Have you ever worn masks to cover up what was happening inside your brain? From the outside looking in, I have a pretty normal life. I have a good job, a husband, a rugrat, and two dogs. I have a happy and friendly disposition and I generally like other human beings. I’m talkative, laid back, and I overshare which often makes people feel at ease about me. That said, the people in my life know there is more to the story.
Sometimes overtaken by anguish, anxiety, mania, or worry, I have times that aren’t so good. There are periods when life is difficult and hard to manage and my brain just won’t get on track. Sometimes, I see disturbing and scary images in my head and I often obsess over the things that hurt me. These are all things that I can manage to hide from my outer circles because I have a collection of proverbial, hand-crafted masks.
“I would have never guessed you were depressed.”
“You seem so happy…”
“I just don’t see it…”
These are all things that I’ve heard, many times, upon disclosing my disorders to workplaces and casual acquaintances. Part of that is because of the skewed idea of brain disorders in TV, film, and media. They’ve made words like mental illness into dirty words. But part of it is also that we mask so hard to fit into society that it becomes hard for the masses to know what it’s really like for us.
Masking is basically living in camouflage; putting on a performance that is deemed as socially appropriate by your peers, coworkers, and/or family. It is hiding parts of yourself to fit in. Be sure, everyone masks from time to time (even neurotypicals), but it becomes a survival skill for people with brain disorders. I can’t separate this post into ADHD and mental illness because I have unknowingly been masking both for most of my life.
When I first heard of masking, I really didn’t think that it was a behavior that I engaged in. I then saw an article about different types of masks and I realized that I mask more than I thought. When I really started to think about it, I realized that my masks are so affixed that I didn’t even realize I had them…even after I knew what they were. Then it became a game of trying to untangle what was my actual personality and what was the mask.
Let’s take a look at some of the masks that I have worn over the years.
The Shy Girl. This is the first mask that most people see when they meet me. Though I am extremely outgoing and love to talk, I can’t always put on my best face when I meet someone new. Unless I am with a big group of people that I already know, I get really quiet and unsure of myself.
I start to open up, bit by bit, but sometimes it takes a while. I have to figure out how much of me they can handle. Also, I overshare with the people I’m closest to. They are used to it by now. But I’ve gotten myself in trouble by oversharing with people I didn’t know well, only to find out later that they weren’t trustworthy people and now they had my secrets on their tongue. Tough break, but lessons were learned.
The Funny Girl. I learned pretty early in life that I was good at making people laugh and that I liked it almost as much as they did. By the time I got to Jr. High, I realized that people don’t mind your differences as much if you make them laugh. I quickly added the funny girl mask to my collection.
Though I’ve become more reserved with age, I used to do anything for the laugh; throw myself on the ground into a pratfall, yell out something ridiculous in the silence of song changes at a school dance, etc. My best friend and I would laugh until tears streamed. My dad always said he knew when she was over when he’d come home from work at night and hear us giggling uncontrollably behind my bedroom door.
The funny girl is a hard one for me because I always come round to the question, “Is this me or is this my disorders? Am I really a funny, delightful person or is this a mask I’ve cultivated?” The answer is, it really doesn’t matter. Masks aren’t always a bad thing. Some of them can be embraced as long as you are happy and feel like you’re living authentically.
The Smart Girl. This also brought up the “me or my disorders” question. I was raised by my dad and he always drilled into me that it was important to be smart. I started wearing the smart girl mask for his benefit; I wanted him to be proud of me and I wanted him to love me, so I happily put on the mask. I’m glad my dad taught me to value my mind, though. I pride myself on my intelligence; the one thing no one can ever take away from me.
Again, it doesn’t matter really matter if the smart girl started as a way to get my dad to notice me. It became who I am and I’m happy and proud of that. The smart girl started as a mask and just became part of who I am, much like the funny girl.
The life of the party. The center of attention. This goes hand-in-hand with my sense of humor. I always have a great or funny story to tell and I tell it loud and passionately. Admittedly, this only works for me with people that I know well…I tend to clam up more around new people, as I said. I love a good house party or even just a night in among close friends. Entertaining people comes almost second nature to me.
This was another mask that I learned early. Again, people called your weirdness, “quirkiness,” if you were otherwise the life of the party. The life of the party has led me to some regrettable decisions; when you combine trying to impress people with impulsive behavior, you get an ugly combination.
The black sheep. I’ll admit it…I’m a bit of a black sheep in my family and always have been. I knew really early that I didn’t want to spend my 20s the way a lot of people do…college, job, marriage, babies. I wanted to experience life and make crazy decisions and, so, I did. I was a professional wrestler for a few years (yes, you read that correctly). I wanted to be a movie star for a while and I was deadly serious about; headshots, an agent, auditions…the whole bit. I have tattoos and facial piercings and I’ve had 47 different hair colors in my life.
I spent one summer and fall following a rock band around my area of the country. I wore statement t-shirts that said things like, “It’s not a phase,” and my mom often asked me, puzzlingly, if I was a lesbian. My family always loved me accepted me, but I was also aware of the fact that I was the one they were a little embarrassed by. Except for my mom. She’s always seen me for who I am and loved me for it. The point is, I embraced the black sheep mask.
I still do, honestly. It’s caused me problems with family members over the last few years, but I’m going to be unapologetically me and I don’t care if it makes me the black sheep.
The people pleaser. I wear the people-pleaser because of trauma, honestly. When your survival becomes dependent on keeping someone happy so they don’t mistreat you, it becomes second nature with you even being aware of it. I hate to know someone is mad at me or, the horror, doesn’t like me at all. As I get older, I’m learning to control this desire to please all people at all times.
It’s getting easier to accept that I was not *meant* for all people and not all people were meant for me. Part of the reason for that: I wore the people pleaser so much and so often, that I almost forgot who I was. I was trying to cram myself into boxes that other people needed me to fit into. I had stopped writing, had no hobbies of my own, and let other people dictate my life. It almost destroyed me.
The people-pleaser is a mask that I just grew out of. It was no longer serving me in a positive late and I started to realize the importance of retiring my masks as time goes on. It’s imperative to drop the masks that you grow out of; always make room for growth.
I’m sure there are many other masks I’ve worn over the years without being aware of them and I might even develop new masks as the years go on. I hope not. The point of all of this is so that we don’t have to wear masks anymore; that we’re finally free to just be who we are with no shame.
It’s important to remember a few things when deciding to drop our masks. It’s a good reminder for me as I move forward too.
- Learn to identify and embrace your masks. You created them to protect you and they have done a pretty good job over the years. Be grateful for them, but also know when it’s time to start letting go.
- Be realistic about dropping your masks. I don’t want to get rid of the funny girl or the smart girl. I can’t get rid of them. They are part of my personality now. Be honest with yourself about what you need to drop and what you want to keep.
- Remember that it takes time to drop your masks. You didn’t build the collection overnight and you won’t dismantle it like that either. Be kind and patient with yourself.
- Learn to relish the idea of being your authentic self. We all deserve to be who we are.
That’s all I’ve got for the day. May we all have the courage and fortitude to slowly shed the masks that no longer serve us. May we be kind, loving, and forgiving to ourselves, when we need our masks and when we drop them.
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Love and light! Keep fighting the good fight! 💜💜
Writing about living with ADHD and mental illness and my journey down a thriving path forward. Breaking stigmas and creating community, one post at a time.