Behind the Mask of Perfection:
Why Asking for Help is So Hard
February 16, 2017
If any person were to look at the life I show to the world, they’d notice a few things
A girl with big smiles and goofy faces
A love of travel
Countless dream-worthy memories
Hundreds of dance references
10 or so very close, self-less friends
4 family members she loves more than anything
2 countries explored
2 wackadoo dogs that make her day
1 boyfriend/relationship that compliments her more than she thought possible
Not too shabby of a list. From the outside, it seems like a pretty great life. Now read through this one...
An infinite number of tears
Thousands of fake smiles
100 or so faded scars
13 years of unachieved potential
7 long sleeved shirts worn to shreds, even on the hottest of days
3 months of outpatient therapy
3 ED risk behaviors
2 prescription medications
1 night in Western Psych
1 barely recognizable soul
This is the list no one gets to see. This is the list that haunts me. This is how the Type A side of my brain sees my past with mental illness. Just a bunch of negatively connotative numbers and stats paired with a side of regret, fear, and sadness. Does it make sense that the same person could belong to both of these lists? I genuinely hope it does. Everyone has two lists whether they want to admit it or not. Especially with social media culture. We project the good and hide the bad. So many people, people we assume leading the happiest of lives, are coming out with their battles – some of which involve mental illness. Which is incredible. It makes me proud. It inspires me. It’s what made me actually commit to starting a blog (no really, this has been 4 years in the [secret] making). We’re stepping closer to getting over this stigma. But we aren’t there yet. There’s still a major disconnect. There’s still undeniable misunderstanding. Because when you’re on the outside, you wonder how mental illness can get so bad. When it gets written down on paper and becomes so black and white, it’s a genuine wonder why the proverbial switch can’t be easily flipped?
But before I get into that, let’s start from the beginning of my spiral and something that affects most of us to an extent. Perfectionism. Perfectionism severely warps a person’s sense of self worth. At least, it severely warped my perception of my own worth. Growing up, I genuinely thought the only way to be happy was to make everyone around me happy as well. Well, not just happy, but beyond proud of me too. That meant getting good grades, succeeding in extracurriculars, having an attractive face as well as an attractive personality. I thought I needed to be everything. I needed to look like a model with the brains of a Harvard grad, paint like grand master and have the athleticism of Mia Hamm. I had to be responsible, act beyond my years, have impeccable manners, and know how to look and act in every situation. Because a perfect life is a happy life…#duh
If you’ve ever met me (or someone who classifies himself/herself as a perfectionist), I’m sure you’ve noticed a few things. A) I'm stubborn AF B) Saying no or quitting something I started is never an option C) I'm pretty darn mentally sharp, I'm always anxiously on my toes, always formulating the next move in my perfect game of chess. You can always tell I'm holding something back - whether it be through silence or body language - something more is itching to escape. But it never does. And it never will. Perfectionists are never free. I was constricted to a million fine lines I was never to cross. My biggest fear growing up was being vulnerable. Not monsters, not the dark, but being frigging vulnerable. Vulnerability isn't predictable, vulnerability messes up a perfectly calculated formula. Vulnerability leads to failure. Failure to not be enough; disappointing the people I cared about the most – my parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and significant others. I was even worried about disappointing acquaintances. People I barely knew judging me to be anything less than having it all. Not being enough and failing are a major weakness. Weak is the last thing I ever wanted to be classified as. I wanted to be the person voted most likely to succeed, not most likely to drop out of college. It is this combination of this severe kind of perfectionism, stubbornness, self-loathing, and denial that contributed to my long battle with mental illness. It was a vicious tornado of a cycle. Hating myself because I couldn't do anything right (in my mind), denying I hated myself as much as I did or that I even had a problem, and not being able to ask for help even when I thought I actually needed it. Even when friends brought up their concerns...
I get really upset and angry when we, as a collective society, talk about mental illness because mainly we talk about it after it’s too late. People do their best to make sense of desperate measures. They wonder and ask aloud, “Why didn’t they ask for help?” They do their best and offer their support, saying generally, “If you ever need someone, I’m here for you.” We’ve all done it. But that doesn’t help. Actually, that’s the worst. I believe this concept of “you can always reach out” is the biggest roadblock in conquering communication regarding all kinds of mental illness. Mental illness is like weight. An ugly, fat, disgusting weight-gain of doubt, fear, and ultimately, numbness. You don’t gain 30 pounds in a week and magically lose it in another week. It is months and years of spiraling. It's the darkest part of your brain convincing you that you aren’t anything – that you will never be loved, that you’re a disappointment, that everything and everyone would be better off without your existence. It takes patience, a lot of love, and an even longer amount of time to get out of that hole. People wonder why those of us who are suffering take so long, or never at all, to reach out. And it’s stupid how simple the reason is. It’s because we do not think we are worth it. We don’t love ourselves enough to even try. I let it get so bad that I was on the brink of severely cutting myself when my mom walked into my room and I completely broke down last year. That's the only reason I got the help I so desperately needed. Because I didn't love myself then enough to even try to use my words, to try to communicate, to try anything positive. All I wanted to do was feel something again, because I was lost in a sea of numbness and self-loathing.
Depression and all other mental illnesses are isolative. I genuinely thought I was in this alone. I knew I had friends. I knew if they actually knew what was going on in my brain, they'd be there for me. But I couldn't admit this to them. I couldn't tell them that I didn't understand why they cared about me so much when I hated just being some days. And it's not that I didn't want to be saved. I just thought it would be easier doing it alone. Everyone else is fighting battles too. I cared about my friends and family too much to add my own spiral to their heavy loads. I could barely handle myself, how could I let my friends, balancing their own lives, take on my struggle? You know the feeling when you double text a crush and immediately regret it and feel beyond needy and clingy and feel like you just messed up whatever it is you had with him/her? That was every interaction for me. It's yet another reason why I didn't ask for help. It’s why I couldn’t ask for help. I already felt that everyone hated me, or at least, secretly hated me - because I wasn't enough, because I was annoying, because I wasn't interesting, or smart, or funny. Because I thought people were only friends with me out of convenience or pity. So why would I want to risk whatever “friendships” I had left by being a massive burden? So I didn't risk them at all. I would have rather burned at the stake in silence than bring my loved ones into the flames with me. Because that’s how I saw it, an ugly demise that will hurt those I cared about most if I brought them into it too. It was my way of shielding them. Of shielding myself. This constant battle of not wanting to be a burden eventually turned into the fight of Hamlet; of being or not being anymore. The mind battles every single hour of every single day were exhausting. I stopped reaching out and felt the silence of being truly alone. Besides all of that, I was terrified of being labeled as that friend with a mental illness. I've seen what happens when those suffering speak out. They great treated differently. I didn't want my friends to walk on eggshells around me. I didn't want them to suddenly not know how to talk to me. I didn't want them to forget we used to have fun together - the inside jokes, late night ice cream runs, movie quotes. I didn't want the sight of my face to scream MENTAL FREAK: I COULD CRACK AT ANY MINUTE. That right there, is worse than anything - any cut, any pill, any bruise - I could do to myself.
In social culture, all we really want is to be accepted and liked by our peers. All I wanted growing up was to be well thought of. I wanted an association with positivity, beauty, and success. But my brain did all it could to convince me otherwise. It's why I stayed in toxic friendships. It's why I dated guys I knew would never actually care about me. I did anything to keep anyone around, even if just for a moment. But even that get's to be too much. The good bit that was left of my brain couldn't handle the negativity anymore. It actually sounds like a contradiction, typing it out. I could hate myself to my core, but after years of bad friendships and relationships, I couldn't take it anymore from anyone else. So I began to shut down. Depression is a very lonely island that is very hard to get off once you're there. It becomes your home. It becomes safe. It becomes the only voice of communication and reason in your life. It warps your sense of reality. I remember starting to resent others who just didn't seem to understand my new sense of distorted rationale. My friends would ask me why I was wearing hoodies in the middle of a 95 degree summer and I'd get mad at them for even asking such an outlandish question. I became such a dick. And no matter how much my friends just wanted the best for me, for me to be happy, for me to swim off my island back to the mainland. I couldn't f****** do it. I couldn't. The risk of drowning was too much. The risk of never finding who I used to be, of never becoming the person I actually wanted to be, it was too much to bear. All I wanted was to stay alone, making any attempt to feel something - anything - again.
I want to write about my story because it actually is possible to find your way back. But it’s tricky. It’s difficult. It hurts. It feels like it can't be done. There are countless days of wanting to just stop trying, of giving up, of staying in bed and praying the next time you fall asleep you don't wake up. This journey can’t be done alone. We need support. I needed the support of anyone who would give it to me. And I was lucky. I got it from my family, my real friends, my therapists, counselors, and the girls I met in group. They all helped in creating and building the strength I needed. Here's the contradictory part of this strength though. At the end of the day, it has to come from within. I finally overcame my demons because I wanted it more than anyone else around me did. It didn't start that way, I definitely fought and kicked and screamed in the beginning. I questioned coping mechanisms. I didn't want to be in group. I didn't want to share my feelings. I laughed during mindfulness exercises. I thought I was better than therapy. I didn't want any of it. But that slowly changed based on the love of those around me. It worked this time because I had to do everything myself. My bridge back to the mainland wasn't built for me. That would've been the easy way out. That would've been enabling. That wouldn't have taught me anything. That would've caused an ultimate relapse. I could not be here to share this blog. This is a journey I had to make myself. Not alone, mind you, but I needed to be the one navigating my own trail out. I had to overcome obstacles, cut down trees, swim through quick rivers, and all the other proverbial metaphor bullshit my mind threw at me. It’s a long process. It’s hard. It felt at times like recovery was breaking me more than my illness ever could. Many of us give up on our way. But if you make it – it’s the most damn rewarding thing you could have ever accomplished.
The most important thing I learned in outpatient therapy is the concept and practice of validation. I remember the lesson well. I was lucky that it was in the first half of my time in group. That was the day a lightbulb clicked on for me, it's when I realized all I've wanted in my life is to be validated. Not accepted, validated. Validation is really cool because all you really have to do is state the facts. Validation isn’t about fixing problems, it’s letting someone know what they are feeling is appropriate and creates a valued system of support. It shows someone you’re actively listening to them. It’s creating a bond in a moment as you both share an emotion you didn’t realize the other also felt. It’s intimate. It’s a dog paddle away from the island. It shows you you’re not alone. It shows you, if only for a brief minute, that someone gets you, and they want to continue to understand. That you matter enough to be understood.
I think we can all agree that the best parts of life come from the unplanned. It’s the impromptu dance party at 2:00 am with your roommates. It’s the moments you smile at a stranger. It’s the times you visit a parent or friend on the fly. It’s the date night you spent in a Wendy’s when the restaurant you wanted to go to was completely booked. It’s the memories that just seemed to happen. We are all perfectly imperfect, and that’s the best thing any of us can be. Whatever it is you don’t like about yourself, it is still a part of what fabricates the quilt that is your being. And you aren’t alone in disliking parts about you. We all dislike things about ourselves. Irrational or not. The way you feel about yourself matters. I'm validating you right now. The way you feel about yourself isn't anything to be shy of. But just know, people love you for your weird laugh, the shape of your nose, or your obsession of Dr. Who. People love you because of the way you sing off key. Because of the OCD way you stack the dishwasher. BECAUSE YOU BRING A LIGHT TO THIS WORLD THAT NO ONE ELSE CAN.
I want you to know that you are valued. That you are strong enough to beat whatever monster lurks in the grey matter of your brain. That you are a piece thread in the fabric of humanity. You may think you’re insignificant. But that tiny piece of thread helps hold this fabric together. Without you, we all fall apart. You impact others, for the positive, more than you can ever imagine. Yes, I know there are days you may feel there isn’t a point anymore. Days where you just can’t get out of bed. But I promise you, promise you, that you that you can do it. You can start to make your way off your island…and everything can change. Everything will change. You can do it. I believe in you. We all believe in you. And we love you.
And to the friends. You have the option to reach out first. I’m telling you. Do it. We may fight you, we may yell at you, we may still be in denial. But just do it. Be the positive impact. Reach out. Listen. Validate. Tell people you love them. Those of us who suffer from mental illness are strong. But it is the strength and support of those that love us that keep us going.