Identity, Masks, and The Self

I’ve been playing this Dungeons and Dragons character, currently known as “Lewis” to the rest of the party, for about two years now. He hasn’t really changed much since I first came up with the character concept at his core, but the themes I want to explore with him have shifted over time, as I’ve reflected on the similarities between myself and this character I’ve made. Initially, I wanted to explore what it looked like to be in a relationship that was not toxic to the people involved in it, but to the people who encounter those involved in it. I was planning to play it out through a modified Warlock and Patron relationship, which the Dungeon Master seemed to be on board with, but that idea lost its luster over time and has faded to the background. There will still be elements of it, I’m sure, throughout the rest of the campaign (or however long this character survives), but now I’m more interested in a theme that has had more relevance in my daily life, that I sort of incidentally worked into the character: how long can you pretend to be something before you become it?

First, I do want to disclaim that it can be difficult for you and for the other people in a D&D campaign if you are not careful and intentional in your exploration of personal issues in a roleplaying space. Unless you are aware of what you’re doing and careful to avoid getting anyone else wrapped up in it, you could very well wind up hurting the other players or yourself if something unexpected comes out in a session (and while this is rare, I speak from experience when I say that this can be very upsetting to the other people involved if it happens in your game). I’ve gone into this as intentionally and focused as I can, letting my fellow players know about the theme I’m interested in exploring and talking things through with the DM. While I’ve kept some of the details to myself (mostly because we haven’t really sat down to discuss this stuff at length since I brought it up), I’ve done my best to be open about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. After all, even when no one gets hurt, accidentally stumbling into something you think might upset another person can be an anxiety-inducing experience. Informed consent, as in all things, is the way to go.

I’ve known I didn’t feel like the gender I was assigned at birth since I was a teen. I didn’t really have the language to talk about it then and I didn’t dare write about it, in case my parents saw how I felt, so I pretty much just tucked it all away in my mind aside from the rare occasion when I felt the desire or safety to explore my personal identity. I mean, most of my life I performed the role I was given by my parents, of Elder Responsible Son, Protector of the Younger Siblings and Mediator of All Arguements. I never really built my own identity because that would have come into conflict with being the person my parents expected (and frequently demanded) I be. It wasn’t until my college years that I started to question this person I’d decided to be, and even then I wound up reaffirming it rather than trying to figure out who I wanted to be. Only later, in therapy during my mid to later twenties, did I start to pick that identity apart. Only now, in my thirties, have I shed enough of it that I feel like I can start to figure out who I am.

I spent my entire life pretending to be something I’m not and this identity is still so strong and pervasive that I regularly have to resist the urge to just assume it again. Any time I’m uncertain about being myself in a situation (which mostly happens at work, where I’m not really out yet), I default to the person my parents expected me to be. In stressful, difficult situations, I do the same. Any time I’m uncertain or afraid, I do the same. It is a constant, continuous struggle not to fall back into the habits of a lifetime, even though they make me deeply unhappy, especially when performing that identity is what made me feel loved and accepted by my parents and most of the people around me in college.

In this way, I already know what path Lewis is on. I know the struggles he will face. I know what bumps and potholes await him. I’ve already been grappling with all this for yeas, so it’s not so much of a chance to explore what it’s like to break free of this pattern of living so much as it is a way to review the lessons I’ve already learned as I try to understand them better. I don’t think I’m going to discover anything particularly relevatory as I play the character, but it’s nice to be able to play out something I feel uncertain about and hopefully either gain new insight into my own journey or be affirmed in the choices I already made. Plus, I’ve thought for decades about the idea of masks and how long you can wear a mask before it becomes you (thanks, Majora’s Mask and all the completely unfounded rumors about getting stuck as one of the transformation mask forms if you wore it too long in your play-through), so it’s a theme I would love to consider and explore with other people. Most folks I’ve encountered only deal with it in the more abstract “personality” sense rather than the deeper “identity” sense that I want to explore, so having these other players around and willing to engage with me is an exciting prospect.

Personally, I believe I am every person I’ve ever been. Every identity I’ve ever borne is an aspect of my whole. I may no longer be the “responsible young man” that I strove to be at my parents’ urging, but I possess within me the ability to be that person. Those aspects and traits and behaviors are still mine to enact if I so choose. I am everything I’ve ever done, every choice I’ve ever made. I am not defined by any one moment, but by my entire life up to this point in time. Masks and identities can be useful to help you relate to people or to protect yourself from people who might wish to do you harm. They only become a problem when they last longer than they’re useful (which is what I’m still dealing with). I am myself and that changes every day as I figure out and then act on the way I’d like to treat people and how I’d like people to treat me. Identity is an evolving process, an ever-moving goal, and only stagnation awaits any decision to stop and just be one thing.

Right now, I’m an agender person with an undefined sexuality who is capable of holding onto to a lot of feelings for other people, most of them care and concern not because I feel responsible for the happiness or misery of others but because I want the people I care about to be happy and I think that it’s worth some effort on everyone’s part to see that happen. I act the way I would like other people to act and hold no one to standards I do not also hold myself to. I do my best not to hold myself to standards I wouldn’t apply to others, even if I still frequently struggle with that line. I reserve the time and space for myself that I need to feel happy and fulfilled and want nothing more than for everyone to know a little peace and quiet joy in their lives, myself included. I think that a lot of these elements will stick around in some form or another, perhaps with shifting emphasis and maybe a little less “try to” and a little more “do” on the parts that have to do with me. Who knows, though. The future is difficult to anticipate and impossible to predict, as I’ve learned repeatedly these past five years, so I’ll just keep making it up as I go along.

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