When Your Mask Falls Away and Your Anxiety Is Released


I grew up with a mother who repeatedly emphasized that appearances mattered above all else. As a child, behind all my decisions, my mother’s voice was ever-present, asking, “What would the neighbors think?” The household was a dysfunctional battle zone, but only behind closed doors. From an early age, my mother implanted in my head the belief that neighbors gossip and the worst sin of all was giving them any fuel to add to their fire.

So I learned to carry myself a particular way, to walk tall, shoulders back, and smile like everything in the world was just peachy. I built walls to hold in my pain and bolted on a mask to hide my tears. I put on the performance of a lifetime for years, doing multiple shows a day.

On extremely stressful days or periods when my depression is weighing heavily on my soul, I try to push myself to go out in public because that is my last line of defense. Though I might break down and crawl into bed for the day in the privacy of my own home, when I am surrounded by people, my mother’s voice is ever-present with me. Somehow, though I want to curl up in a ball and cry, that little voice continuously harps to “hold it in, hold it together, don’t fall apart.” After all, what would those strangers think if I had a meltdown and became a crying, sniveling mess?

Every now and then, however, the cracks in my veneer begin to show. As much as I try to hold everything together, my walls crumble around me and I become a quivering, sobbing mess as all the depression and anxiety that has built up inside me comes pouring out.

Usually, it is in response to something someone has said or done to me, especially if they are unnecessarily hostile or aggressive towards me. It pierces through my artificial calm and triggers my flight response. Alarms sound within my mind to flee, to find somewhere safe before the fragile walls I’m hiding behind begin to shatter.

I honestly hate that I am so fragile, especially when it comes to conflict. For me, hard-wired somewhere in my brain is a connection between conflict and abuse. When I was a child and my mother became upset, some sort of harsh and irrational punishment was guaranteed, whether it was warranted or not. When my older brother saw red, I quickly learned to get away before fists began to fly. Though that little kernel of logic in my brain might reassure me that not everyone who acts aggressively means to inflict physical harm, my mind and my body react impulsively as if imminent danger lies ahead.

When I can neither flee nor quiet the alarm sounding in my mind, panic sets in and a meltdown occurs. The artificial calm demeanor I have created begins to collapse and it feels like the floor has dropped from beneath me. I feel as if I’m tumbling down a never-ending hole with nothing to grab onto, no way to prevent myself from falling apart.

I begin to feel unsafe, unheard. I am transported back to a time when I was a little child with a little voice that went unheard. Instead of reacting rationally, the floodgates open and a river of emotions cascade out.

My hands begin to shake. My mouth struggles to find anything coherent to say. I want to cry out and run away, yet I feel frozen in place, my feet cemented to the floor. I find myself sobbing, melting down, babbling this endless stream of verbal diarrhea, trying to simultaneously explain and defend myself. My thoughts and statements ricochet all over the place, from one topic to the next, following no pattern, rhyme or reason.

Inside, that young child is screaming, “It’s all too much, I can’t take any of this, it needs to stop!” She is in a complete panic, scrambling for the right words to say to make it all go away, to make herself feel safe again. An endless stream of, “No more! No mas!” echoes within every word she manages to squeak out between sobs.

Meanwhile, the older, wiser, more rational part of myself seems to be standing to the side, witnessing it all in disbelief. That logical fragment passes judgment, demanding to know what on earth I am doing, insisting I stop making a “spectacle” of myself.

Back and forth they battle in the background as the meltdown continues. The small, injured childlike facet of myself falling to pieces while the other more logical facet scoffs and demands I pull myself together. Little by little, my body and mind exhaust themselves and the river of sobs transitions into a slow trickle of tears. I find myself mortified that I allowed it to happen again because I feel I should be stronger than this. I’ve had a lifetime of building walls and bolting on masks. They should be strong enough to withstand anything by this point.

I wipe away my tears, take a deep breath and take my walk of shame out the door, because I know this won’t be the last time I fall apart or melt down. It is all part of the burden of the functional depressive. Though we may put on a brave face and act like our world is full of sunshine and peaches, our walls are made of dirt bricks that cannot withstand the waves of aggression from others or our own flood of tears that follows.

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Unsplash photo via Dmitry Ratushny

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