It was a clear-skied October afternoon. The sun streamed through the trees. The sounds of laughter and birdsong floated through the air, flawlessly melding to a harmonic cadence. I stood in a patch of dappled sunlight, chatting lightheartedly with a friend, attempting to absorb the happiness and joviality surrounding me, but I felt frantic. Anxious. Panicked. Terrified of my future.
At that moment, another student approached me.
“I’ve seen you around campus. You’re always smiling, and I think that’s awesome.”
Naturally, I smiled back, but my smile was little more than a reflex. Minutes prior to this encounter, I had finished a lengthy, grueling writing exam, which would determine my ability to graduate from college. My mind was clouded with the possibility of failure. I was on the verge of panic, but, outwardly, I remained calm and collected. “Thank you,” I responded, with a bright smile still spread across my face.
These encounters, in which other students marveled over my ever-present smile, were a common occurrence when I was in college. However, my constant smile belied the pain — both physical and emotional — I felt throughout my college years.
To the world, I was “The Girl Who’s Always Smiling.” However, I discovered a dark truth enshrouded behind my perpetual haze of lip-glossed smiles and melodic laughter.
There is a powerful allure in being “The Girl Who’s Always Smiling,” the girl who appears put-together, well-rounded and friendly to everyone she meets, but the magnetism of maintaining an image of seemingly-effortless perfection is fraught with the danger of becoming too afraid of revealing imperfections to ask for help.
I found myself caught in the relentless, deleterious trap of “The Girl Who’s Always Smiling,” portraying perfection and declining help in order to conceal my deteriorating mental state. Anxiety was my constant companion; depressive thoughts crept into my mind and lingered like a horde of unwelcome houseguests. I knew I needed help, but I was terrified to break through the façade I had built — a perpetually positive image that stood in stark contrast to the storm raging in my mind. Seeking help for my mental health would shatter the image of myself I had so carefully curated. I knew I would need to be honest and vulnerable in order to create a sustainable change in my mental state, but the prospect of complete openness frightened me.
I was a living contradiction. Outwardly floating through life, inwardly dragging myself through the heavy murk of mental illness. However, I refused to remove the glimmering mask I wore to conceal my struggles — a smile.
I spent the majority of my senior year of college using my smile as armor to shield me from the truth I had been denying — I needed to seek help for my anxiety. One night, when I was in the throes of studying for a final exam, I was struck by the most severe panic I had ever experienced. My hands trembled. My heart raced. My mind clouded over. I was in a dissociative state, unable to comprehend the world around me, unable to feel anything but panic. That night, I fully realized the danger of being “The Girl Who’s Always Smiling” — my smile alone could not save me from my impending anxiety. I was responsible for saving myself — for seeking out the help I needed.
I finally set down my armor, my smile. I took steps to find the help I needed. I approached my problems proactively, and remained open and honest about my mental health. I wanted nothing more than to feel less anxious, and due to my emotional transparency, I succeeded in mitigating my anxiety. For the first time in my life, I was not hiding my anxiety behind a smile. I was no longer trudging through life, weighed down by my own thoughts. On the contrary, I felt as though I was floating, buoyed by the weightlessness of true happiness. Although I maintained my naturally positive disposition, I no longer hid my anxiety behind bright, berry-tinted smiles. I realized that ever-present smiles did not save me from mental illness. By seeking out help for my mental health, I saved myself from the grips of my anxiety.
I now know that although concealing mental illness with a smile may seem alluring, it is both counterproductive and dangerous. I have come to realize that emotional vulnerability is not a weakness, but rather, a sign of indomitable strength. I understand that even though seeking help is challenging, it is the most rewarding decision on the path to restoring mental health. Most importantly, I now see “The Girl Who’s Always Smiling” as nothing more than a conceptualization, an unrealistic image rooted in fear, shame, and stigma.
I am no longer “The Girl Who’s Always Smiling.” I am unashamed to ask for help. I am unafraid to reveal my true emotions. I am honest and open. I am happy and healthy. I am no longer the scared woman I once was; the woman who hid her anxiety behind a smile to avoid seeking help. I am stronger than ever before, and I will never turn back.
Previously published on Thought Catalog.