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I Thought the Mask I Wore Over My Anxiety Would Keep Me Safe

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I’ve worn this mask most of my life. I believed it helped me. I believed it kept me safe and protected me. I never knew what life was like without the mask, or what I could achieve without the mask. But all along, the mask was just a mask and nothing more. It did not help me, it did not keep me safe or protect me. It only gave me something to hide behind and disguise what was really going on inside. Like sweeping all your dirt under the carpet, it may be hidden, but it is never resolved.

When you have spent a lifetime disguising what’s going on inside, the mask becomes a permanent feature of your persona. While you seem confident on the outside, inside there’s a storm brewing. My heart is pounding, I’m drumming my legs, my stomach is turning over, I’m chewing my finger nails and I’m biting the inside of my mouth to the point it bleeds. Nervous without rhyme or reason, overclouded by thoughts that just simply should not exist.

At a young age I discovered my mask. Like a tool in my toolbox, I used it to bury my emotions and manufacture a facade, building walls and hiding what was going on inside. Day in and day out, the mask was on as soon as my eyelids would open. Sometimes it was even in my dreams. From the moment I was awake the mask had to be on, out of fear — fear of someone learning how I felt. I feared someone would find out I did not like what I saw in the mirror.

At first I thought my mask could be easily removed, like I could take it off at any time and cope. But every time I attempted to remove my mask I found myself putting it back on faster than I could imagine. It was easier to wear the mask than confront the thoughts and actions that led me to wearing it. It was easier to sweep them under the carpet and ignore their existence than addressing them truly. Because addressing them would mean admitting to them and acknowledging I have issues. An admission to my faults and flaws, in my eyes, would be a failure. Failure to be a man like I was brought up to understand. Men don’t express feelings, they don’t show emotions. They’re tough, they’re robust, they are resilient and confident.

My mask came in the form of drug use. When I was younger it was more experimental, having tried almost everything I could get my hands on — alcohol, speed, ice, cocaine or acid — whatever was available. But my drug of choice, the one that allowed me to mask myself from the world and still function within society, was marijuana. I started using it heavily to calm and hide my anxiety and mask what I felt inside. My anxieties about socializing, going out, meeting people, being around people, dealing with peer pressure, being bullied, having my trust in other people shattered and dealing with life in general. I wanted to mask myself from everything, as if I was protecting myself from harm.

While I had no explanation for the way I was feeling, no way of knowing why or how hard it would strike, I knew one thing — smoking pot masked my anxiety from the people around me. Most importantly, it masked it from me. It allowed me to feel like I could function within the social norms without feeling I had to leave or to sit in silence by myself. But often, that’s what I would do. Isolate myself. Trash myself. Distort my mind with so much pot I was numb to what was going on around me.

I hadn’t realized I was still wearing the mask until recently. I thought it had long gone but it wasn’t. I had become so habituated to the mask it seemed to have dissolved away and become a part of me. But, alas, I was still wearing it all along. Still numbing myself to my issues, not allowing anyone in, blocking them out, sheltering me and protecting me.

It was time for change. It was time to lose the mask and see what life was like without it. To see what I could do, what I could be and who I really was. Open and exposed. No more hiding, no more numbing, no more mask. This seemed paradoxical as the idea raged my anxiety levels, yet I knew I had to confront it and change it. I needed to see who I truly was, and whether I really needed the mask or not.

Could I do it? What if I can’t remove it? What if I do and I fail? What if I succeed and nobody likes who I am? What if I don’t like who I am? It would be easier to put the mask back on and go on pretending everything is OK. I could see unless I challenged myself to remove the mask, I would forever be stuck wearing it. I may never see what I could be, who I could be or what I could achieve.

I faced the challenge and removed the mask, and it’s still gone to this day. I am no longer numbing myself to life, no longer letting anxiety win the battle. I can still feel the anxiety when it appears, when it raises its head, but instead of trying to mask or numb it I can now deal with it and defeat it. There were times I wanted to put the mask on again because it would be easier than facing the challenge of reality, of seeing who I can be. But I will never know what I can achieve if I sit comfortably behind the mask, never dreaming, never challenging myself and never accepting who I could be.

The key to removing my mask came as a result of a decision that had nothing to do with wearing it. It was a butterfly effect on a grandiose scale. I decided I wanted to get involved with helping a charity close to my heart and family. A charity called Touched By Olivia, who design and build inclusive play spaces for children of all abilities — children like my second daughter. They were looking for people to run in the New York City Marathon in November and something drew me in like a moth to a porch light.

To help me commit to the process of training for the run I started a blog on Facebook called Run, Dad, Run. It made me feel responsible for committing to the run and so I started blogging about my training and how I was feeling. As an unintentional consequence of this process I would film myself discussing how I was feeling, what was going on in my mind and why I felt the way I did. I started to talk about my anxiety and drug use, with only the camera to hear my rationalizations. But I knew I needed to make a public post about it so people could realize despite my outward facade, they were only seeing the mask. I’d spend hours reviewing the footage, watching myself talk about me. I felt like I was watching a complete stranger. “This is not me, who is this person? Why does he feel this way?” I would watch the videos and I would cry. I could not make anything of the footage because it hurt so much to see this person and the reasons he gave for his drug use. I was in denial it was even me.

The more I watched the footage and pondered who this person was the more I realized I had to make a difference now before it was too late. If not, I would be on my death bed one day asking myself what I could have achieved, who I could be, where I could go and what dreams I left behind. I realized I couldn’t outwardly change if I couldn’t inwardly change. The videos gave me an overwhelming sense of self-reflection and self-realization. I knew what I had to do. I had to remove the mask. For my kids, my family, my friends and most importantly for me. I had to dig deep inside and ask myself if I wanted to continue masking these things and watch as time faded away, or if I wanted to be the person I should be.

I had never run a marathon in my life. I was never much of a runner at all. Yet for some reason it resonated with me, it called out and challenged me. I wanted to be the guy who said he was going to do something and then went out and did it. I wasn’t going to be the guy who did nothing and watched his dreams pass by anymore. With a new level of determination I set about making a change in my mind and in my life. I quit consuming the drugs and faced my fears. I looked into my own eyes and realized something: I was my own worst enemy all along. I was the problem and I was the solution. I needed to beat the voice in my head that said I would fail, that told me to quit and take the same over-walked path. I was determined to shut that voice down and drown it out with a new mantra — I can do this!

And so it was. Like a light switch that had been turned on, something had changed in my mind. It wasn’t over months or days or hours, but at that very moment I realized I had anxiety issues and a drug addiction and admitted to it. The lights in my darkened room had been turned on and I could finally see there was more to life. I could not turn that light off again. I couldn’t let myself go back to that dark room and be benighted by my anxiety and fears anymore. It was time to change. And so, change I did.

Follow this journey on Run, Dad, Run.

Originally published: July 13, 2016
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