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When You Are Afraid Your Mask Will Fall and Show Your Mental Illness

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The figurative mask. What is it and why do so many of us wear one? Probably more importantly for this exercise, why do I wear one? And why is it so important to me?

I wear a mask, one that makes me appear to be strong and capable, cheerful, outgoing, warm. The “nothing bothers me” mask. It continues to smile no matter what is happening to the woman behind it. The mask is a way to hide my bruised self, a way to hide or disguise the feelings that are raw and vulnerable. It is safe. It allows me perfect control over what people get to see.

This mask used to fit me so well — seamlessly even — but in the past couple of years it has started to chafe. It feels heavy and no longer seems to fit and holding it up gets to be exhausting and occasionally it starts to slip. What once felt as though it was made from fine china, light and smooth, easy to keep in place, now feels to be roughly crafted from wrought iron — it is heavy and rubs painfully.

I don’t want to wear it anymore, but I don’t want to burden people with the real feelings I have.

Ever since I was just a little girl, my role in the world has been to provide for others. I am the one who nurtures, but behind that mask is a woman who needs to be nurtured. I am the one who is strong and alert, but behind the mask is a woman who is weak and tired. I am the empathetic one who gives support and love, but behind the mask is a woman who is in need of empathy, support and love.

It really doesn’t matter where I go, I will look for the person who seems to need something, and I will be drawn to them. It is the only way for me to truly find a sense of fulfillment, to find a person and give to them. I give time, emotional support, friendship, care — anything I can find within myself or within my means to make them feel the best.

It is like a drug. At first I get a high because I love to help, I love to care — it makes me feel useful and happy, it is a beautiful feeling. But there are others times when I have gone too far, and then comes the crash — emotional exhaustion, depression, a sense of loneliness because I can’t show my own vulnerabilities and thus feel unseen. After the crash comes guilt. I feel selfish and fake because I did not allow someone the chance to help me and get that good feeling themselves, and shame they think I might be fake. Then there is distress. I feel trapped and as though I do not actually have control. This guilt leads to feelings of anxiety and self-loathing. Then the cycle repeats.

There are many who tell me balance is key, that it is OK to be both the person of the mask and the person behind it — that both feelings are valid. They say it is OK to have needs and it is reasonable to expect them to be met. But I do not know how to do this. I only know how to be the “perfect” friend. I only want to be the giver, not the taker. This is all I know how to do, it is all I feel comfortable with. It feels like there is no safety in showing need. To me, that feels not like “balance” but instead neediness, weakness, vulnerability, selfishness.

I only know how to let people take. A few do so without asking, but mostly it is because I am inviting them to do so. I want to give and I want them to take, but I do not want to receive, nor do I know how — I do not feel worthy of that.

This is where social anxiety comes into the story. It protects me, it keeps me safe. Staying home and only associating with those I trust to see me vulnerable: my husband and to a degree, my children. I am too tired to keep holding this heavy mask, but I am so terrified of it falling and cracking, horrified others might see the needy person who has perfected her smile. It is safer and easier to stay alone.

I tried to open up. I hesitantly let people in, but I chose poorly — or maybe I just was not open enough, honest enough about what I was feeling? In doing so, I broke that fragile hope that is was possible for me to find the fabled “balance.”

I am scared. I do not want to leave the safety of my sanctuary, it frightens me. I am scared of falling apart, I am horrified at the thought my mask might drop. I am terrified of being seen, judged or pitied. It strikes fear in my heart to think of falling apart and having people suggest it was a way to get attention, to be noticed.

Yes, avoidance is considered to be a poor and maladaptive coping skill, but despite that, I just want to be alone. I’m not longer lonely, not very often anyway. I don’t want to burden people with my presence unless I know that I am going to be able to keep the strong and cheerful me present. I do not want to be a disappointment.

Is it really that wrong to stay alone if you are comfortable there? Is it a problem is you feel safest there?

Follow this journey on The Art of Broken.

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Unsplash photo via Allef Vinicius.

Originally published: May 1, 2017
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