When I published my original Masks essay in February of 2019, I was at a bit of a breaking point. I felt deeply, chokingly unseen. And I imagined that articulating my fears, traumas, and ideas would alleviate some of the invisibility I felt.

But after two years spent wrapping my tender stories in their most honest and artful packages…I feel more misunderstood than ever.

I think I assumed that my disconnected feeling was caused by a lack of transparent communication. I knew that sharing some painful truths would be difficult, but it did seem like something I could do. It felt like an actionable problem. And now that I’ve shared so much, and have seen my careful words fall on deaf ears, or be misconstrued, or taken out of context, I can’t help but feel that this unseen feeling I have is somewhat inevitable and permanent.

Let me be clear. I don’t feel misunderstood by everyone. And I’ll never regret taking steps to be more authentically myself in my daily life. But I do feel misunderstood and unseen by some people who feel really important to me. And in a few brand new, more chronic, and widespread ways, as well.

Of course, all of this goes back to those same original hurts. I’m trying so hard to move on, to move forward. On my best days, I feel certain that a decades-long trauma is just simply going to take a good while to fit itself into a better place. But on my bad days (and god there have been a lot of them this year), I feel very, very sure that it’s just me. That I’m not wanted, that I’m not likeable or lovable, that I have no intrinsic value, that I’m not meant to feel a sense of belonging.

I think part of the problem is that my trauma is all wrapped up in my personality now in sort of fundamental, permanent ways. And I think it really confuses people.

Like…did you know that independence can be a trauma response? 🤯 I can tell you with 100% certainty that my independence is a trauma response. My independence is a combination of my built-in stubbornness and determination (I do think those things are in my literal DNA), and the absolute heartbreak of needing love, support, and guidance from my parents, and not getting it. In the absence of the love I desperately needed, there was an abundance of discouragement, loathing, resentment, jealousy, neglect, anger, and plenty of other ugly hurts. My independence was an inevitable result for my gritty personality in an environment where it wasn’t safe to depend on anyone.

And here’s the thing – independence looks like strength. It does. Our culture interprets it that way. But my independence does not feel like strength to me. It feels like so much pain. And I think that really confuses people. When people hear me talking about trauma, anxiety, depression, chronic nightmares, C-PTSD…and then they see me buzzing all around the state of Utah getting shit done and starting (and finishing) a million projects, speaking loudly and clearly, standing up straight…I think it reads as dishonesty. I think it reads as insincerity. And I get that. I think I get it. But it hurts in a down-to-the-marrow sort of way. And it’s lonely.

Here’s another thing. My mom screamed at me (screamed devastating things at me) SO often when I was a child. Like, every day. Usually multiple times a day. And from a VERY young age I learned that my whole family would reinforce this as “normal” behavior, and that I would be expected to move on quickly.

I have been *practicing* this disgusting skill my entire life. Crying. Hyperventilating. Panic Attack. Genuine, heart-shattering, nightmare-inducing trauma…then a swift transition to school, work, church, rehearsal, laughing and chatting with family and friends in a way that would leave no clues about what the previous moments had looked like. I know it’s hard to imagine (unless your family was like this, and I know some of yours were), but it’s really starkly true. Just a really gross fact. It’s as plain and simple to me as it would be foreign to most of you. I know how to seem ok when I am not ok. And I do it without meaning to. It’s “normal” for me. Built-in. My honest-to-god default response.

And what this looks like in my adult life is, for example, playing a wedding literally WHILE my mother was dying (before I had ever spoken publicly about her abuse), and not shedding a tear, or breaking my shiny, front-woman smile. Though, on our breaks I was talking about it. I was saying plenty of words about how I was very worried, scared, and grieving…Then, about a year after mom died, we were back playing another wedding at that same venue. I mentioned it to my bandmates and was horrified to realize that they barely remembered that night at all. They were with me during one of the worst days of my entire life, and didn’t seem to be aware of what that meant. But you know…I think I understand. I didn’t look like I was having one of the worst days of my life. I didn’t look like I was in deep, life-altering pain. But I was in life-altering pain.

What’s more is that not only have I learned to walk and talk and “function” normally while in pain, but out of absolute necessity, I’ve also learned to really sincerely put that pain on hold and punctuate it with joy. Like, I really CAN switch to sincere happiness right in the middle of pain. Anyone who’s experienced prolonged trauma can probably do this, too. The pain is real. The joy is also real. And the proximity of each to the other can be shocking and unbelievable.

Do you see what I mean? It’s tricky.

That trauma lives so deeply inside my bones and blood that it maybe makes me a bit unrelatable. It makes me act and respond in ways that are confusing, and easily misunderstood. But my words and actions ARE sincere. Performing the pain I feel would NOT be authentic for me…but it might make people see me as more authentic. And I’m not sure what to do with that idea. And it really, genuinely worries me.

There’s one other big thing that’s been gnawing at me over the past year or so.

I don’t have memories of being loved as a child. I’m told that the happiest moment of my dad’s life was my birth. I’m told that my mother cherished me as an infant…But I’ve also been told (by my father directly) that by the time my brother was born (I was 2.5), my dad realized that his marriage would be better if he let my mom take out all of her anger/insecurity/pain/whatever on me. And that is the choice he made, and that is what happened. To my shock and horror, he looked me right in the eye and admitted this, unemotionally, in a hospital cafeteria when I was 29 and my mother was terminally ill and recovering from her 4th brain surgery upstairs. So, these stories about how I was allegedly well-loved as an infant really mean less than nothing to me.

But again, my little personality came packed with some sort of stubborn resilience. And the way that I coped with my painful childhood was to do everything in my power to show my parents that I deserved their love. I really, sincerely thought about it that way—from as early as I can remember. I knew that my parents didn’t love me and weren’t happy with me. And I also really, really knew that I was a good child, and I was capable of doing a lot of good and valuable things. So it made sense to me in my little mind that I just had to figure out the right way to show them that they were wrong about me.

So I was busy! I worked SO hard. I tried everything I could think of. And I tried to do everything as beautifully and thoroughly as I possibly could. I did my absolute best. And of course it was never enough…

Until a few short (long) years ago, I didn’t have the tools to realize that this wasn’t really my fault. And it’s one thing to know something like that in your brain, and another thing entirely to know it in your heart. To be honest, I really haven’t gotten there yet.

And yet again, I find myself in a tricky situation.

While none of that striving ever resulted in love from my parents, it DID teach me hope. I learned to associate a new goal or project with a sense of promise; and the process of fulfilling my goals became the home for my joy. Just like my independence, it’s a good and beautiful thing with ugly, traumatic roots.

Nevertheless, I’m left feeling so stuck. There is genuinely—in the purest and truest sense—nothing I love more than creating, than doing, than becoming. It’s the only joy I can call upon at my own will.

But as of this moment, the hope and joy that fills me up and blissfully washes over me in the “doing” is inextricably linked to the profound grief I feel upon completing a project, and finding that the lack of belonging remains.

So. I create in order to heal myself. Then, that happy peak is inevitably swallowed by an ocean’s worth of piled-up rejections (and usually some fresh ones, too). And in the end, I need to start the whole cycle again in order to recover. And each time, I’m determined to do even more, even better. And I really DO love that.

It’s perverse. I absolutely refuse to let this trauma take away my favorite thing in the world, but right now that precious thing is locked in a messy, heartbreaking cycle which is unfortunately exacerbated dramatically by my choice of profession.

So, the absence of genuine love from my father, the adjacent alienation from extended family and community, and the moving target of “success” in the music industry all sort of pile up to reinforce that old story that my absolute best work—work that holds my whole soul and all of the brightness I can muster—just simply isn’t wanted. And therefore, that I am still not wanted.

I’m not really looking for reassurance that I am loved and my work is valuable. Again, I know that in my brain—and I suspect that there aren’t really any magic words that will convince my heart at this point in time (that said, if you have nice things to say to me, I will receive them with more gratitude than I could ever articulate, and I’ll let them in as far as they will go). But rather, I think it’s a work in progress…process.

And the truth is that I feel really tired right now. For all of the aforementioned reasons, I’m sure it doesn’t look that way. And when I’m in the middle of creating lovely things, all of my grief and fear dances away, and I’m filled up with the best and most vibrant sort of energy and joy. Of course, those feelings are really real, too. But I need to tell you that in my quiet moments, I am so tired. My heart is so heavy, and my tank feels so low.

This year, I put out a record that felt (feels) like much more to me. It represents my life to this point, including my biggest fears and heartbreaks. And it also represents just an insane amount of careful, thoughtful, comfort-zone-shattering work. I had to put myself through the ringer to make this…in so many ways. It was necessary, and I would never, ever regret a single thing about it (except maybe just the fact that it happened this year of all years, and was titled “masks” 🙄).

And I get that SO many more important things have happened this year. I really deeply understand that the world is vast and I am a tiny, tiny little piece of it. But in my tiny, tiny self, this thing is a really big, important thing. And in many ways, I feel like it came and went and mostly nobody noticed. And that old story—that my best offerings aren’t wanted—is a strong one. And like I said, I’m just exhausted. When I’m not in a creation high, I feel so fragile. And misunderstood, and unseen, and lonely.

By now I’ve learned that explaining myself in writing (or so much talking) doesn’t result in my feeling understood (or actually being understood), but it does open some sort of valve that I just need to open sometimes. And the end of this bizarre and tragic year just feels like the right time to let a few things out into the world.

It feels like a good time to close the Masks chapter…even if my personal relationship to this subject matter is an ongoing struggle.

And I want to also tell you that my new projects are my best possible effort to build myself some new bridges, and to write myself some new stories. Where Masks was honest and stark and real, this new body of work feels triumphant and hopeful to me. And where Masks was mostly my own stories, I think this work is all of ours.

So. In the spirit of the things we all share, I want to just close this essay (and this year) with a little offering that speaks a bit to this truly bizarre moment in time. Hopeful, if fragile. Fragile, if hopeful.

Thank you for reading and listening. It means so much to me.

Love,

Emily