Uncovering the Mask

By: Hannah Lottenberg

It’s okay to not be okay. That’s a sentence that one year ago, I wouldn’t have believed. Before getting involved in TableTalk, I lived my life on the surface, never really confronting my truest identity and self. Basically, I came to Penn as a positive, straight, happy girl who always saw the glass half full. I write to you all today as a lesbian cancer survivor with depression, anxiety, and a complex view on life.

Hannah holding up the TableTalk hand sign in her hometown

So how did that happen? Well, I grew up being known as the kid who is always happy, smiles all the time, is a good listener and helper, and will just go with the flow. My mantra was: If everyone else is happy, I’m happy. Even when I was diagnosed with cancer, I beat it with a smile on my face, putting on the show to others that I was okay and happy. I was living a fake, unrealistic life, barely scratching the surface of who I was as a person.

First semester, I kept on the mask. Coming back second semester is when I was forced to face myself. On the outside, everything seemed great (friends, groups, etc); but I felt empty and emotional. I realized that the inevitable human emotions I never let myself feel were just suppressed. When I let one out, the rest followed. It was intense and hard. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. And with that suppression came the exploration of my identity. Before college, I was never “curious” about my sexuality. I always just “knew I was straight” and then with my emotions came the realization that I’m not even attracted to men at all. I struggled with mental health and sexuality at the same time.

I spent a lot of time becoming comfortable in my own skin, and confronting it all wasn’t easy. I still have my light, but it comes with depth, layers, and raw feelings. I can no longer hide my emotions. Friends, therapy, medication, self-reflection, writing, and many more helped me grapple with it all. It is by no means over. I still struggle with being okay with the fact that I am attracted to women and that I have lows and panic attacks. But, from each avenue I try, I gain the skills and tools to help myself and work through the highs and lows that I still face.

Hannah (middle) with TableTalk Penn Presidents, Laura and Prateek

TableTalk is all about pushing the boundaries of our everyday conversations. I stopped hiding my feelings. The moment when someone asked how I was doing and I actually said: “I’m struggling,” I realized how easy it can be. Emotions and feelings never go away. They just get pushed down until you find an outlet to release them.

TableTalk taught me the power of human connection. 9 times out of 10 when you tell someone you are struggling, they will also open up about what they are struggling about. All I had to do was #StartTheConversation. It seems daunting to be vulnerable, but once I am, my connections become deeper and I realize that I am not alone.

Hannah talking to prospective Penn students on a CampusCouch

My first TableTalk event was called “Fake It Till You Make It.” I sat down at a table with people I had never met. We answered questions, and for once, had an honest conversation about mental health on campus and struggling to find your identity. It was then that I realized how many people just wanted a platform to talk about the things that aren’t talked about. That is what is so magical about TableTalk. And, no, the people at my table did not become best friends, but whenever I see them we smile at each other — knowing that we are both going through things and may be struggling, but we support one another.

TableTalk Penn members spending time together on Labor Day 2018

There is truly nothing worse than feeling alone in your beliefs or thoughts. TableTalk is a place where nothing gets left out. If there is something you want to talk about, you can. It’s okay. In fact, it makes you stronger to reach out. So whether it’s a friend, me, a peer, a teacher, or another member of TableTalk, please reach out. Once I did, I began my process of healing. So, what are you waiting for? #JoinTheConversation.