What Lies Beneath the Mask That Hides My Anxiety and PTSD

Many of us have a public and private persona. If we are lucky, these two are more closely related than not. We can be ourselves without feeling judged or imperfect or unworthy. We may not feel the need to hide any part of ourselves for fear of judgment. But for me, as someone who struggles with high-functioning anxiety and PTSD, the mask I hide behind has been so carefully cultivated that many people have no idea I am, in fact, struggling with a mental health issue.

I hid behind this mask for the better part of 40 years. My masked self is a perfectionist, an achiever, someone who could put her mind to anything and succeed. She’s a hard worker, runs a successful business, appears to have super human energy, can juggle a million balls in the air at once, is well-liked, has many people who care for her, is happily married and has an optimistic, positive outlook on life. These are all aspects of myself that are true, but they don’t represent all of me.

Underneath this seemingly put-together persona is an incredibly insecure, anxious person. Someone who often feels unworthy of love or admiration. Someone who feels guilty for having any needs, but has no problem taking care of the needs of others. Someone who questions her abilities constantly and who often feels like a “burden” to others when she needs support. She’s anxious to the point of having panic attacks over seemingly silly things. She’s an over-thinker who can’t shut off her mind. She’s an insomniac, and she worries about everything, imagining the worst-case scenarios and rehashing every perceived failure over and over again, wondering what she could have done differently. She craves connection with others, and yet she struggles to trust people. She is often at war with her body, struggling with knowing what amount of exercise and food is healthy, but seeing a false image in the mirror triggered by her body dysmorphic disorder that tempts her to over-exercise, have “good” and “bad” foods, and restrict her intake because she’s terrified of gaining weight and feels out of control.

The truth is, sometimes it’s exhausting being me. I finally got to the point where I was simply too overwhelmed to go on. I needed help. So I started seeing a therapist who I trusted and started peeling back the layers of my mask. Bit by bit, I revealed the source of my angst, of my insecurities, of my control issues and of my need for perfection. As my trust built with her, I was able to acknowledge the pain I had been repressing from childhood sexual abuse and was able to slowly begin my healing journey.

As I continue peeling away these layers and revealing the unmasked me, I often get comments like “Why do you need a therapist?” or “You seem so put together!” It bothers me that people don’t seem to comprehend that mental health issues are not shameful and there is nothing wrong with seeing a therapist or taking medication for anxiety. My mental health struggles don’t diminish my strengths as a person. In fact, in many ways, I feel acknowledging their existence and accepting I need help was the ultimate act of strength and is a sign of a strong character.

Let’s end the stigma around mental health issues. My struggles do not define me, but they are a part of what has shaped who I am, including the good things. On my healing journey, I’m slowly learning to integrate all of me — from what is in front of the mask to what is behind it. My hope is to one day have a whole self that can be all of these things and who no longer has to hide.

Image via Thinkstock.

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