Taking Off My Mask “A picture can tell a thousand words.” But, what people often fail to mention is that it doesn’t necessarily mean the words are telling the truth about that picture. In fact, a picture can do the exact opposite. It can make it seem like everything is perfect. It can make it seem like you have never been better. It can make it seem like you are having the time of your life. The key word is seem… Because there have been countless times, at least for me, when things are so far from perfect and I have never felt worse. But, if you look at my pictures, they will tell you a thousand different lies. What if I told you that my pictures from high school don’t tell you that most days I felt like I was hanging on by a single thread? What if I told you that my pictures don’t tell you that I felt so alone? What if I told you my pictures don’t show me physically unable to get out of bed because of my depression? So, what do all my pictures have in common? They have always shown me wearing a mask. I have worn a mask since my freshman year of high school. And, if I do say so myself, I am extremely good at it, too good at it. They say practice makes perfect and I have had a lot of practice. Back in high school, I would lay in my bed curled up in a tiny ball under all the covers, silently sobbing into my pillow for hours, after reading horrible messages on Facebook from both people I considered “friends” and from people I had never even met before. I would hear my cell phone’s ringtone next to my bed and wait for the torturous notification sound to go off after, letting me know I received another voicemail from a *67 anonymous caller, telling me no one liked me, that I was ugly, or that I should kill myself. After pulling myself together, I would “put on my mask” and walk downstairs into the kitchen, acting completely normal, as if I had just finished my homework. My mom and dad would usually be cooking dinner and my brothers and sister were talking about what happened to them that day. I joined right into the conversation, ate dinner, went back up to my room, and proceed to cry myself to sleep every single night. I thought by asking for help, it showed weakness, so I buried it all inside, keeping a fake smile across my face. I would drift through the school days, sitting next to some classmates who were cyberbullying me the night before or, even worse, sitting next to ones that knew it was going on and never said anything or simply asked how I was doing. If one person had asked, “How are you?” I would’ve broken down crying, let it all out, take off my mask, and say I was far from okay. That I desperately needed someone, anyone. That I was drowning. But, that didn’t happen. So, I just kept the mask on. I acted like I was completely fine, still wanting to fit in and be accepted by people who I should have wanted nothing to do with, and pretended that everything was okay…that I was okay. Wearing my mask from one location to the next, with nowhere to take it off. I came to college and wore this mask the second I stepped foot on the campus. Absolutely no one knew that two months before I moved into my tiny dorm room, I was sitting in an even tinier room in the psychiatric unit of a hospital after attempting to take my own life. Instead, I pretended to be this confident, positive, extremely happy person, not showing any signs of weakness or insecurity. For anyone else, I seemed like I fit in quickly, but I felt like I was still hiding behind my mask. I would go to therapy secretly each week of freshman year. I was so embarrassed to show that I had struggles, that everything in my life was far from perfect, that I was far from being happy. That all changed my sophomore year of college when I started opening up with friends and family members about mental health. Why did I used to hide my struggles? I was just contributing more to the negative stigma that surrounds mental health. That is literally why people feel so alone. They don’t know anyone else is feeling the same exact way they are and so they keep it all inside, behind their masks. My mask is off completely. There are times I still wake up in a cold sweat and cry from vivid nightmares and flashbacks I cannot control due to my PTSD. There are times I still feel so depressed that I cannot get out of bed and I sleep for 15 hours at a time. There are times I still feel like I need to leave a party because I fear having panic attacks from my social anxiety disorder. Mental health conditions can be lifelong battles. They do not just go away like the common cold or a stomach virus, as much as I used to try and convince myself or wish that they do. They may never go away, but you can learn to cope with them and deal with them in positive ways. Although I have not overcome everything and still struggle, I know that I have overcome a lot and I will work to overcome everything I am faced with in the future. I have learned a lot about myself. I have learned that it is okay to show weakness. It is okay to cry. Sometimes you have to struggle and feel empty, in order to appreciate the days you feel full. Most importantly, you cannot and should not be afraid to ask for help. There is nothing weak about needing help. It takes strength to realize you need help. It is okay not to be okay. Please know that you are not alone. Don’t give up on this life. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not ever. We are in this together and if I can keep going and keep fighting, you can too. Share your story, message, poem, quote, photo or video of hope, struggle or recovery. By sharing your experience, you can let others know that they are not alone.