Unmasked: The battle of the masks

I am delighted to welcome Amanda to my guest blog slot ‘Unmasked: stories of authenticity’ this week. She bravely shares the reasons for her mask-wearing, and her battle to take them off.

We so often hear ‘I went through this’ stories, as people are often willing to get up on stage and talk about their suffering when it’s over. They’re happy to talk about what God taught them and how they can now see He was working.

I think suffering is a bit like childbirth, once it’s over we forget how bad it was. When we hear these stories people often don’t describe the depths of their despair. When I hear these stories I feel left out; I start to wonder why God hasn’t fixed me yet. I feel like I’ve failed for not having gotten through it yet.

I know that I am not the only one who feels like this, I have met many people in the Church that are continuing to struggle and find these stories hopeful and painful at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, we need these testimonies; they show God’s power and give us hope, but I do feel that churches want happy-ending stories. Why? Because nobody likes to suffer!

None of us want to face the reality that we will all suffer; we are frightened of it, which is natural. But when a church only has happy-ending stories it can cause members to put on a mask, because they feel they’re not valid or useful because they’re not better – or can’t say what God has shown them.

I have been sharing my stories with my friends and other people in church. As I have been doing this I’ve seen amazing things happen; other people have come to me with their stories, knowing I won’t judge them. Even though I’m not fixed and I’m fighting to get better, God is using me and my story. Groups that I have been part of have gone from being very academic to being very honest, life-sharing groups. I wanted to write this guest post today to encourage people that by removing their masks it allows others to take theirs off too.

HOW I STARTED WEARING MASKS

I have discovered that my personal masks are ‘I’m fine’ (along with ‘I can cope’) and ‘no one wants to know what goes on in my life’. These were backed up by an internal message early on, telling me that I couldn’t trust anyone.

I first started wearing these masks when I was 11. I had been raped as a child and blocked out the memories – until they were triggered when I was 11. I started having nightmares; I tried to tell my family, but they told me ‘not to be stupid, it didn’t happen’. I knew that it had, but I couldn’t tell anyone, as I didn’t want a big fall out, and I had forgiven the person. The person was young; they knew what they were doing, but they didn’t understand the consequences.

I knew if I talked about it at school, Child Protection would kick in, so I didn’t talk about it again until I was 18. Unfortunately, I had two more experiences where I was sexually assaulted as a young adult. This combination of events made it very hard for me to trust anyone. The first counsellor I saw told me I must have made it up, as it’s not possible for a child to be raped! Needless to say, I didn’t see her again.

As a child, I learned that people liked me when I was cheerful, so I always put on a brave face. And then people praised me for putting on a brave face during difficult things, so I decided this was a good thing to do. I did this to the point that I numbed out all negative feelings, in order to be the positive person everyone wanted me to be. Unfortunately, this took its toll; I started self-harming, developed severe panic attacks and became depressed.

While I was at university I did find some helpful friends and counsellors. Even though none of them made me better, each time I talked about what I had been through a symptom would fall away. So I learned that talking helped, even though it went against what I believed I should do.

LEARNING TO BE MORE OPEN

I desperately didn’t want people to think I was weak and couldn’t cope. I thought they wouldn’t want to know the negative stuff about me. Because when I did start to tell more friends, I had some horrible reactions – where friends walked away from me and said very hurtful things. But I also had some amazing reactions; people who showed me love and stuck by me despite what I’d told them. These people went a long way to challenging those deeply held internal beliefs of mine.

I am now at a point where I can talk about what I have been through more openly, and, when I do so, many people appreciate it and come back with their own stories. This is a huge privilege, because I know how hard it is to be honest and vulnerable.

I have recently been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is really helpful in understanding my symptoms and enabling me to get the right help. I have an absolutely amazing, patient psychologist who has started Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) with me. It is hard, but I can see how it works. I am making more and more links between the past and the present, which enables me to then question my deeply held beliefs.

For example, when I think ‘no one wants to know’, I can now ask myself, ‘is this true’? I have learned over time that people do want to know. I am beginning to understand that, while it will make them sad, it’s the event that makes them sad not me. People do know and are still standing by me.

CONTINUING MY JOURNEY

I have realised that my family didn’t want to know because they couldn’t handle it; it wasn’t that they couldn’t handle me. I still have a long way to go. When I’m with my psychologist, all of my masks have to come off. I still fight it, because it’s horrible being vulnerable, but equally I want people to see who I truly am and I know she can only help me if I’m open with her.

With friends I can take it a bit slower. I still often revert back to my ‘I can cope’ mask because I’m scared of losing respect, but actually I’ve found I get more respect when I’m honest. People ask me how I am and I say ‘I’m fine’ without realising it, including when I go to the doctor because I’m ill! I don’t know I’ve said it.

I am learning to be more honest with my friends, partly because I believe they will see God working in me as I go through suffering, rather than waiting to tell them about what happened afterwards. With my family I have to keep these masks on, as most of them don’t know what has happened to me. But now, when I go back and put these masks back on, they feel heavy – and I feel stressed, on edge and exhausted. I can’t wait to get back to my friends and husband, as I can be honest with them.

My masks protected me for a while, but then they made me ill. I’m still in the process of learning how to take off these masks, but I have a massive hope that I will overcome what I have been through. I believe I will recover and be stronger, and I also constantly pray that God will use my story, when and where appropriate. The simple message I have clung onto is that ‘God is with me’. He has whispered that into my ears so many times over the years.

 

Unmasked: letting go of anxiety

 

To celebrate the launch of my book, Taking Off the Mask, and to continue to promote authentic community here I have started a blogging series called Unmasked: stories of authenticity. I am inviting guest bloggers to write about their own experiences of God calling them to be more authentic. I am delighted to welcome Tiffany Montgomery as the first blogger. She has a very powerful story – and I am blown away and humbled by how God has used my book as part of the process (I didn’t know that until I read her review and this post once she submitted it.) Thank you Tiffany for sharing so openly and honestly…

My two Little Blessings share a room in our home. It has to be the messiest place on the planet! Whenever I am missing something (a hairbrush, my favorite flats, the cute sweater I bought last week) I know where I have to go to find it. And inevitably, as I search the room I get hotter and hotter about the mess.  Can you relate?

As I get angry they begin their excuses. “Mom, I was about to put that away.” “Mom, A did that, not me.” And on they go digging themselves a hole there is no getting out of. I give them an ultimatum, “Clean this room or lose your screen time for the rest of the week!”

Can I be honest with you? I hate when they clean that room. It gets so much worse before it gets clean. The mess spills into the hallway. I have to referee bickering and step in to teach them new cleaning things…it is hard work.

Has God ever called you to clean up something in your spiritual life in the same way? Here’s how He called me to start removing my mask…

I am the controller, the peacemaker, the fixer, the go-to gal to co-ordinate a new ministry, the jack of all trades when life gets crazy, etc. Those are some of the names my mask might carry.

Is it wrong to wear my mask?

Well I can’t really say. It’s what has worked to keep me ‘safe’ in life. Comfortable in life. Un-noticed as I suffer.

You see I suffer from anxiety. My doctor calls it ‘High Functioning Anxiety’, which sounds like I am a very capable person. In reality I was just setting myself up to fall apart hard.

That’s what I am doing in life right now… falling apart.

I’ve had an anxiety disorder for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of it was at age eight sitting nearly hyperventilating in a closet – hiding.

My anxiety is not the result of a chemical imbalance or neurological issue, but from the trauma of my past.

The past is not something I can change.

I just celebrated my birthday in the midst of a year of running from God about my anxiety. You see, He has been relentlessly calling me to dig deeper and find true healing all year. It started in March at a women’s retreat. He began to reveal the deep wounds that I cover up with my mask.

Deep wounds never stay covered for long.

My wounds are as deep as they are wide and I have been trying to run from them for so many years… and for the most part I have succeeded. But God said dig deeper. Did I?  Nope, I ran.

Have you ever tried to run from God?

Let me tell you it doesn’t work well. He has been so patient with me…because I am scared. He’s good that way. Never pressing faster or farther than He knows I can handle.

‘But it’s time,’ I’ve heard Him whisper over and over again.

Hope

When I was a young woman, trying to make sense of a distorted, warped life, I knew nothing except trauma and Jesus. I don’t even remember when the word came to me, but it is in every journal since I was 15. Hope.

  • Hope that God would miraculously heal all the broken warped pieces of my life, heart and body.
  • Hope that I could sleep through the night without the nightmares.
  • Hope that no one would ever pry deep enough to see the wounds and pain that live deeply inside of me.
  • Hope that I could live a normal life and be happy one day.

Joy

In my twenties God gave me another word. You see I never found happy. Happy always seemed to be so far out of reach. Even with doctors and medicine, counselors and Bible studies I always had the anxiety.

I always had a smile too… but it was a mask. My smile was rarely heart deep.

I made a friend in college who had a serious health issue – yet always seemed happy.

He explained to me that he was not ‘happy’ at all, he was actually in pain daily. What he had was joy.  He knew Jesus and embraced the Holy Spirit in a way I’ve never seen before. He focused on God’s love when days were hard and it filled him with joy.

I was in pain every day. Sleepless every night. Fearful of the trauma that wounded my past.  I took his advice and began to read the Bible like a woman with an addiction. When I could not sleep I poured through the psalms. When anxiety became crippling I memorized verses. I found joy.

For years I have clung to hope and joy like a lighthouse.

But I still wear my mask.

I cling to hope and joy while I hide behind my mask. Why? Fear. Some fear that is based in reality. People in my past who knew my condition and the cause of it were hurtful. I have had to learn how to forgive and move past.

I’d love to share the pathway I found to truly forgiving the pain, abuse and betrayal that stole so many years of my life. I was stuck, unwilling to forgive.  I had to learn to release people, so I could walk in freedom! My story is available in a free download here.

But I still keep my mask on to prevent a repeat of that pain.

Brave

In March I heard God calling to take the mask off. I have run for months all the while pursuing the last thing God called me to. In October as I journaled through my birthday and this year’s work I heard a new word. I had to be brave because God has a new work for my life. He gave me Isaiah 43 to hold onto as He worked through it all.

‘Bravely take off the mask.’

God has said that to me so many times this year! When Claire mentioned her book I was just eager to help a friend and learn about publishing a book. Honestly it was just something on my list to do because I plan to publish a study in 2018 and I have so much to learn. It didn’t even register to me what the book was about until I sat down to read last month.

As I sat fuzzy socked at Starbucks I began to inwardly cry. The words began to fly off the pages as my journal filled with quotes and resources to help me in this journey. God put the right resource in my hands to find practical steps for taking off this mask and moving from hoping to healing.

To get healing from my anxiety I have to be willing to let everything fall apart. Since reading the book I have begun to step back from leadership in almost every area…because the attacks will get worse before they get better. I have found time to go back into counseling because I have to let myself remember the horrors of my past. I needed courage to let God into those broken pieces to begin healing them.

‘Without a mask on…everyone will see.’  ‘I am so scared’ I pray over and over to God.

Taking off the mask

I don’t know where you are in your story. Are you hurting? Have you dealt with things that are still unhealed?  Claire’s authenticity has given me the courage to bravely begin taking off my mask and seek help.

Brave.  Such a small word. But God is gracious enough to give such inspiration to underscore that work in my life. He will do the same for you if you let Him.

I know it feels scary. But I also know that the messiest room can be cleaned. It will certainly get messier still in the process, but when you pull everything out into the light you can identify it and put the pieces back where they really belong. You may even find things you didn’t know were hidden in the mess. Just like I found my lost hairbrush 😉

in HIM

Tiffany

Tiffany Montgomery is a Jesus lover, wife, mother, blogger and homeschooling gal who is passionate about equipping and encouraging wives and mothers in Biblical discipleship! Find out more about her at http://hopejoyinchrist.com or connect on Facebook or Pinterest.