Yep, that’s me about seven years ago in a coworker’s office goofing around. It’s a god-awful photo, but it makes a point. This was a time in my life when I was coming out of one of the worst bouts of depression I have ever faced. It lasted over a year and very few people even knew it was happening.
I have always been good at putting on masks. Many times they were the face I believed others expected of me. Throughout high school and college, I had groups of friends, but very few people actually knew me. I would venture to say no one did, actually. I wore the mask appropriate to that group of friends: nerd, athlete, professional in training, party girl. I never felt like I fit in. WELL, DUH! How can you fit in when you aren’t ever yourself?
By the time I graduated from college with my master’s degree, I had so many identities even I didn’t know who I was anymore. I liked some of my identities, despised others. So I did the dumbest and smartest thing I ever did – I moved completely across the country to Seattle – a place where I knew no one and no one knew me.
It was dumb because I was completely broke after the move. It was smart because no one had expectations of who I was, so I could completely start over. Living with no friends and working in a job where I was one of two people under the age of 40, I really had no life. That leaves a lot of time to think and be with yourself.
I spent too much time listening to depressing music and sitting on my balcony smoking (slow-motion, time-delayed suicide). I managed to establish career me as a fully separate person from depressed and lost me.
After deciding that I needed friends in my life again, I moved back to Michigan. There were only a few people I let back into my non-work life. While I didn’t really do much work on determining who I was while in Seattle, I obviously determined who I didn’t want to be. I let those friends go.
Most of my self-worth came from my career. I remained driven and professional, but was quickly burning out working in a job that kept me doing 10-12 hour days with very little appreciation. My career mask was a misfit. I realized that I was happiest during the first few months at a job, when you are working to figure out processes and personalities. So I went with that and started as a traveling therapist. Travel placements last anywhere from 10 weeks to 3 months. Perfect! I did that for a few years and it allowed me a bit of sanity.
Without writing my entire life story, suffice it to say that eventually I realized speech therapy was not a great fit for me. I made a career leap to communications and public relations, but managed to just find another mask there. I will say that this job allowed me to finally begin to connect who I was outside of work with work over the 5 years I was there. During this time, I fell into that deep canyon of depression and when the thoughts became darker to the point that they scared me, I began therapy. Over that time, as I began to really get a grasp on who I was, ditched the falseness, and put my authentic self out there, I found my boss at that time unable to deal with me as a confident, whole human.
When I took another position, I vowed to bring all of me to it. I have done that. I have discarded my masks. I can’t say I’m completely “cured” or that I don’t in times of discomfort reach for a mask, but I am me. I am aware when I do it and I remove it as quickly as possible.
It’s work to be authentic. It’s work to break out of patterns. It takes courage to walk away from what is not right. It takes courage not to compartmentalize your life into different facades. I wouldn’t go back to a life of false ease for anything. No more masks. This is me. I’m not for everyone, but I am fine with that. I’m fine with me.