Man Alive!, a rehabilitation clinic in the heart of Baltimore, offers an art program for its participants. I was invited to photograph inside the clinic, which I readily agreed.
I visited several times to shoot their writing, dance and art classes. I found the individuals open and ready to talk about their experiences as well as being open to being photographed, but it wasn’t until the day their teacher assigned them to make masks that I knew I had something.
As they finished their masks, I drew them aside and photographed them, knowing I would return to interview them in depth about ‘The Masks We Wear.”
I was deeply touched by their willingness to share their journeys.
These are their stories in their own words.
Roger was off drugs and had a new life with a job until his little brother was shot by gang members and Roger returned to Baltimore to help care for him and his family.
Would you tell me about the masks you wear?
The mask I wear around here [the clinic] varies. When I’m in a group, I wear my confident mask. And vivacious mask. We have different personalities all in one room you have to be a certain way and deal with each person different, because of that I treat everyone differently.
In the writing group, I guess my true self is there, and that’s my humble mask, inquisitive mind and my emotional mask because I let my emotions show when I’m writing. Writing— that’s one of my true masks…we can be ourselves there…[the instructor] makes you feel you can be yourself.
I definitely put on a different mask when I’m in the streets. I have to have on my ‘I don’t give a fuck’ mask. My ruthless mask. Because the streets don’t apologize for nothing. So I have to be the same way most the time. They shoot you as quick as they speak to you. And so you have to let them know you ain’t takin’ no shit either.
You know you might not be that way, but you have to portray it sometimes. When I was younger it was a little different because that’s how it was…I really didn’t care about what nobody thought. I was quick to hurt somebody back then. I had a serious attitude. I kind of felt that when when I started getting high, too. I didn’t care about too many people. It was rough.
I started doing drugs in my middle 20s. At the time, it was just something people was doing. I started out with recreational drugs…heroine or cocaine …something to make you last longer. And then it became a habit. Before you know it — it got out of control.
What kind of masks did you wear to keep your habit in place?
I definitely wore the ‘I just don’t give a fuck’ mask. One thing I can say honestly that I never did was steal from my family or my friends. It was better for me to steal from someone on the outside. And I robbed, stole, everything to keep my habit going. But I never did that to family.
I definitely had to be conniving when I was on drugs. I put on my sneaky mask. My evil mask on when I had to go and rob somebody.
It depended on who I had to get money from. When I wanted to get money from someone, I knew I had to put my kiss ass mask on. Sometimes I had to humble myself, so sometimes I had my
humble mask on, too…but I never actually stole nothing from my mother or my house. That’s one thing I can be proud of.
And yes, I can say that I had sex to get money for drugs—-with females that is.
How long have you been off drugs?
It’s been about six months. There was a time that I got locked up and came home and I wasn’t on drugs for over 15 years. I changed. I moved, changed all the people and I was doing good, working and everything. I was living in West Virginia. But there was a reason that I got back on drugs about a year ago. My brother got shot. He got killed and I came down here. I hear about this. He was my younger brother. Gang stuff. He was selling drugs and they were trying to extort him. They shot him while his back was turned.
My mom was already deceased. I came back to be with my brothers and sisters and help with the funeral arrangements. I wasn’t planning on staying down here but…he didn’t pass away right away. He hung on for a few months and so I was down here…I wanted to be around him. And so I said I just can’t go back right now. So by the time he passed I was already getting back into drugs.
When I used to come down to visit, I told myself I wasn’t going to stay down for more than 2 or 3 days..you actually can feel the hole getting a hold of you again.
[But with my brother] I just wanted revenge. I wanted to strike back. I was truly hurting. I just wanted to hurt somebody. All I had to do was think about it and I could back to my old ways if it wasn’t for my girlfriend I think I would have easily did it. She was one of the things that saved me. She was constantly in my head, “I’m not going to let you get back into that. I’m not going to lose you that way.”
I still have this feeling in the pit of my stomach. I did heroin every day and I said this isn’t working. It isn’t going to bring him back. It isn’t going to change anything.
All that’s out there (in the streets) is drugs and death. That’s all it is. These guys are in their 40s and still hanging out there with these young guys. It’s a young man’s game out there. I gave it up a long time ago. I just don’t have it in me anymore. But it’s been so quick to resort back to that. And I struggle with my own demons all the time.
What mask would you like the world to see of you?
I would like them to see the mask of a caring father. A loving father. A straight up guy. A nice guy. A caring person. A good friend. Someone they can depend on.
Is there a place you don’t need to wear a mask?
I don’t have to put on any masks with my brothers and sisters. They know me. And I know them.
I would like that we wouldn’t have to put on masks when we are around people. I wish we could be our true selves. Because people get judged wrongly much of the time because of the mask we have on.
That first impression is a killer. Some people think I’m a mean guy because I walk around with a straight face. And I say, hey, I have a lot on my mind, and my face reflects that much of the time. But deep down I’m a good person. I just wish we didn’t have to wear no masks.
Regina worked a full-time job in the healthcare field while hooked on heroin.
What masks did you wear when you were on drugs?
I put this mask on every day that everything’s ok. I was always wearing a mask..like when I got around my family I act like ain’t nothing wrong. Upbeat. I was always trying to be supportive and doing what I’m supposed to do and shyou…I wore masks for so many years.
I started doing drugs when I was in my 20s. I would go to a party or a family outing and I couldn’t go unless I had my drugs.
They would be like, ‘How are you doing darling?’
“I’m doing fine.”
“You still using?”
“No, I’m not using anymore.”
You know, trying to paint a pretty picture…my children sitting there…and my mother sitting there and the whole time, I’ve got this mask on. I couldn’t wait until this day was over with so I could go back to the other part of my life.
What was going on inside of you?
A lot of hurt and loneliness…a lot of hurt and loneliness. And feeling like everyone knew I was doing drugs and I just wanted to take the mask off and say, “Look, I get high. Deal with it. “
But I had a good support system. My family helped me and everything and so sometimes it was fun to wear the mask and sometimes it wasn’t fun.
Do you think you fooled them, or did they know you were doing drugs.
They knew. Everybody in my family was usually drunk. And some people used drugs. And if I looked high, they’d blame it on my allergy. “Her allergy must be bothering her” because my eyes would be…They helped me keep the mask on.
So you did act differently when you were high?
If you didn’t know I got high, you couldn’t really tell. I worked 9-5. I would get up in the morning, go get my stuff. I was working in the healthcare field.
I would get in the cab and the driver would say, “Miss, you don’t look like you get high.” And I said, ‘How am I supposed to look? Oh, I forget, I’m supposed to have a scarf on my head and baggy pants and flip flops and everything.”
I had to maintain and keep my appearance up. That was the mask.
What drugs were you using?
Cocaine and heroin.
So your mask was professional, trusted. What else? If I would have met you, what would I have seen?
You would have seen an African American beautiful woman. Always on time. My life together. You wouldn’t think that I got high.
What did you do in your professional life?
I did nursing. I cared for the elderly. It took a lot of patience. I did it so well, you couldn’t tell. I went to work every day. I had to go to work every day. I couldn’t let the drug control me.
I put that mask back on and keep on moving.
What’s happening inside?
Inside, I’m feeling lonely…depressed…and I just want to stop.
I wasn’t myself. I was only half of me…I wasn’t the whole Regina.
And I was tired…tired of being tired. Doing the same thing day in and day out. If I didn’t get it, I felt like going away, but I have to go to work to support my habit. It was a mess.
So when did you quit?
I quit in 2003. Not by choice. I got locked up so I had to quit. It wasn’t by choice it was by force.
2003, yeah, that’s when I went to Baltimore City Jail and then I went to Jessup. MCI Mental Institute for Women and I did three and a half years down there for drugs.
And when I got out of there, I did alright. Cause when I was there I heard a lot of girls say, “I’m not going to use when I get out.”
In jail, what kind of masks did you wear?
In jail, you don’t wear no masks. Because you are in jail for drugs, death.
Did you have to pretend you were tough…did you have to pretend you were nice…?
When I first went there, I was actually scared.
Did you show that?
After awhile, I realized that everyone I could see was in jail. It was like a playground. It was…it was like a playground. We went outside every day. I got to make phone calls, visits. The only thing was, I wasn’t HOME. I couldn’t just walk out those doors and come back in any time I wanted to. I didn’t have to put on a face, a mask down there.
Do you think having the opportunity to be without a mask helped you?
Yes. It helped me a whole lot. It helped me be who I am today.
When you went in, you must have thought you needed to do something differently?
When I went in, I said, “I can’t just lay around and do nothing.”
So I went to work. They said if you go to work, you could get your time down and so I started cooking in the kitchen. I started being a cook down there.
And that took some of my time away. And I went to church and I got baptized down there .. and I started my writing.
I did the jail, the jail didn’t do me.
I made something of myself.
When the man gave me 3.5 years, I said, uh-uh. The drugs put me there but I’m not going to let this drug keep control of me. I did 3.5 years there and I did what I had to do and I came home.
I came home and I never looked back.
I said, this isn’t what I really want. This isn’t what I where I want to be. Some people like it there but I don’t. I don’t like someone telling me when to get up and when to go to bed.
I’m not used to that setting. It’s a structured setting.
What was really going on inside you?
I yelled, I screamed, I cried, I cried many nights, wanting to be home with my daughter. It took so much away (started crying). It messed our relationship up and it hasn’t been the same since. My daughter and I were real close at one time and now we ain’t close at all. I tell her I didn’t mean it but she throws it back in my face.
How many times can I say, “I didn’t mean it?” So I’m trying to build my relationship back…
It’s hard…it’s real hard….I don’t do drugs anymore, and I’m glad. I’m truly blessed. I’m glad.
My son, he’s the joy of my life. He never blamed me for what I did. I couldn’t have a better son.
My daughter blames me. I love her and her daughter so much, and she blames me in front of her daughter, and my granddaughter shouldn’t be subjected to that. I just take it a day at a time…
Do you put on a mask now for your daughter and granddaughter.
For my granddaughter, I do. My daughter, no, she’s the one who broke my heart. I keep telling her I made some bad choices, but you can’t keep holding it against me, we either need to have a mother/daughter relationship or you need to go your way and I’ll go my way, just allow me to see my granddaughter when I can. The pain is fresh and raw and still here.
I tell people, if ou have a daughter, a son, spend time with them. Don’t let anything take you away from them. Those three and a half years…who knows where we could have gone or what we could have done.
The masks…are there things that you hide now?
I’m not wearing a mask no more for no body. Either you accept me or you don’t
I’m not doing it no more. I’ve been doing it for so long. I’m living life on my terms.
What were you feeling behind the drug mask?
I wasn’t feeling anything. I just wanted to get high.
Heroin and cocaine filled the void. When I got depressed or lonely, I would get high and it would relax me. So I could function. If I wasn’t high…I couldn’t function.
The drugs filled a big void in my life.
How do you fill that void now, or is it still empty?
It’s not empty. My daughter, I’m trying to build a relationship with her again.
My granddaughter is the joy of my life. And I go see my mother.
But I love being with my granddaughter…that’s my heart…that’s what keeps me breathing…
I was there when she was born and I honestly don’t think I would be here if it wasn’t for her.
That’s what really keeps me going…That’s my heart…that’s my heart right there…She changed my whole life around. She’s the one who made me want to stop getting high, because I wanted to see her. She keeps me going, she keeps me grounded.
I s there anything else you would like to tell me about masks?
If you got a mask, just take it off. Take it off. You don’t need it. Let the world accept me for who you are. Don’t try to be someone that you’re not.
You don’t need nobody’s validation for nothing you do. Do what you want to do. Take that mask off. Throw it away. Burn it up. Be yourself. Life is too short. It’s just too short. The only one you need to validate for is the man upstairs. And he’s see what you doing and accept you. And that’s all that matters. That’s all that matters.
Loraine wore the mother mask as well as the drug fiend mask while on drugs. She had to have drugs. It was a driving force in her life.
Can you think of any masks that you wear?
I wear plenty of masks. I smile when I want to cry. I pretend that I want to be here but I don’t want to be here. I pretend that I want to be someone else instead of being myself sometime.
There are different masks for different days and different feelings and different reasons.
Are there some things or some times that don’t require a mask…a place in your life that you can say, ‘This is who I am, what you you see is what you get’?
When I’m being with my art, I can be myself. A lot of times, the colors represent how I’m feeling…if I’m happy I can make bright and happy things. I don’t care if I’m doing it correctly. I’m doing what I like to be doing.
If you could wear a mask, what mask would you wear?
Being able to speak out and not hold my feelings in… be a person who is boisterous and glamorous. I’d like people to say, “There’s Lorraine. Wow, there’s Lorraine today.”
I would like to be more confident.
How did drugs help you?
I could speak out more and make a lot of friends [when I was using drugs]. I could make a friend in a minute. I was trusting but now I don’t trust a lot of people. Drugs helped me realize that some people are trustworthy and some aren’t.
What other masks did you wear when you were doing drugs?
I wore the mother mask. The drug fiend mask. The only thing that was on my mind was getting drugs…getting drugs…getting drugs. It was just something I had to have. It was like life or death. The drugs made me feel more alive, more myself some how.
What mask did you have to wear to get your drugs?
I had to pretend that I wasn’t really sick [going through withdrawal] and that I didn’t really need the money for the dope. I pretended that I felt ok and that I was going to use the money for something good, like, “We are having a dinner party and I need the money to get something nice for this person.”
Do you miss anything about not being on drugs anymore?
I miss all the socializing, going out and meeting different people from all over. We all had
something in common—drugs. And I don’t miss it because I put my family through hell, having them worry about me.
Was stealing a mask for you when you were doing drugs?
Yes. Stealing was something I had to do. That’s who I was at that time.
How are the masks you wear different now?
I don’t wear the pretending mask anymore. I don’t use the ‘I need it…I need it…I need it…” to get drugs anymore. If I say I need something now, I really do, or I don’t ask.
I don’t pretend to be a mother anymore. I am a mother. And a grandmother. And I can be with them and be myself. If my grand babies want to play, I can play. I can do that.
If you dropped all your masks…who would people see?
Friendly, kind, loving person. Soft spoken.
How do you want your grandkids to see you?
A fun grandma, someone they can talk to and come to and feel safe. With the world being as bad as it is, they need safety. They need to feel that they have a place that they can come where nothing is going to harm them and I want to be their safety net.
Karen is grateful she had the opportunity to make amends with her family and children for stealing from them while on drugs.
Do you think using drugs was a mask for you?
That mask was the worst mask I ever had. The hardest thing I had to deal with was smoking crack. When they say she’s [crack’s] bad … well, I tell you she will take you to some places you never thought you would go and the harder I tried to stop the more I did.
The worst mask I wore was the one I wore to my mother’s house. I said I would never take anything from my mother, but when you are using any kind of chemical that starts to control you — and you don’t have any control. I feel bad because I stole from my mother when she was in her sick bed. With one hand I’m holding her hand and the other hand I’m going under the mattress. But I am so grateful and thankful because before she passed away we had a chance to make amends and not too many people get that chance. That’s why at night, I don’t have any problems sleeping.
What’s another mask you wore while using drugs?
Stealing from different people. Doing things to my kids. But the good part with my kids—after I was off drugs, they said, “Mom, we knew that wasn’t you—the drugs had you—we know you don’t do things like that.” That that makes me feel real grateful.
What did you have to do to get off drugs?
A lot of people ask me about when I stopped smoking. I can’t tell you when I stopped. All I know I prayed and talked about it so much until I believed it. And then one day I just woke up and didn’t want it no more. And then I found out I had heart problems and I knew if I took a hit that would be it. That mask of taking drugs— I don’t think about it because I would start acting on it.
I haven’t smoked for twenty some years and now I know I’m not going to do it again. I’m scared. The scared mask helps me. I carry that mask everywhere I go.
If you dropped all the masks, who would be there?
I would still be there. It would be a shell with feeling in it. A good feeling with sense. Knowing what I know now if I had a chance to do it again the drug mask would be the first thing I wouldn’t try.
I tell my grandkids, drugs ain’t no answer. If you need to talk about something, come to me, I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you the truth in the right way.
I teach my grandkids to use your mind. Don’t let anybody use your mind because whatever you do with your life—you are the one who has to deal with it. If it’s not what you want to do and you are doing it for someone else — all you will be doing is carrying around a lot of baggage trying to figure out which piece of luggage to leave behind and which piece of luggage do you want to bring with you. You need to use your own mind because once you let someone get in your mind you don’t stand a chance.
What mask would you like the world to see?
Successful mask. I have my own mind and still trying to do for myself and be independent.
Everybody should be able to think for themselves.
Sharon started using drugs when she was fifteen to escape feeling out of place. Getting an education and feeling good about herself was important for her journey away from drug abuse.
What kind of masks do you wear?
There is a difference in the masks I wear today and the masks I used to wear. For me, using narcotics became my mask for everything. I was always introverted and shy and I found out that when I became under the influence of a chemical that all of that inhibition went away and I was joyful and outgoing. That was one of the best things about using drugs.
[When I wasn’t using drugs,] I would let buses go past because I would have to get on and people were sitting there and I would have to walk by them. But with drugs in me, it didn’t matter…with drugs in me, I was the star of the show.
Drugs prevented me from having to feel that shyness and wanting to melt into the woodwork somewhere, not wanting to be seen. Drugs gave me the freedom to be able to function any where among people and not feel the mousiness.
When did you start doing drugs?
I started doing drugs when I was 15 years ago.
When did you stop?
I stopped using heroin on a daily basis maybe a year ago.
What were you hiding?
One thing, I was a chubby kid and I think that had a lot to do with it. I was pretty smart as far as schoolwork goes but I didn’t want to put my hand up because I didn’t want to get labeled as the smart kid.
People tended to shun the smart kids that were brainy and all and so I would refuse to participate for that reason. My teachers would tell my parents that they knew I knew the answers but I wouldn’t participate and they were right. I wouldn’t because I wanted to be A PART OF. I wanted to be A PART OF the dumb kids, because it seemed like they had the most fun. Being smart wasn’t fun and being smart was a lonely existence. Doing drugs was me wanting to be A PART OF.
At 15 I started running away from home and the people I was running around with were hustlers and drug users, so I became a part of that group.
What masks did you use then?
I was a hustler. I did different things to get money. I would boost [steal] so I had the opportunity to dress nice, because whatever we stole in the store, we would wear. I got to dress nice and have money in my pocket. I got to go to the night clubs on Charles Street.
If people could have seen inside you dressed beautifully inside a night club…what would they have seen?
Inside, I was scared. Praying that the mask didn’t drop. I would get panic attacks. I would be on the streets and I would have used in the earlier part of the day and the drugs would start to wear off and not only would I start to feel ill from withdrawal, but I would start to get panic attacks. Like Cinderella, “Please don’t let the clock strike 12,” because I would turn back into this pumpkin that the heroin prevented me from being.
What were you most afraid of during that time?
I don’t know. I never worried about getting caught. As I got more and more into the drug use, I got to the point that I had to have it and it was no longer fun and games. I had to have my hit in order not to feel physical pain.
Sometimes, I actually wished that I would get locked up ‘cause I would say in my mind, “If I would go to jail like this one [person] or that one [person] and stay for six months and come out again there is no way in the world I would use drugs again.” But, I know that probably was a lie…because I know so many people who had been in jail for years and came out and started doing the very same thing.
I’ve been in jail maybe ten days in my entire life. I would get locked up overnight and then I would lie about my age and then would get cut loose. But fortunately, being blessed, I’ve never gone to a jail, like the Department of Corrections or Baltimore Jail.
I was blessed, but I used to think it [not being locked up] was a curse, because I was convinced that even if I was to go to jail for three months or six months, knowing the pain and misery, I wouldn’t go back. In later years, thinking about the likelihood of not going back to drugs, well, it doesn’t work like that.
How did you get off drugs?
When I was 27, I got pregnant with my daughter. I always said I wasn’t hurting anyone but myself by using drugs. And then although I used drugs the whole time I carried her, thank god she was born without a habit. The doctor had suggested if I couldn’t cold turkey withdraw by myself that I would stay on the street drugs and wane myself off as opposed to getting on methadone. Back then, in 1973, they wouldn’t give a pregnant woman methadone.
I used drugs until after I had my daughter. When I had my daughter and got out of the hospital, two or three days later, I got right on methadone and that was my beginning of getting off drugs.
I got my GED and I went to CBC. I graduated with honors with a got a AAD degree.
Those were the things that began to replace me needing to have the drugs.
I started to feel good about who I was and my achievements.
And so do you believe you switched masks, or is this who you really are?
I believe that the person I am today is the real me. I am more comfortable with myself right now than I have ever been.
If you could talk to your fifteen-year-old self, what would you tell her?
Don’t follow the path, things will change for the better. I traded the chemicals for getting educated. Taking care of a child and getting educated were much more fulfilling and not physically painful and debilitating at all. That’s what I would say, “It will change.”
Have you kept track of the ‘cool people’ you knew in high school?
Most of them are dead. A few are still on drugs. Back then, I wanted to emulate the street people. On our street, the street people were like the movie stars, like the rappers of today. That is what I was following, that image. And the drugs helped to take away that mousey feeling.
I am so thankful that God blessed me to get out of it in the shape that I’m in. I’m just thankful.
What kind of mask do you wear now?
One of trying to be an individual who hopefully has something that a normal person can learn from.
You seem strong, powerful and very much your own person…did your experience of drugs help get you here?
I honestly believe that if I not had the experience with drugs I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I learned a lot about myself. A lot that can be helpful to kids, the younger generation. As a kid, it seems like being a kid is going to go on forever, but things change. But I believe now that nothing lasts forever.
I’m good with me today, thank God.