the masks we wear, the lies we tell, and the secrets we keep

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

I spent the past year a walking wound, but you’d never know it. Maybe you read a handful of sad stories I’d written or scrolled through a few Facebook status updates, but if you saw me in person you’d see someone who was assembled, stitched neatly together. Nevermind the gashes beneath the surface, the cuts that failed to heal. I was fine, just fine, but let’s not talk about me. Tell me about you. I’d arrange my face in different shapes; I’d smile and nod and stare intently, and everyone would leave with the comfort that I was going to be okay. In forty years I’d survived so much, surely I would endure this. Surely the girl was going to be just fine.

The girl slouches home. The girl unravels. The girl is far from fine.

When I was small I was taught the worst thing one could be was weak. Never cry, never be vulnerable, never let anyone all the way in. So my heart was a bolted door and I lived on the side with all the mothballs desperate to flutter out. Throughout college and during the first fifteen years of my career, I was repeatedly told that it was verboten to bring your full self to work. The office wasn’t the place for your sob stories or crumbled tissues in clammy hands. Leave that six-piece luggage set at home. No one wants or needs to know. Deal with your life privately, behind closed doors. Even as a child growing up in Brooklyn, everyone lived by the axiom: mind your own.

So we become editors of ourselves, preservationists of our suffering. We become architects of our masks; we reframe our true stories in work and in life. We become vague on the level of a CIA operative. We’re just going through a tough time. We use phrases like a rough patch, a temporary setback, and a minor blip. But we’re fine, really.

We consistently pass on that glass of wine because we’re not in the mood or we don’t particularly like drinking instead of saying I’m an alcoholic. We talk up our partner’s attributes or the memories you once shared that were photographs worth taking instead of saying I’m going through a divorce. We post terrific photographs of our best selves while we binge-watch “House of Cards”, refreshing our phones, waiting for the Likes. We live for that validation in the moments when we feel sonnet-small when the space between you and the photograph you’ve taken becomes a chasm that widens with the passing of each day. We wonder: how do I get that to person? When can I feel that expression? That face?

This week, I was formally diagnosed with severe depression, and my financial situation is dire to the point where I’ve had to borrow money from close friends to pay for my twice-weekly therapy visits. I tell my therapist how much this bothers me, how it annoys me that I’ve become a burden. I look weak. I’m a failure. And he interrupts and reminds me of something I’d said when we first met — it was an off-hand comment, something to the effect that if he saw me on the street I would be unrecognizable. What did I mean by that, he wanted to know. Had I been wearing a mask all this time? I said, yes, of course, because when you spend your whole life on guard, you can’t just fling open all the doors, throw open all the windows. It didn’t occur to me that I was laughing during the first half hour of my visit. I couldn’t stop laughing. I hate that I had to publicly ask people for money — ha! ha! ha! I hated how it felt when my friends read an essay I published and subsequently deleted because it caused them insurmountable fear and anguish to the point where I received frantic voicemails in the middle of the night— ha! ha! ha! I hate this feeling now, of being here, of telling you these things; I’ve always come back, I’ve always survived, and now I’m certain if I can get past this. He tells me that vulnerability isn’t a mark of failure; it’s the trait of someone who’s human.

Why are you laughing, he asks, to which I respond, it’s easier than crying.

I spent so much of my career not bringing any of my whole self to work that it must have appeared like I wasn’t human. I wasn’t capable of feeling, and this alienated me. This red pen that I took to myself, this scalpel I used to excise parts of my life that I could have shared with others, made it hard for me to form attachments, made me seem less real to the people who worked for me. I regret the mask I wore and wish I would have been a little more vulnerable, or at least, honest.

When I tell my friends that things are bad, really bad, that I’m seeing a psychiatrist twice a week and taking Wellbutrin, I receive dozens of emails from people whom I least suspect, people whom I’ve known for years who suffer from depression or another form of mental illness. They tell me they’ve been there and they know exactly what I’m going through and that it gets better. They assure me it does even on the days when I can’t see my hand in front of my face it’s that dark. And then I ask why they never told me this, what they’ve gone through, some replied that I seemed so put together, so stoic, warm but at a remove, that they didn’t want to ripple the surface. Others said that their depression (or mental illness) is not something they offer up for a variety of reasons, one of which is stigma and fear of how others would perceive them. They trust me with their secrets and I want to write back and say I wish we wouldn’t have to lie, or tell secrets, or spend our lives presenting our edited selves to the world.

I wish I would have made my wounds visible sooner because I know some would be there at the ready with bandages. Perhaps I would’ve healed sooner.


I originally published this post on Medium

33 thoughts on “the masks we wear, the lies we tell, and the secrets we keep

  1. To this day, even though my despression anxiety is under control and well managed, I need to remind myself of basic rules that keep me from spiraling to that dark, lonely place.

    1. The only person I can change is me. I need to let get go/give up to a higher power all the problems in my life that I can not control.

    My gut is to always meddle. If I do X, it holds her accountable, makes her understand, may help this person, etc etc. the truth is, nothing we do can force anyone else to change. They need to choose it for themselves. All we have the power to change is ourselves and our perceptions. “Control” is my biggest enemy/ally in life. I fought for it for so long, but the truth? Giving up control makes my lungs fill deeper, it gives my brain my space to think and my heart my room to love. But it’s a battle, every day, reminding myself to choose to be vulnerable. Its worth it. Fight for you.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, Jessica! This is so beautiful and helpful, and it continually comforts me to hear from others going through what I’m facing right now.

      You’re spot-on when it comes to control. I’m such s control freak that I’ve made it a practice to remind myself that there’s only so much I can humanely do. It’s a small reminder but an important one.

      >

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are brave. You are loved. You are listened to.
    There will be days when the biggest struggle is getting out of bed and facing the world. That is why my philosophy is ‘keep breathing and wear clean pants’ I didn’t brush my hair for three months at my bad time because I couldn’t face it. Cleaning my teeth once a day was as far as my personal care went, and that was ok. I was doing that and it was ok that that was all up was able to do. I congratulate myself every day on wearing matching shoes and having my shit together enough to remember to pack lunch. Take pride in every small achievement you get and don’t worry about the things you are just not able to manage today. Just keep breathing and wear clean pants. Everything else is just icing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I take Wellbutrin because I don’t want to get fat, but it does nothing for the anxiety. I don’t know how much you know about pharmacy but I thought I’d share that with you. Sometimes people take another antidepressant with Wellbutrin because Wellbutrin will get your ass up and in gear but can emphasize anxiety.
    Sincerely,
    A concerned hypocrite!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your feedback! I think different medications have different effects on people based on body chemistry. So far I’m happy with Wellbutrin, and will definitely work with my doctor to adjust, as needed.

      Like

  4. Thank you for being so honest about this. I agree that the way we are all encouraged to pretend we are “fine” and have it all pulled together ends up harming and isolating us more than helping. It sucks that it’s so hard to admit when we are not okay. I hate how much I hesitate to be honest online and offline about how I feel. I hate to think that I have been the person who asked how someone was without really wanting to hear.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So true Felicia. Wish we didn’t wear masks. Wish we could let our wounds breathe and heal. On 6 Mar 2016 10:08 p.m., “love.life.eat” wrote:

    > felicia sullivan posted: ” Photo Credit: Unsplash I spent the past year a > walking wound, but you’d never know it. Maybe you read a handful of sad > stories I’d written or scrolled through a few Facebook status updates, but > if you saw me in person you’d see someone who was ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I had a huge fight with my boyfriend this weekend. I do the exact same thing; I keep everything to myself and pretend I’m fine. I don’t talk to him about what’s going on, because that means I have to be vulnerable.
    And it only puts my relationship in jeopardy if I don’t talk to him. I relate to you 100% and I will join you on this path to “recovery”. Good luck! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Felicia. Like so many others I’ve been where you are. I’ve taken on the guilt and blame and disapproval in too many voices that echoed through my young life. Until a lot of therapy and self-examination and faith helped me to begin to believe those voices were wrong. In fact they only spoke those damaging words because their own damaged spirits wouldn’t allow them to utter healing ones. So I’m with the crew that tells you this will get better. It may not feel like that’s possible but it is. You may not be ready to hear it but it remains true anyway. In the meantime – until you wake up one morning and some of the fog has lifted and you know the rest will lift gradually too – we will love you through it – those of us who have walked the path you’re on and feel your sadness because we’ve felt it also. Bless you today and tomorrow and the next day. One day at a time. Alice.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. You write wonderfully, love your blog 🙂
    I’m sure each one reading this has gotten connected even if it is for that one line. And yes, vulnerability is good you know! It makes you feel alive 🙂 xoxo

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Hey 🙂
    Although your article deals with a sad theme, I really like it. I admire your style of writing.
    -“We become architects of our masks; we reframe our true stories in work and in life. “-
    I totally agree with you at that Point, we spent so much time all day to make ourselves look good at snapchat, at Twitter and Facebook, so in the end we Forget, who we really are. That’s sad.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Look you took a chance shared such a deep experience with strangers and look at how you’re embraced. I love WordPress! I have PTSD I totally get what you have been going through. Thank god I have meds for days I can’t manage! Good luck and keep us posted!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. And sometimes I feel so tired of wearing the mask. I do understand you and admire you for letting it down. I feel that I can’t and that I also don’t want to. Thank you for the lovely insightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. A couple years ago, I answered a casual inquiry with a weighted brevity that was bound to a truth I had previously pretended away. A casual acquaintance was asking of my son, my family, and rather than entertain a polite pretense – I set aside my pride and allowed myself to feel visible. It was both terrifying and liberating; I became more genuine and accessible in a way I couldn’t have imagined. All to say, I understand. Lovely and brave sharing.

    Like

  13. I felt touched by your words, because I’ve been in a similar situation. It took a long time to learn that keeping up a ‘smiling’ mask is not what makes me happy, but showing my feelings, my deepest emotions.. even when they are not that good emotions that others expect me to show. Thank you for this wonderful blog! 🙂 and go on, I’m sure you are an inspiring example.
    Jacky

    Like

  14. The dictionary defines grief as key mental suffering or distress over an affliction or some kind of loss, a sharp sorrow, a painful regret and from that book these are the definitions on definitive, but in life strict definitions rarely apply, because grief can look like a lot of things which are of little resemblance to the dictionary. The very worst part is that the minute that you think you are over it, something happens and then it starts all over again and always without saying takes our breathe away.

    Jenny

    Like

  15. “We live for that validation in the moments when we feel sonnet-small.”

    Thank you. This line really resonated with me today (it’s a down day). I admire that you have the energy or even strength to project an image of put-togetherness when you are in it deep. My therapist has also called me out for laughing when I talk about sad or traumatic events. If I put myself in your shoes, I imagine it is the dry and droll laughter I utter so often. It is easier than crying. It is easier to cope through dark humor than to cry even in the office of a therapist, which is supposed to be the safest place to do so. I’m sorry you are this deep in with so much external burden and stress. Wish I had the means to lend a hand.

    Like

    1. Thanks, lady! Masks have always been a coping mechanism–not necessarily a healthy one, but one that is familiar. I think my work lies in leaving them behind, or perhaps relying on them less and less.

      I’m sorry you’re having an off day. Sending you love across the interwebs.

      On Thu, Mar 10, 2016 at 5:04 PM, love.life.eat wrote:

      >

      Like

  16. Although I cannot diagnose what exactly it is, I am suffering from. I’m very confused, indecisive and worry about everything,which results to me being unhappy. thank you for this post, and the comments are soothing. Am glad I read it.

    Like

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