Gandhi)
If given a chance to travel back in time, I would go back to that Ottawa school in 1998. I now am better equipped to understand the journey that Chris has been on. This time, on his regular trip down the hallway to his lunch-time hiding spot, the clicking footsteps come from just behind him. The shoes he hears are mine. I am purposeful and intentional in my words and actions. My voice says, “I am going out for a walk. I don’t want to go alone. Chris, come join me.” I engage. I listen. I pause so he will talk. In doing so, the trajectory of his course changes. I have opened the door. Even if not ready to share, he knows he is not alone. I stand by him. As I should. And as God’s child, he deserves.
This school year, in the corridors of our schools, tucked behind classroom doors, there will be colleagues suffering in silence. Be kind. Pay attention for masks. Their signs are plentiful. Do not turn a blind-eye. Ignoring another someone’s struggle makes us complicit in it. In matters of justice and the pursuit of human dignity, there are no innocent bystanders. So hold onto hope for those who have no hope inside themselves. Always remember, we have also been “Sent to be the Good News” for each other.
Chris, you, like the rest of us, aren’t a superhero. But, to me, you are a man of heroic qualities. You removed the mask to reveal your true identity. Who you are is a magnificent soul and compassionate human being. All of Marvel’s Superheroes combined could only wish for your kind of courage.
I’m only a man in a silly red sheet
Digging for kryptonite on this one way street
Only a man in a funny red sheet
Looking for special things inside of me
Inside of me
I most humbly tell you — you are valued, you are cherished, you are accepted for exactly who you are. For all of your struggles and your ongoing battle, your kindness has always shined through. I stand with you in faith, hope and healing.
In this spirit, let us stand together.