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The One Question That Challenged the 'Happiness Mask' Hiding My Anxiety

It was the question that came out of nowhere. It threw me for a loop, stopped me dead in my tracks and made me proud all in the same second. “Are you this happy all the time?” asked my co-worker as we lead our respective classes back down the hallway after an assembly. For what seemed like an eternity, I hedged and hemmed and hawed before I was blessedly given the out, “I know it’s a loaded question,” and we reached our classrooms.

That question was my proudest moment and worst nightmare all at once. I was thrilled because the question meant that my carefully crafted and firmly attached mask was working. When I was at school, no one would ever know that I spent my evenings not sleeping because my mind wouldn’t stop racing, skipped eating dinner because I simply didn’t have the energy to get up and make something, or panicking because of that one stupid thing I said during recess that must have made my colleagues think I was stupid little girl. No, at work I was bubbly, energetic, helpful to my colleagues and was creative in engaging my students in new ways of learning. I was the one who would never say no: need a duty covered, done; photocopier jammed, got it covered; supply teacher didn’t show up and I need to cover your class, I’m your girl. Need to vent, go for it, I will listen as a sympathetic ear, prop you back up and slip a little chocolate on your desk the next day to keep you going.

It was my nightmare because what they didn’t see was that every time I had to change my schedule at the last minute, I was thrown into a nauseated, sweaty-palmed, shaking mess. If they needed my help with a technology issue, I prayed that I would be able to think on my feet fast enough to solve the problem to avoid looking incompetent or imperfect. While I was listening to you vent and propping you up, I was three steps ahead, scripting the conversation so I wouldn’t trip over my words or say something potentially offensive.

Through all of these things, no one seemed to realized I was truly dying inside. I would hide in my office every day at lunch and recess to try and recharge my exhausted batteries to give my everything to my students, all of whom have a combination of learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder and behavior challenges. The times I sat in a classroom desperately trying to teach while fighting the urge to run away, vomit or pass out with the sheer weight of a panic attack. Other days, it’s simply too much and I let Ms. Frizzle or Bill Nye teach the kids while I focus on not holding my breath or hyperventilating and letting my oh so precious mask slip. God forbid I take a sick day for a panic attack — what would my colleagues think?

I was and still am so good at holding my mask, there are very few people at work who know what is actually going on. It took me almost a full year to let my principal and vice principal in on what I was going through for fear I wouldn’t get the permanent job I was in contention for (I got it and my principal told me after she wasn’t letting me get away no matter what). Slowly — very slowly — I have been able to let a few colleagues see what I look like without my mask and while each and every one has been thoroughly surprised, they are all incredibly supportive. We have developed code words if I need a fast out to get my bearings and they make a point to check in with me because they know I will never ask for help or let on I am overwhelmed.

I still am not comfortable with sharing my struggles with everyone. I rest easier knowing that I have a supportive team around me and that my mask is still safely intact and reliable should I need to not let my true self into the outside world.

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Getty image via tixti