The Robin Williams Effect
It's the middle of January and I am patiently waiting for my boss to come back from holidays - I just can't do it anymore. I just can't sit at this computer and work while I feel like I'm crumbling on the inside. The second Monday in January comes and she's back, I wait for her light to turn green during the day to message her, "I need to talk. I'm giving you a heads up that on the 19th I have a doctor's appointment and I'm going to be taking sometime off of work". She calls me right away. We had discussed some of what I'm going through in the previous month, I've always been able to be open with her (but still keep it professional). She knew I had a few appointments with a therapist already but neither of us really knew where it was leading to until that conversation on that second Monday. On top of therapy, I had a surprise interview that week where I had to dig into my past and discuss sexual harrassment situations that I wanted to/had forgotten. It was getting to be too much, I was falling apart. When we ended the call she said, "don't wait until the 19th, be off work starting tomorrow. We'll figure it out, what matters is you."
I still cry evertime I think about that moment. It felt like a liferaft was given to me. That I could just get in the boat, float away from life and begin this journey of healing I so desparately needed. About a month and some later I get a message from a coworker asking where I have been. I said I was off work for personal reasons (she already knew the reasons, she just didn't know that more had happened to send me over and that I was working on working through them). She mentioned that people had noticed I had been off of work and were curious. I assume most people thought it was work related stress and not personal - in the end it doesn't matter, the point is, I was off and people noticed. in that moment I put some weird pressure on myself that I was going to be judged and people would just know that everything was no longer ok. I half jokingly replied, "it's the Robin Williams effect, you never know what's going on on the inside". That's when it struck me. I have worn this mask of everything is fine and perfect for so long that it's become how people see me. The happy, social butterfly at work. The first to volunteer and take on projects above and beyond the job description. The one that will be a part of something or get things going - always planning that office prank or getting people to play crib at lunch so we can bond as a team. But, it's not 100% me.
When I would go home at night I would cry or dissacociate from life. I would watch TV and stay at home because I just couldn't keep up the face. As the years wore on it got worse and easier because I lived alone. I didn't have anyone to answer to or someone to really notice that I wasn't myself and that I was depsressed. It was easy to distance from friends and family because I just wouldn't answer the phone or make up excuses that I was too busy to hang out. And when I would hang out - that mask would be put on and I would be the funny one but really I was panicking on the inside because I (most of the time) didn't want to be there.
I will say I have never sunk low enough to consider taking my own life, but I have gotten to the stage of feeling like I don't matter enough to live beyond tomorrow for people to care. This feeling started at a young age for me. For the past several years at camp I would teach the kids about self trust. I would use Brene Brown's marble jar analogy. I would come with a jar full of marbles and talk about her concept of the acronym BRAVING and trust. I'd first introduce this idea that to be a good leader you have to be able to trust and know yourself. We'd run through what each of the letters meant in BRAVING and then I would dive into telling my own story.
I would start with all the things that made up my mask: president of the student union, dance, theater, make jokes and talk about all the wonderful things in my life and how my home life was good. Then I would talk about all the things that previously happened before I went to camp and have the kids take a marble out for every negative interaction: that time a girl in my sister's class called me a bitch with my sister sitting behind her, and she said nothing to defend me (four marbles). That time that I didn't get picked for something (one marble) or the time that no one invited me to parties (three marbles) , or my "friends" talking about me behind me back (six marbles). The time that I stood up for a best friend only to have her end my friendship because she believed someone over me (six marbles - that one hurt). And a few other items until there was one big marble in the jar. I would hold it up and say - for the times I would walk across the street to school hoping a car would come and hit me. I would take the last marble out, turn the jar upside down and remark, "this is how I showed up to camp that year." The empty jar a symbol for the all the brokenness I felt that I was never able to express.
I would talk a little but about how you never know what someone is going through. I would then talk about my experience at camp, the girl I met who invited me to play basketball and how I chose to participate that day. I then got the kids to put the marbles back into the jar for every choice I made after camp to put mysefl first and build trust within me. I made sure the jar was never full because it's always a work in progress. I talked about marble jar friends - the people who fill your cup up and who have your back. I then would ask them if they knew who one of my marble jar friends where and they always yelled Elyse right away. I would give them each a marble and ask them to give it to one of their marble jar friends. I continued to paint the world after camp in rose colours and neglected to share that on the inside I was still crumbling. For a brief moment I felt relief that the mask was off when I was telling my story and I felt guilty and selfish that I told it - made that moment an outlet for me to breathe. I now recognize what that was for me - a moment to breathe and relax, what I needed to survive another year before coming back to camp and taking off the mask again for those 20 minutes. If I ever teach at camp again - the story will change and the content will be different, no mask for the entire week.
There's safety in that mask that you can put on and hide, escape from the world and create a person who maybe wasn't sexually harassed or assaulted or bullied or torn down by the people they trusted. The masked person becomes anyone you want and no one has to know the truth. But it's like every time you put that mask on, you're not taking off the previous one you're just putting the new one on top. The layers add up. It gets heavy to carry all of those pieces and eventually they will fall and crack. I picture like a zombie face underneath, representing all the years that you have lost yourself under this facade. Never giving the real you a space to breathe.
Late 2020 I saw a photo of Robin Williams with a quote:
It made me think of how funny he was, how he was everywhere, so popular and well loved. But how he was in this space that he couldn't crawl out of. I felt similar, it was just so relatable for me. That's why I told that coworker, "it's the Robin William effect", because you do not know what other people are going through. You don't know where they have come from, their backstory, how hard they fought to get to where they are. We judge each other based on these masks and fronts we create for people to see. Never really giving credit to the unseen and dismissing people for who we think they are.
I remember it was the second session with my therapist - I was unsure of the progress I made. I mean I felt different but I was seeking some unknown validation of this change. My therapist and I were just casually chatting when she paused, looked at me and smiled and said, "oh hi Sasha, it's nice to finally meet you." I wanted to cry and I did. She continued, "I see your mask is finally off, feels good doesn't it?" There is was - the validation I wanted that others could see the real me now. Finally back to life, finally free.
So, I’d like to take this opportunity to (re)introduce myself. My name is Sasha. I dig soul funk music mixed with banjos. I love theater, ballet and Broadway shows. My show favourite is Hamilton, even though I have yet to see it in person. I love playing volleyball. I describe myself as a Chandler and a Samantha (I mean what girl doesn’t). And, I am a survivor of sexual assault.
You never know what journey people have gone on, so remember to extend the most generous interpretation of people’s thoughts, actions and intentions.