Questions from Behind the Mask

“Why does it feel like night today?
Something in the air’s not right today
Why am I so uptight today?
Paranoia’s all I got left
I don’t know what stressed me first
Or how the pressure was fed
But I know just what it feels like
To have a voice in the back of my head
Like a face that I hold inside
A face that awakes when I close my eyes
A face watches every time I lie
A face that laughs every time I fall
(It watches everything)
So I know now when it’s time to sink or swim
That the face inside is hearing me
Right beneath my skin

It’s like I’m paranoid lookin’ over my back
It’s like a whirlwind inside of my head
It’s like I can’t stop what I’m hearing within
It’s like the face inside is right beneath my skin

I know I’ve got a face in me
Points out all my mistakes to me
You’ve got a face on the inside too
Your paranoia’s probably worse
I don’t know what set me off first but I know what I can’t stand
Everybody acts like the fact of the matter is
I can’t add up to what you can but
Everybody has a face that they hold inside
A face that awakes when I close my eyes
A face that watches every time they lie
A face that laughs every time they fall
(It watches everything)
So you know that when it’s time to sink or swim
That the face inside is watching you too
Right inside your skin…

The sun goes down
I feel the light betray me

It’s like I’m paranoid lookin’ over my back
It’s like a whirlwind inside of my head
It’s like I can’t stop what I’m hearing within
It’s like the face inside is right beneath my skin
It’s like I’m paranoid lookin’ over my back
It’s like a whirlwind inside of my head
It’s like I can’t stop what I’m hearing within”

(Lyrics from “Papercut” as performed by Linkin Park)

Does this sound like a life to you? Does this sound like something you want to live with? Imagine if you will for a moment, having your twin — someone who looks like you, has extremely similar mannerisms and personality, even the voices are almost indistinguishable. This twin follows you every waking moment. They keep a running commentary of your life…except they only point out the things that you might have done wrong. Where people might be talking about you. Where a silly comment made in a conversation will be repeated in a haughty, mocking tone. Over. And. Over. And. Over…. This twin never speaks in neutral or positive tones, but instead filters it out and amplifies the negatives, the slights, the mistakes, the indiscretions — anything possibly slightly negative, be it real or imagined, and repeats it endlessly. This twin makes a “playlist” of your screwups, your mistakes, snippets of conversation that all have forgotten, things from childhood or grade school. College, or first jobs, or anything else — gets dragged from your subconscious and put on repeat. Endlessly.

Image life like that. Imagine living with that for a full 24 hours. How about 7 days? Ok, how about 30 days. Still game? Bring on the onslaught — step up and handle this, complete with obsessing about death and suicide, for 180 days.

Now, do you think anyone would believe you if you said you were facing this on a daily basis? That you’d been facing this sort of thing for years — almost as long as you can remember?

Would you put on an act? Would you wear a mask in public, concoct a character that you play in day-to-day life, in your job, with friends and family, and so forth? Would you retreat into the darkest recesses of your mind and home-for fear that the real world is even worse then the thoughts in your head?

Would you get angry with people who think it’s funny and make jokes about your illness? Would your temper boil over at the drop of a hat when people think all it takes is thinking happy thoughts? Last I checked, positive thoughts certainly help many illnesses, but happy thoughts alone have yet to cure cancer, mend a broken bone, reverse the effects of osteoporosis, or instantaneously repair the damage done by diabetes.

What about “You’re imagining it-it’s all in your head!” — see that’s the problem. It is in my head. In my brain actually — a chemical reaction that’s supposed to happen in a specific way isn’t happening. You can’t run an MRI and have it show up. It goes 100% undetected by Xray. You can take a full quart of blood from my veins, and run blood test after blood test, and not a single one will come back as “positive for depression” or “positive for anxiety”.

So, to cope, to survive, I and many others rely on a mask. A game of charades where the winners get a glimpse of how broken I am and the losers are the ones who are completely surprised when suicide takes someone close to them. I and every other person I know who has a mental illness deserve to have shelves lined with awards for acting. We should be the ones in Hollywood making the millions. Because we walk among you. Some people are brave enough to talk about it, to shine a spotlight on these brutal illnesses. Most are not. Most barely cope. Some don’t make it. To hide my disease from you, and from myself, I wear a mask.

There’s just one problem with wearing a mask for years on end. The mind, like the body, adapts to it. Skin attaches itself to fabric, consumes it, and becomes one with it, until it’s almost impossible to tell where the real me ends and the mask begins.

Some days, I’m not even sure which part is me, and which part is the mask. It’s a shield, it’s a security blanket, it’s a guard dog, and a favorite stuffed animal all rolled into one.

It’s so easy to ask “How are you?” — and its fairly easy to dodge this one. A much harder question to ask, and to answer, is “Who are you?”

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