I quickened my pace as I walked home from high school. With each step closer to my apartment, I felt my locked jaw tighten and my muscles ache but my face remained expressionless. I just needed to get inside and close the door behind me. As soon as I did, I collapsed upon the floor and burst into tears, burying my face into my folded arms upon my knees, my voice unrecognizable among the violent sobbing. Finally, I was able to wipe off that painted-on smile I wore out into the world and let what I had truly been feeling all day flash upon my face. I was exhausted yet my mind was racing faster than ever amidst the silence.

With going to 12 schools in 12 years, I learned at a young age to reinvent myself to conform to what was “normal” every time we settled into a new place. I learned very quickly which mask fit best. On the outside, I was the outgoing, free-spirited girl you could always go to if you needed a good laugh or a shoulder to cry on. But inside I was struggling with severe depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety riddled with panic attacks, and a tendency to self-harm. I didn’t want anyone to see over the walls I continued to add onto. The walls could never be too tall. If someone did see over them, they would see what I was really like and I was positive they would scale back down that wall as quickly as possible and go running in the opposite direction. I was afraid that if I let anyone in then they would leave me. So I found the mask that everyone liked to see me wear and it became the person I was in the world. They would never see me vulnerable; they would never see my weakness, so they would have every reason to stay. I was the strong one. The one you wanted to be with because I made you forget about your own problems.

The more weight I lifted off of other’s shoulders and bore down on my own, the more energy I exhausted in convincing everyone that I had it all put together, the further I sank into my depression. The more we suppress our pain, the more we cover it up and bury it as deep within us as we can, the more it beacons to be seen. Demanding to be dealt with, no matter the consequences. I let everyone feel safe enough to confide in me and yet I denied myself that comfort. How many times had I sat in class, questioning the value of my existence, and looped endlessly in my mind “Keep it together. Don’t cry.” Those moments would leave me crippled by a panic attack, several of them so severe that I blacked out. I worked so hard to show everyone I was the symbol of happiness, and yet I had to come up with a convincing reason that I had blacked out. Exhaustion from studying too hard? Would they even believe it?

It wasn’t until I was in the back of an ambulance being transferred to College Hospital in Cerritos California at 2AM that the mask finally shattered. It was only my sophomore year of high school and I was spending Memorial Day weekend in the hospital’s adolescent psychiatric ward. Even then, I tried not to look into the paramedic’s eyes as I focused my attention on the golden street lights racing past us out the back window. “You won’t be here long,” he reassured me with a smile, “I can tell.” I had hit the point where I was truly scared that I would finally act out on the suicidal thoughts that grew louder with each passing day. I didn’t trust myself enough to say I wouldn’t. Even then, my mom yelled that I needed to lie and say whatever it is that I thought would get me out, I wasn’t going to miss a day at school and jeopardize my grades. But it was at that moment that I didn’t care if anyone noticed, that I realized the gravity of the pain that surged within me and put myself first.

No one will ever be able to express in words the true amount of your worth. There is no unit of measurement that can do so. If you are struggling behind the mask, I ask you to please search within your life and find at least one person you feel safe enough with to tear down the walls. Let them in, let them see who you are and you will realize how beautiful it is when someone sees you and loves you for the exact person that you are. The flawed, irreplaceable, beautiful person that you are, not the illusion you are brought to portray. The more that we suppress that pain, the farther we are away from any source of light to guide us out of the darkness. Listen to that still-small voice of hope that things will get better, if you only take the first step into the light.

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