The Mask Project: Finding identity outside of addiction


We all have roles we play throughout our lives. Sister, daughter, worker, friend, student, lover. These roles are not bad, in fact they help us to survive, but there comes a time when these roles overstep a boundary and we start to lose ourselves in them. We become so adept at playing the part we think we should play that our own identity becomes the understudy.

For many people who struggle with addiction, they have lost themselves to the drug and begin to play roles that are not healthy. Manipulator, liar, criminal, abuser, thief, prostitute. These roles are unhealthy but helped them to survive in the the world of addiction all the same.

For an addict, the struggle to find their identity begins in recovery. For the first time in a long time they are asking the question, “who am I?” and that’s really scary. It is also brave, and one of the reasons I have such respect for individuals working through their recovery.

This mask project is an opportunity to express “who am I?” in a visual and tangible way.

Materials: Paper mache masks, acrylic paint, paint brushes, paint pallets, water, paper towels, colored pencils, markers.

Directions: Print out copies of “Don’t Be Fooled By Me” by Charles C. Finn and read before you begin the project. Have brief discussion about the reading, explain that the outside of the mask represents who we want others to see us as, and the inside represents the parts of us that we don’t show as much. And then begin. I like to let the participants listen to music on their headphones while they work, but that’s up to you.

This project took four weeks, 3x 45 minute sessions of painting and 1 final session for processing. If participants finish early have them write down what the inside and the outside mean to them (what do the colors represent etc.) and share it on the last day.

Here are some examples:

PicsArt_1391464956585 This mask was made by an individual who struggles with bi-polar disorder and cocaine abuse. He said the black side of the mask represents his anger and depression, the white represents when he is happy and feeling “good”. He said he is only ever depressed or manic, no middle. The stitches across the mouth represent that regardless of which side he is on, something holds him back from opening up and speaking about his feelings. He said, “I feel unworthy to talk about how I feel”. the inside of the mask represents all his emotions and feelings. They are wild and overwhelming, lacking boundaries, while the outside is far too constricted. The struggle for him is to merge the two sides, expressing his feelings without being controlled by them.

PicsArt_1391465145320For other participants there was some resistance. This was consistently manifested by leaving the inside of the mask blank. Here, the outside represents a Mardi Gras mask, and the inside was left blank intentionally because he “doesn’t want to wear any masks on the inside”. Later the individual said, ” I ran out of time”. For this particular person, he had time to finish but chose not to.  Each person had the same amount of time. And in art therapy there is significance in what a person chooses to paint first, and what they choose to leave blank, or neglected. While some may see this as over analyzing, it is important to consider the choices made during the art making process. They help us to understand the subconscious and see past the aesthetic. In this project, each person who left the inside blank also happened to be very guarded individuals who struggled with expressing their emotions for fear of being vulnerable.

Acting as a psychological self-portrait, this mask project is a very accurate indicator of where a person is at in their  quest for the “self”.

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