In the middle of a family Christmas party, my sister-in-law saw through the mask.
I had created the perfect scene, all the decorations inside and out looked like a page from Martha Stewart’s Christmas issue. Presents were under the tree and the dinner wafted tantalizing aromas from the oven. The party was humming along when she came up to me and asked a simple question: “Sarah, is everything alright? You look so sad.”
Who knew that my world was so fragile that a loving inquiry like that could make me feel like I needed to be admitted to the psych ward? But it really did. I felt like my world had been blown apart. My cover had been revealed. What in this beautiful picture would give her the idea that I was unhappy?
In reality, her question was the one I had been longing for someone to ask for 20 years. Finally, I got launched on the trajectory towards healing from PTSD.
Here’s the truth: at age 13, the happy family I had for the first part of my life disappeared. I remember from my journals, that one day life was perfect, and the next it was gone. In the midst of sickness, secrets and betrayal, life changed forever. My mother having already lost a husband, could not endure another husband’s critical sickness, so she left our family, and 3 years later, my father died of cancer.
I never healed from the shame and loss of my childhood family, and with each passing moment I moved further and further away from that tender part of myself that was longing for healing. My go-to survival technique was to make the world believe that I was not affected by what had happened to my family. I did the best I could. I thought I was living authentically, when really I was living life as a character inside someone else’s play.
I didn’t know I was in trouble because I had gotten so good at pretending, making everything look so good from the outside that I even fooled myself. I had forgotten what it was like to really be me. The mask had become me. And I realized that, whether they admitted it or not, the people around me could see the cracks in my facade. My loved ones started to detect that inside of this perfect business woman, wife and mother, there was a fragile child holding on for dear life.
After I faced the honest response to my sister-in-law’s question, I made a decision to look at what was vulnerable in me. I mustered up the strength to turned towards that which scared me most. I knew I had to face the suffering I had been hiding from for so long. I denied trauma the power it had commanded for so long. I cultivated ways of being that were opposite to the reactionary, helpless, devalued beliefs I’d adopted as an abandoned child. And here’s the beautiful thing: the path to healing lit up in front of me, one step at a time. Now, I look back on the years of pain and confusion, and I know those were just landmarks on my journey to happiness.
I know what it is to shut down. I have felt that disconnection, trapped in loneliness. I have retreated, pretended, numbed and felt the shame this path was giving me. I have built armor around my broken heart, slowly getting crushed by the weight of the metal.
Then I made a decision to place a stake in the ground that announced, “I will show up for my life and not waste one more second in blame or victimhood.” I met my sadness and fear head-on instead of running from it. Upon making that decision, everything changed, the suffering surrendered and transformed in to the greatest guru of my life, teachers appeared, old worn out friendships dissolved, and life appeared with meaning and truth once again.
It’s occurred to me that learning to love and accept all of me is a far more truthful and kinder way to live my life than hiding behind a mask of pretending.