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Sometimes, taking off your mask is the hardest challenge you will face in life.  

The allure of wearing a mask is the false sense of protection it promises. It shields your true feelings while providing an image that doesn’t fracture the world’s perception of you. The problem with wearing a mask is that you become imprisoned by the very feelings you are trying to hide.

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When my then-fiance was sentenced to five years in prison, I didn’t realize that I was receiving a sentence of shame. While he was incarcerated (for a crime committed years before we met), shame consumed me, and I hid behind my mask for as long as I could. Shame is so blinding that you don’t realize how crazy you look in the middle of it. I was doing the equivalent of playing hide-and-go-seek and closing my eyes and thinking that made me invisible to other people. It’s laughable now, but it was my reality then.

I never told people on my job that my fiance was incarcerated. I always found some silly way to explain his absence from an important function. Of course, his absence was noticed by my close family and friends. They knew he had been arrested, but that was all they knew. They didn’t know if I had broken off the engagement or decided to wait for him. They were pretty much in the dark and waiting for me to initiate the discussion.

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For years I refused to verbally confirm to suspicious friends. I was closing my eyes and hoping that made me invisible to them. How exactly was I supposed to tell them that? Was I supposed to squeeze it in between talks about intersectionality and feminism? Would it have made great small talk in the car on the way to pick up one of their husbands from yet another business trip? Or maybe when we had our yearly college homecoming, I could have spilled the beans in between party-walking and pretending I could still step like an undergrad.

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The conversation around mass incarceration and African-American men typically fails to factor in how profoundly middle-class black women are impacted. Most know the more dire statistics, that 1 out of 6 black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime, but when black women are included in the conversation, it’s usually reduced to how incarceration affects a family financially. This is a daunting reality. Yet little has been discussed of the deeper implications of incarceration for many black women. Many people choose to hide in their safe “Talented Tenth” bubble and pretend this is yet another problem faced only by “poor” black women who date “thugs.”

I didn’t think I was the “typical” face of the woman who secretly spends weekends taking long-distance trips to see her fiance through a glass. Yet there I was, taking regular trips to visit him, sending packages and calling lawyers. Yup. I was a walking, talking, breathing Teri Woods book, alone in a self-imposed prison of shame.

At one point I became a recluse. I only came out of my house to attend church and go to work. I avoided socializing. When the topic of his arrest and our relationship status became too difficult to avoid, I put on my big-girl panties and told my friends and family everything. I listened to family as they stated, “You’re beautiful, successful and educated, and you’re waiting for somebody that’s locked up?” Sometimes it was a statement; other times, it was a question. I felt judged, so I battled all the emotions pretty much alone.

Although some of the questions were sheerly passing judgment, other questions came from a place of utter shock. Some of the people in my inner circle had never met a person who’d been to prison, much less met a woman who was engaged to one. Naturally they had questions. Yet before I could provide a real answer, and not just a response designed to silence them, I had to own my truth. My truth was that I stayed because I loved him. I understood how difficult this would be and the type of support he would need.

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A deeper truth I had to face was how I felt about staying. Good, bad and ugly, I had to own my truth and be OK with it in order for external opinions to become irrelevant to me. I owned it and became my own judge and jury over my life decisions. I spoke my truth. To my surprise, the minute I owned my decision I became … free. I am not sure if and when the judgment actually stopped or I just stopped caring. However, the new freedom opened up deeper conversation among people who had a myopic view of incarcerated men and the women who stay with them.

I know that sharing this piece opens me up to a greater level of scrutiny and judgment from total strangers. I also know that wearing a mask is exhausting, but taking it off is liberating, and I’m hoping it’s contagious. While I may be one of the few women sharing their stories publicly, I know that I am not the only woman who has endured this privately.

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A public discussion about this may not necessarily impact the policies that lead to mass incarceration, but it does have the power to shift public perception of the woman who supports an incarcerated loved one. It’s easy to assume that she exists in some world so vastly different from yours. However, the truth is, she may be a lot closer to you than you realize … just hiding behind a mask and too afraid to take it off.

Shanita Hubbard is a mom, writer, social-justice advocate and Nas stan and is also the lover of a great twist-out and good books. Follow her on Twitter.