The Masks We Wear Over Depression and Anxiety

I am so grateful to all those who stopped by last week when I wrote about anxiety, and to those who commented with words of encouragement, told their own stories, and/or shared my post with others. The piece, to my surprise, was the most viewed post (in one day) that I have written on this blog.

Of course, me being me, I thought, Crap, I should have done a better job writing it. The topic is so vast, and my experience so entrenched, that I almost didn’t know where to start.

One thing that I have been wanting to write about – and I confirmed this after hearing the stories of friends and readers – is the mask that so many of us battling depression and anxiety feel compelled to wear. The outer us and the inside us. The visible versus the hidden.

Story after story shocked me, because never in a million years would I have guessed that these people struggled with something as debilitating as anxiety and/or depression: dedicated parents, a head of department, a published author, Ph.D. students, a passionate college instructor, a high-end New York designer, a top-ranking management consultant.

The irony is that others might say the same about me. I’ve got the elite names on my resumé to project a certain kind of image, and I’ve been described as “fierce” and as driven and confident. I’m both flattered and amused by the descriptions, unsure about their accuracy.

My self-image is distorted, of course, by my personal knowledge of my struggles. I admit to somewhat dismissing or at least downplaying my strengths and achievements because I experience, sometimes at a high level, the human emotions of insecurity and fear. Maybe we are shocked when we learn about “successful” people suffering because we believe achievement and anxiety (and depression) to be mutually exclusive, that somehow success cannot coexist with mental or emotional difficulty. We can be extremely anxious at the same time that (or perhaps because?) we are extremely competent, but in making public only the proud self we perpetuate the belief that anxiety does not exist in the happy, smart, and capable.

My friend, a teacher who once asked me to help with one of her music classes, had no idea how much internal debating I required before I could say yes. I had to look up the address of her class, enter it into Google driving directions, ascertain the 6-mile-long route to see if I could comfortably navigate it on my own, check with my husband’s schedule, debate whether it was worth pulling him from work to drive me, and check both our schedules to see if he could do a practice run with me if I decided to drive on my own. After stressing for days without getting back to my friend, I finally decided to tell her the truth and ask for a ride, even though I knew it meant adding another task to her already packed schedule.

“Sorry to be lame…”

“You’re not lame,” she told me. “I can get you.” 

In the same way, my on-line book club members have no idea how much stress I went through in the week leading up to our first on-line chat. Back and forth, back and forth I debated over whether I should cancel. I hated the way I looked on video. I worried about sounding dumb “in real life.” I did not feel like interacting live.

But I went through with it, because I knew I would feel worse about myself if I didn’t. And it turned out to be wonderful. When it was all over something in me lifted at the same time that something else – a shard of fear – fell away.

One of my readers wrote in her comment last week, ” . . . you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it.” I think I’m old enough to be her mother, and there she was giving me something brilliant to take away. And I wouldn’t have benefited from those, and so many other warm words had I never dared take off the mask. The thing about opening up is that the fear of someone’s reaction is by far more frightening than the actual reaction. The real thing – when the other person is real (and you don’t need her if she’s not) – is unexpected, disarming, and heartening. Where you expect a ditch you’re given a bridge, and an outstretched hand that says either “I’m proud of you” or “Me too.” Either way, the hand beckons “Come here,” and the arms take hold and envelope you.




19 thoughts on “The Masks We Wear Over Depression and Anxiety

  1. The last part of your post is so beautiful, I could read it over and over. I love “where you expect a ditch, you’re given a bridge”. Here’s a new post topic for you; why do we expect a ditch? After all the times that people have been kind, we usually still expect the worst. Is it because we don’t want to be disappointed, so we prepare for the worst? A lot of the time, it doesn’t even make sense, like being afraid to tell family members who you know love you. Hopefully, we will eventually learn.

    “When it was all over something in me lifted at the same time that something else- a shard of fear- fell away.” I have experienced this so many times. When I am afraid to do something that I really want to do, but make myself do it anyway, this is the perfect description of how I always feel when it is done. It is a wonderful feeling, and helps to give me courage for next time. Maybe this is the silver lining of anxiety- we enjoy a great sense of accomplishment over small things (small to others, anyway). Lucky us! 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Naomi 🙂 And great questions you asked. I agree; that shame is so deep, even if time and again we are met with acceptance. I feel that it will never be easy to post about personal issues, even though I’ve done it enough. We’re so vulnerable, and I think that those of us who do “confess” or are willing to tell someone are still in the minority…unless these topics are part of everyday talk we’ll always feel hesitant to reveal that part of ourselves.

      As for the tiny achievements, I am hoping that before long they will add up enough to restore “total” confidence!

  2. Another great post. It struck me while I was reading that maybe part of it is learning to trust other people, to not expect that they are always judging you. It’s not easy, I know.

    • Thanks, Kay! Yes, you are right about the judging. I guess we can’t feel safe to assume that just because one person has accepted us that the next person will too. I try to be discerning about whom I open up to. This blog gives me a false sense of protection, I think. I show it to a limited though not small number of people who know me personally (on Facebook), but I have no idea what some of them think.

  3. Taking off the mask is the most wonderful thing. I believe that to some extent, anxiety and depression are things that haunt us, however much we try to ignore them or find ways to cope with them. Reaching out to others and having them reach out to us makes us stronger and more secure.

    • You said that so well, Denise. Yes – we’re fortified by others, as this is too hard to fight alone. I’m just so grateful that there are so many people who do understand or who at least don’t judge.

  4. shame. self preservation. Not being vulnerable because that opens the door to pain… something that shame has already brought. It is hard work and it is the undoing of what watching others do since we were infants. The ones that taught us, and we assumed they knew… they didn’t . Everyone struggling, the need to protect and be strong and not allow danger in. It takes so much awareness and painful honesty, to see what hasn’t served us at all. It’s a huge step, Ceci… and we are so lucky that the internet provides a community for us, a landing full of friends , the best place ever for a trust exercise, one small bit at a time. I love you.

    • This really struck me, Alexandra: “…and we are so lucky that the internet provides a community for us, a landing full of friends , the best place ever for a trust exercise, one small bit at a time.” Who would have thought that the anonymity of the web could provide us with “best place ever for a trust exercise”?? I am not nearly as comfortable opening up to the people who know me in person. You were the first of these friends. xoxo

  5. Oh my goodness Cecilia, I had no idea that my words could be so helpful! I wasn’t even planning to comment on your last post, because–as someone who has struggled with neither anxiety nor severe depression (though of course I’ve had periods of minor depression; I think everyone has)–I wasn’t sure if I would be able to say anything productive. It seems that taking off the mask was good for both of us, no? And regarding the age difference, there is a 15-year-old who runs a blog that is so well-written and witty that I sometimes wonder why I’m not capable of writing more amusing posts more often (am I already too cynical at 23?). That’s one of the unexpected things about blogging that I have come to appreciate–there seems to be more interaction across generations than in real life.

    • Well, I’m glad you did comment! One of my young readers once said that she always felt reluctant to comment on my posts about marriage and motherhood because she hadn’t experienced those stages yet, and was afraid she wouldn’t add anything of value. But it is so great to hear everyone’s perspectives or just simple words of encouragement. I agree about how blogging allows us to connect across generations. Since I started writing about books I’ve definitely enjoyed a more diverse audience.

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  7. Had you never shared this, I never would have guessed that you suffer from anxiety and depression. You wear your mask well 🙂

    But I’m not that different from you when making decisions. I do a LOT – sometimes too much – thinking, debating the pros and cons, wondering about the how’s and why’s, weighing this and that. And I worry constantly. I used to never want to drive anywhere outside of my comfort zone (which means I only drove in Chicago), so all road trips were My Guy’s domain. But when we drove to TN, I finally forced myself to take over when he was tired, and it felt really good to be able to contribute, albeit only 25% of the journey. Yet, it took quite a bit out of me to even get there. And I don’t know why I was so hesitant. But after that attempt, it made me feel braver and now that I’m in a completely new city, having that moment in my back pocket has helped me explore on my own, knowing that I could. All this to say, we all have our versions of anxiety that manifests in different ways. Despite what our Facebook says about us, I think we all struggle with something inside, but the fact that you’re acknowledging yours so publicly tells me that you’re making great strides in owning your own struggles. And kudos to you for that. For not just admitting and sharing, but in making a safe space for those of us with varying degrees of struggles to come together to share our own.

    • Thanks so much for this, Justine. I needed to hear it today 🙂
      And I would have never guessed that you also had issues with driving out of your comfort zone! That’s great that you drove part of the way to TN. That smaller steps are important, I know, for building up the eventual confidence. I’m reading a book now recommended by my therapist and the assertion is that suffering comes with the territory of being human – no one is exempt. It’s just a matter of how much people choose to show it.

  8. I love reading this particular line of yours, again and again.
    “The thing about opening up is that the fear of someone’s reaction is by far more frightening than the actual reaction.”
    I think this could be due to prejudices, close boxed thinking.
    Love reading your words and traveling with your thoughts.

    • Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! And I’m so sorry that I’ve taken this long to respond. I just noticed tonight that I had a folder of pending comments (for approval)! I appreciate your reading my blog 🙂

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