Taking Off My Mask
5 November 2015
“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. Actually, a picture can do the exact opposite. A picture can tell you a complete lie.
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 Halloween I added this past week don’t tell you that a couple of hours before taking them, I was alone in my room crying so much that I couldn’t physically get myself out of bed? What if I told you that the picture at the top of this page doesn’t tell you that the night before it was taken, I stayed awake for a long time and wondered if anything would be different if I wasn’t alive? 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 do all my pictures have in common? They have always shown me wearing a mask.
I have used this metaphor of wearing a mask whenever I speak at a school or conference. When you look up the definition of a mask on Google, it comes up with this definition: “a mask is a manner or expression that hides one’s true feelings.”
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 good 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 had said terrible things about me the night before or, even worse, sitting next to classmates that knew it was going on and never once said anything or simply asked how I was doing. If one person, just 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 Philadelphia 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. I got chosen to be in a sorority and had the most votes out of every freshman who ran in the SGA election. For anyone else, this would probably make them feel like they 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.
My therapist I saw freshman year asked me this past spring if I was interested in speaking to the campus about my personal experiences with mental health. I would be opening up this personal information to 10,000 fellow classmates. A school-wide email, to both faculty and students, was sent out and flyers were hung all over the campus with a blown up picture of me and a bolded paragraph that stated:
Suicide Survivor Emily Torchiana will speak about her experience dealing with severe cyber bullying throughout her time in high school. She will speak about her struggles with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder and overcoming suicide attempts. Emily found support through her time at a treatment facility the summer going into college. She will speak of how she overcame her struggles and has worked to integrate herself positively in the college community. Today, she is an advocate for mental health and speaks at middle and high schools about cyber bullying and suicide prevention.
Well…talk about getting to know someone real fast. Within a few sentences, strangers knew more about me than some of my best friends and family members did. I felt this mask slowly pulling away and, at first, I absolutely hated it. I had been so used to wearing it, allowing me to hide what I was really feeling inside, and now it was starting to come off.
The reason I am writing this is not to discuss my past, as I always do. If you notice, the flyer only uses the past tense: how I overcame my struggles and how I found support.
But, if I am being 100% honest with myself and with you, I am so sick of hiding the fact that I still struggle today. My illnesses are very much in the present and I have been so afraid to share that with anyone. Why? Why should I hide my current struggles? I am 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 as they are and so they keep it all inside, behind their masks.
So, for the first time, my mask is coming off completely. I want to be honest and tell you 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 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 like I need to leave a party because I fear having panic attacks from my social anxiety disorder.
I still push those that love me away and I still isolate myself. I tell people I am fine when I am so far from that. This past week, for the first time since senior year, I have not been at all okay and I am okay with admitting that to you.
Mental illnesses can be lifelong battles. They do not just go away like the common cold or a stomach virus, as much as I try to 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 this past week. 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. You can’t always be strong and put on a happy face for other people.
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.
If you are reading this and going through anything that I have felt or am currently feeling: know you are not alone. Don’t you dare give up on this life. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not ever. We are in this together and if I am going to keep fighting, you are too.