I recently visited my psychiatrist for a check-up. As usual, he asked me how I was doing and if I felt any better or worse than usual. (I’ve been antidepressants and anxiety medication for the past five years, on and off.)
I let him know that my dad had recently passed, and he asked why I was smiling as I said it, tears streaming down my face.
“It’s just part of my demeanor,” I told him.
It wasn’t some sort of nervous habit or a weird tick. It’s just that when everyone expects you to have it all together, you learn to pretend that you really do.
I'm a perfectionist, a straight-A student and a former cheerleader. My room is always perfectly clean, my homework done in advance and my resume jam-packed with internships and jobs I acquired throughout college. My family thinks my life is like a storybook, my boyfriends always put me on a pedestal, and my friends think I have it all together. But the truth is, no matter how picture perfect everything looks on paper, I feel like I'm losing it now more than ever.
I learned the art of hiding my feelings in high school. At the time, my father was sick with liver cirrhoses, I was struggling with an eating disorder and adjusting to a new family and home. But no one wanted to hear about that bad stuff, so I created the plastic version of myself: bubbly and smiley with a refusal to fail.
The days were easy to get through, and at night, I could lock myself away in my room, falling on the bedroom floor, crying alone. No one could witness the black mascara staining my cheeks. No one could tell that I was weak.
Even when visiting a therapist, I made sure to underplay the seriousness of my depression.
By college, I had mastered the art of perfecting. When my serious boyfriend and I broke up, I tucked his pictures away in a drawer, threw our memories in a garbage bag and started dating immediately. By creating new lists of goals and not allowing myself to be anything less than the perfect student, daughter and friend, I was able to distract myself and everyone else around me from my heartbreak.
When my dad died, only two months ago, I immediately was in shock, as most people would be. But while my family was spending time reminiscing and crying and holding onto each other, all I could do was stare blankly at a television or pull the covers over my head and numbly lay in bed for hours.
Yes, I let my closest few friends see me cry, see my truly heartbroken for a moment, but after a couple of days, I couldn’t face talking about it anymore. I couldn’t comprehend my own pain, let alone have others witness me struggle. I wiped my tears away, started work again after the weekend and went back on with my normal routine.
My mother and brother expressed their concerns about me bottling up my emotions, worried that they would reappear later. But it’s no longer a decision for me. I don’t remember how to freely feel. It’s easy to be an actress; showing real emotions is the hard part.
As I prepare for graduation in just two weeks, it’s only become harder to let others know how lost I am. My friends and family are excited for me, going on about my hard work and good grades, reassuring me that I’ll have a job right out of college with my positive attitude. I, on the other hand, have never been so scared in my life.
How can I move to the next phase of my life without knowing how to feel? How am I supposed to settle into a new location, make genuine friends and become an adult without knowing how to do anything other than smile?
I can keep up the art of pretending. I can go to work every day perky and energetic, meet a great guy and keep him from thinking anything’s wrong in my life, and join a new group of friends, who think I have the world at my feet. But that’s not what I want anymore.
What I really want is to learn how to show my feelings as I'm feeling them, to stop living up to everyone else's expectations, to mourn, to cry, to be openly heartbroken, and for everyone around me to see how I really feel instead of believing in my sugarcoated persona.
I want to revert back to the little girl I once was who wasn’t afraid if she fucked up every once in a while, who made her own emotions and needs a priority rather than focusing on what everyone else might possibly think, who would cry over a scraped knee if it hurt and scream out loud if a bee stung her.
So this is my first step, opening up through my words. I’m sad and afraid. I don’t know how to be a fatherless daughter. It hurts like hell. I don’t know how to fall in love after so much heartbreak. Trust seems impossible.
I need my loved ones to start calling me out on my smiles. I need someone to tell me it’s OK to look as shitty as I often feel.