On Running, Hiding and Creating a Persona
“The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.” – Carl Jung
You ever get soap in your eyes? You know that sharp, cataclysmic burn that forces you to see yourself with one useful eye as you search for a way to ease the pain? In a panic, you’ll wash it out and rub it out feverishly. Doing everything you can to see straight again. Doing everything possible to look clearly at what’s before the mirror but through the redness, you catch an angle of yourself you hadn’t seen before. A moment where you consider that the way you’ve seen yourself isn’t exactly true and that …
I was thirteen-years-old when I ditched my given name and spent nearly the next sixteen years crafting and perfecting a façade to be known by. To be seen as. To move through the burning world like a moth. It was only a matter of time before it crumbled into the ocean of who I truly am, and now, as I lean into the next decade of my life, letting go is what feels right.
Not necessary, but vital.
My childhood disappeared behind me, and adolescence emerged on the horizon. I drove past it like roadkill. Swerved out of the way just enough so that I didn’t get it on the tires but nonetheless, slowed, like you always do when you see a car wreck, to see it shriveled on the pavement, deboned and skinned by the rotating tires of everything I was running from. Blood crusted on a single, neglected yellow road line. One that, while cracked and sutured by tar along the way, continued forward into the night and disappeared on the unknown road ahead. And when I passed, it looked up at me with its final breath. Innocence was gone in a flash. We never really can pinpoint the second it disintegrates but I could. I was changing, and I felt it beneath my feet. It’s something incredibly difficult to reconcile as a child. Let alone as an adult.
They always told me I was beyond my years but I wasn’t. I was falling behind. Chasing something in the dark.
It was a year after my grandfather had died. One might call that a catalyst but it wasn’t. It was the push that shoved me into a void borne from prior collaborative events in my single-digit years that caused me to create this name and mask. I thought they were out to get me. While others were scrambling for recess, I was hiding and crafting something from the recesses of my own mind, terrified of the world beyond the classroom walls and the walls I’d started building around the frail shell of an undeveloped human that I was.
Naturally, I was a master of self-isolation as a child and experiencing what I had experienced as a kid, while paradoxically growing up with an overtly loving and supportive family, pushed me further into that natural state of loneliness, and that’s where the persona began to emerge.
I didn’t settle into a new name until a few years later, but I endlessly toyed with syllables and pseudonyms while other kids were worried about what lunch their parents packed or at least, that’s how skewed my perception was at the time.
Unknowingly, I was creating something.
It began out of an innocent feeling that, while looking to the names of my heroes, mine looked weird. It didn’t fit in. Like, who I thought I was at that young ripe age. It was a confusing time. Still is. I lost organized religion and organized a new god in the form of who I would be to the world, and in the world.
It was the beginning of this persona that launched my doubtfully youthful body into an adult presence, so far from being firmly planted in the dirt. It’s always felt like I could float, but instead of drifting into immense possibility, I had intentionally tied myself to an enormous obsidian stone at the ankle, hoping it would ground me but, now years later, finding that it was cutting off the circulation to my body, threatening amputation as every year passed.
But the rope would come loose and amputation would be necessary because living without the foot, for the sake of soul, is what needed to be done, no matter how hard it would be to hobble forward missing a limb.
That’s the thing with personas—you cannot stitch the mask onto the skin without the infliction of pain. Funny enough, the experience of pain being that which drives one to create a persona in the first place.
And, the name, Straynge, was born, originally as the word is naturally spelled, but want to hear something unbelievably stupid? The only reason the y was placed in there was because social media forced me to add it in. Strange had been taken. That was the only reason it ended up in there, and for years, I’d tell people, in a way that made me seem interesting, modern, and a little bit unique, that I was Joe Straynge with a y. That was the name I would be known by for years to come. I would introduce myself with that name to entire strangers and people, who would become friends, would know me by that for years to come. I was that façade on and off stage. Looking in mirrors and seeing nothing but a frantic panic behind the eyes.
Person to person, I dreamt up an enigma.
Now, I look at the y in that name more as a question because, for my entire life, I’d been asking myself why am I like this? Why did this happen to me? Why am I here? It’s a good bit of devastatingly simple irony that, all this time, the letter had been hovering between another sequence of letters, right before my eyes, screaming me to ask myself the simplest question—
Why are you doing this to yourself?
When I formed this idea, I had no way of knowing who I was or who I was going to become and so, this persona took over. I called it a stage name, a pen name, a pseudonym, and I formed elaborate excuses about why I’d chosen such a name. But at the core of it all, it was because I felt strange. Weird. I felt absurd. Like I was a lone presence in the world, shifting my bones through thick mud, calling for anyone to hear my trembling utterances. Like there was absolutely no one in this world that could understand what I was experiencing.
I was creating something so this skin could move through the world like a phantom. Something that would protect me as I hid beneath the surface of whatever I’ve become.
I wanted to project to the world a power I didn’t have. I wanted this name to solidify the type of person I wanted to show the world. Showcase that I was strong, in some ways. That I could be loud and quiet, in tune and obscure, brash and meek. I could be worlds within worlds. Multitudes within multitudes. A complex, self-destructive individual with a taste for life.
It would take some time before realizing that at my core, I was simply a terrified little boy, broken by chemical imbalances and past experiences, clawing and gnawing at a chance to express myself and the pain I carried, but I had hid all of that behind a strange persona while simultaneously using that persona to portray an individual who was shaky with every step. A contradiction that was at war with itself. Traits that I thought I had hidden, merged seamlessly with traits I had created, and there was no distinguishing who was the real me and who was the person I dreamt up to protect myself from the perceived dangers I believed so deeply in.
It started to come loose when I quit drinking. Part of this whole persona, it seemed, was having a predilection for excess in all forms and once that stone had been turned over, picked up and thrown haymaker-style into an unruly river, it was only a matter of time before the stitches of the mask would become undone.
Most people wear a mask. In different shapes and forms. We hide behind job descriptions. Take pride and create personalities solely based on locations we were born in by pure, dumb luck. Fashion styles and passions. Movements. Our identities become two-fold. In private and in public, we are dancing in the ambiguity of life, chasing something in the dark.
Most people put on a mask every day when they wake up. Check it in the mirror before leaving the house and wear it defiantly, carry it through the day as they drift in and out of other people’s masks. It’s a heavy burden one holds. In essence, what we’re all looking for at the end of the day is catharsis. A deep exhale after holding our breath for so damn long. A reprieve from ourself and the self we’ve created.
We yearn to see clearly the path forward and when the soap clears from our pained, panicked, and reddened eyes, we might just see a glimpse of who we truly are. When we wipe away the mask, pull it from its self-sutured stitches and forgive ourselves for the botched surgery we’ve done to ourselves, maybe we can be free to carry that stone up the mountain, unbothered by the fact that we’ll be letting go of it and watching it tumble hastily down again, knowing that it’s a never-ending struggle to carry our true selves through life, and it’s a struggle, not only for us, but for everyone born into this.
And so, in my Draperesque finale, I accept my Whitman role. Joe Straynge is dead. But is he?
*Feature photo by psychoshadow (Adobe)