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.

 

A malignant motivator

I am delighted to welcome Lucy Mills onto my blog today. Her book, Undivided Heart, was published last week and I received my copy today – I’m so looking forward to reading it! As part of her blog tour, she has provided a guest post that really resonates with me, because it covers a subject I include in my own book, Taking Off the Mask, which is out on Friday!

Our culture is obsessed with looking a certain way – whether this is physical appearance, or appearing to be successful. But this obsession also strays into the spiritual. We can get enamoured with ideas of not just being but looking like a ‘good Christian’ (whatever that is), or coming across ‘right’ in the way we live. When life throws up inconvenient challenges, as it inevitably does, we hiccup. Sometimes we go on the defence, entrenching ourselves. Other times we go on the attack, criticising others for the ‘specks’ in their eyes while ignoring the planks in our own. Neither reaction helps us. We end up missing out on a deeper encounter with the divine because we’re so busy with trying to look good.

This need for approval – this desire to be liked – can become a malignant motivator in our lives. Our sense of worth becomes so contingent upon it that we work to live in a way that gets us liked. We bury how we really feel in the attempt to put on a show of ‘likeableness’.

She waits to see
if you will like her
She needs to know
that you will like her
She cannot bear it
if you don’t like her

We may not even be conscious of it; the motive has become so pervasive in us that we act on almost automatically. And isn’t it easy, in an age where ‘likes’ can be counted?

But something inside us worries, because we know that this façade is not who we are. We may ignore this niggle. As well as hiding from others, we can hide from ourselves. But we can’t hide from God.

All our strutting, all our dabbing on of Christian-coloured concealer, all that sucking in of our spiritual tummies – it doesn’t fool God one jot.

And it doesn’t address the issue that what we think of as being a ‘good Christian’ or saying/doing the ‘right things’ may not be in tune with God’s priorities anyway. Have we made small things into huge issues and then dismissed the important stuff amid nit-picking at the unimportant? Instead of gracious, we come across as judgemental. Instead of loving, we come across as arrogant and proud.

God uses the weak. The messy. The people not wearing make-up.

God uses you – and God uses me – in our weakness and our frailty, in our foolishness and vulnerability.

God sees us and God loves us. That is our great motivator, as we blossom in the assurance of what has been done for us, realising how much value is given to us as children of God.

Undivided Heart: Finding Meaning and Motivation in Christ explores the things that shape us, drive us and define us, asking where our true identity lies and how this is reflected in our lives.  Find out more (including where to buy) at www.lucy-mills.com/undivided-heart