Taking off the real mask

Artwork and words by Emily, 25 VIC

Artist statement

Now that vaccines are available and restrictions are being lifted, everyone seems to be excited about taking off their masks. As someone with an anxiety disorder, “my mask” doesn’t mean my COVID face mask.

For me, “masking” means hiding my mental health challenges. Taking my mask off is not an easy task.

When I was younger, I started masking because of the stigma surrounding mental health. It took years of therapy for me to learn how to take my mask off and manage my symptoms. One of the most helpful treatments was exposure therapy, which involved gradual and repeated exposure to social situations. I built up my capacity for social interactions and I became okay with not wearing a mask.

Everything changed with the pandemic. Without continued exposure therapy, isolation fuelled my anxiety, and my mask slowly came back. During lockdown, I’ve been protected by the limited view of a webcam. No one can see my shaking hands, stimming, or panic attacks. If we go back to “normal”, I won’t have this protection of a screen anymore. I’m scared to take off my mask.

I’ve always found it hard to communicate my mental health challenges with words, but art has been easier for me. I hope that this creative expression can help people feel less alone and raise awareness of mental health challenges that are often masked.

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