Discarding the mask
Embracing your vulnerability
“I have a tale to tell
Sometimes it gets so hard to hide it well”
-From “Live To Tell” by Madonna
There was a time I would travel all over the country to meet with clients. My role in the meeting varied depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, I was there to listen to requirements and spitball ideas of how to help. Sometimes I would be the star and share information and address questions. I remember this one time I was brought up to Portland as a Trojan Horse. My rep was bragging to me that the way he secured the meeting was by saying, “Julie is visiting from HQ, and it’s very hard to get on her calendar. We should meet while she’s in town”. The reality of the situation was they booked my ticket after the meeting was set, and I flew up just to sit in the room while the rep monopolized the time to discuss other things.
Normally, I wouldn’t have minded the overnight trip, but I had just started seeing my boyfriend at the time, and we were in the honeymoon period of our relationship. As I sat there in that meeting, my mind drifted to the goodbye I had received the night before, the hello I was going to receive, and all the other ways I was going to communicate with him.
I sometimes forget how expressive my face is, because while I was lost in thought, I happened to look over at my customer. He was staring at me with such intent, that I immediately snapped back to the present. He clearly realized I had checked out and was wondering what I was thinking about since I wasn’t paying attention to the software licensing drama unfolding before me. #oops
In this case, my mask had obviously slipped. Usually, these meetings are so focused, that they become rather sterile experiences. I think this stems back to the awareness of harassment & discrimination that materialized during the late 80’s/early 90’s. You have to be careful about what you say and do in order not to create a hostile work environment. As such, as you become guarded, you become less authentic and your ability to establish connections can diminish. I think that coupled with increasing workloads can potentially disrupt work/life balances that can further impact our abilities to connect and lead to isolation.
People think business travel is so glamorous, but I can not even begin to quantify the late nights I spent preparing for customer meetings. How many nights I spent in a fancy hotel room, and not even being able to look up to enjoy the view, let alone the hotel, the amenities, or the surrounding area. One of the things I love doing in my downtime is going to local music shows, and I was given an opportunity to go to Austin which has an amazing local music scene. Yet, I spent my only night in Austin in the hotel lobby, preparing for our customer meeting until 1am before my Sales Rep felt we were sufficiently prepared.
By and large, I embraced the mask I wore while I worked. Reason being, is that for the longest time, as I would sit with my coworkers, I felt like an imposter. I had a secret that I hadn’t shared and I felt that made me different than the people I worked with. My mask was my protection that kept me from being exposed.
In a strange way, this started when I was a child. I never felt like I belonged in my hometown. My father would often say how, “He would rather be a big fish in a small pond”. I could never understand that. I wanted to be a small fish in an ocean. I wanted to explore with no limits, but be left alone at the same time. I remember my high school sweetheart and I would argue about where to live after high school. He would say, “What’s wrong with Antioch?” and I would reply, “Why stay here?”
What drove me away was that in a small town, there are no secrets. Everybody knows everybody's business. I remember a guy I was dating told me how he once came to my home town, got lost in the area, walked into an office, and got instructions from the prettiest girl he had ever seen. I started rattling off the five freeway exits we had in town, and pieced together the office he walked into. I looked at him, told him the pretty girl’s name and gave him her entire life story, including current marital status, some struggles she had, and offered to introduce him if he liked. He looked at me dumbfounded and said, “You kinda just freaked me out.” I laughed and said, “Welcome to small town life.”
For me, I had become the girl who lost her father to suicide when I was 18. When it happened, and I tried to talk about it, people would look at me with such disgust. It felt like they were mad at me for forcing them to think about something so unpleasant. It was how those reactions made me feel that led me to become silent about exactly how I lost my father.
When I lost my father, not only did I lose him, but I lost everything I understood about my life. His death stripped away my happiness, security, and well-being. I had to rebuild everything. My biggest concern at the time should have been if the boy I liked felt the same, or how I was going to do on my first mid-term, not how to rebuild the pieces of my life.
I kept that secret deep within. I tried to come off as normal and unaffected, but people either ignored my act, or left my life, which fueled my isolation.
I worked my way through college. I choose a school that I could commute to from my hometown and built my studies around my commute. I didn’t leave Antioch until I was 25. I moved 50 miles, door-to-door to San Francisco, but it was an entirely different world. A world where nobody knew who I was, and was unaware of my tragic backstory.
After spending a few years working at the Gap, Inc. on their Help Desk, I landed at Oracle and practically doubled my salary in the process. With that move, I entered into a new life. I had seen cocktail parties in movies, but it was Oracle that it became a way of my new life. More importantly, there was so much access to information, resources, and education, that I was on a path to write my ticket and do whatever I wanted.
Unfortunately, there was also immediate jealously from my arrival. There was resentment that I came in at a higher position than others. In fact, some freakoid, unbeknownst to me, walked into my cubicle, stood right behind me and watched over my shoulder while I was working. He scared the living shit out of me when I turned around and suddenly found him standing right there. When I regained my composure and asked what he wanted, he just sneered at me and told me, “I’m just trying to figure what made you so special. All I see is you working on Microsoft Office.” I just looked at him and pointed out, “Maybe if you spent more time on Office than in my cube, you’d be making more than me.” #Jerkoff
I wound up putting a mirror on my monitor to make sure nobody could sneak up on me again. Regardless, the aggressiveness I encountered made me shut down. I kept people at arm’s length. They got to know me somewhat, but I would say in the ten years I spent at Oracle, I only made a few true friends.
The hardest part was being in a group where everyone was an overachiever. Here I was, the girl who clawed her way out of Antioch. I didn’t have an Ivy League education, a silver spoon, and I wasn’t from an affluent family. I felt like a fake. There is the saying: fake it till you make it. That’s what I did. That’s what led to many late nights trying to be the best at my job. Between the late hours and the years I spent perfecting my mask, I thrived at work.
The thing is now I see how I let past experiences close me off, and become less of a person. A lesser version of my true self. In doing so, I also cut off opportunities to form connections that could have helped me get more from my life.
It took many years, a few failed relationships, therapy, and a number of rough job transitions for me to finally come to terms with my past. Through that, I began to open myself to life’s opportunities and my life became enriched as a result. Slowly, I began to realize that I wasn’t as alone as I had thought.
The turning point in my healing was when I decided to come forward with my father’s suicide. I did so with as big of a bang as I could muster. I shared my secret on Facebook. My hands were trembling as I clicked submit. There was my secret, out on the web for anyone to read, and I had zero control over how the message was going to be interpreted. I told everybody how I lost my father to suicide, that I was going to walk in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP’s)-Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk, and that I needed help.
Initially, it was my friends in the music community who came forward to offer assistance. Singer/songwriter Jean-Marc pulled me aside at the Red Devil Lounge Open Mic, and let me know that “he couldn’t even imagine what I went through”, and he wanted to help. The following day, when I attended a musician’s coffee hour, I was asked to explain what I was trying to do. I spoke about how I lost my father, and how this walk was designed to help people heal. I explained we were raising money for the AFSP, and that I wanted to host musical fundraising shows and even put out a compilation album to help raise funds. I immediately became inundated with offers to help. In fact, a fellow singer/songwriter Beth Marlin (who I had only just met), grabbed my hand, took me outside, and created a professional promotional video for me to promote my cause.
What really blew me away was all the support that my former Oracle coworkers bestowed. Beyond the donations, they actually came to the shows to offer support. One of my former coworkers even shared with me that my efforts were helping him through the most difficult period in his life.
There are times I wish I had been more open about my past and myself sooner. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had. The reality is, that wasn’t my fate. As soon as I disposed of my mask, I found that the isolation I was surrounded by dissipated. I met so many people who had been affected by suicide, depression, and other variations of mental illness. I reached my fundraising goal, flew to Washington DC, and went on the Out of the Darkness (OOTD) walk. In the process, I found an entire community of survivors of suicide who understood exactly how I felt. Through that experience, I now have an answer to when my mind tries to replay the tired thought, “nobody understands how you feel”. All I have to do is think of the people who shared their stories, and all of the people I walked with during the OOTD to know that was not at all the case.
Life without the mask has been extremely interesting. During my last job interview, I met with my future CEO, and another founder of the company. My CEO asked me, “What makes you different?” He said, “Don’t share with me what’s on your LinkedIn Profile. Tell me what makes you unique.” To illustrate his point, he proceeded to share with me his life’s story, and how the challenges he overcame made him the person he was today.
At the time, I had supported a two walks. For each walk, I vigorously raised funds and awareness for suicide prevention. I had hosted numerous shows, posted many YouTube Videos, had a dedicated a website at the time to raise awareness, and I had a whole section on my LinkedIn profile that featured my charity group: Sing Out of Darkness (SOOD). I figured that the two founders wanted me to explain why SOOD existed. So right there in the final interview that would determine if I would get the job that I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY WANTED, I mentally said, “fuck it” and began by saying, “my father committed suicide.”
Apparently, one of the founders had not read my LinkedIn profile, and looked at me completely shocked. I still remember how large his eyes got. However, the CEO locked in on me with laser focus. Between my candor, my passion, my experience (and the fact that I brought $30 worth of pastries to the meeting), I got the job!
In my previous position, when I posted signs about my SOOD shows, they would suddenly disappear before the event even occurred. At my current job, during the fourth walk I was supporting, I realized I wasn’t going to make enough money at my shows to raise the funds I needed to participate in the walk. I sent a single email to my company asking for help. My teammates immediately chipped in to make sure I raised the minimum I needed to walk. Not only was I given donations, but I received a tremendous amount of emotional support. I had in-depth conversations and connected on a much deeper level with my coworkers, and fellow suicide survivor in my midst (he lost his father & his brother). The year prior, the founder who I took by surprise came to one of my shows with his family to support me and my cause. By discarding my mask and becoming vulnerable, I formed deep connections with the people I worked with, and formed deeper connections within me as a result.
When I first started my current role, a woman I worked with pulled me aside to take my photograph for the company website. As she took my photo, she commented that she researched my web profile, and she stumbled upon a SOOD promo video I had shot with a local music promoter who she also knew. Curious, she watched the video. As she was telling me this story, she stopped, looked at me, and shared with me that she had just lost her ex to suicide. She held my hand, and said, “What are the odds that you would start working here just when this happened to me.” It just reinforced in my mind that you never know who is going through what at any given time, but with a little bravery, we can leave ourselves open to connecting with others and connecting with healing as a result.
I used to think that I was alone, and that nobody could ever understand me. Through my fundraising efforts, I learned that we don’t heal in isolation but in community. I’m posting this with the hope that perhaps my tiny acts of bravery and courage can help you unfasten your mask and show the world your true beauty. My hope is that the dialog that I started with my friends and various communities can become extended and include you. Even if you feel alone, I’m here to tell you, you’re not.
With this blog, I’m hoping to share additional insights that I’ve learned in my healing journey with you, as we Travel Into Wellness.