Undoubtedly, the most difficult part of starting Beneath Your Mask has been putting pen to paper to share my life-changing journey from seemingly being given a death sentence to discovering what life really is. In my own journey to truly heal, I must let my guard down and remove my mask: the mask that protects me from judgment and other people’s expectations; the mask that presents me as polished, beautiful, successful and having it all. Sharing what I’ve gone through, where I’ve come from, and having to relive those memories seems more than I can endure. At times it appears it would be easier to walk away from my future than to write about my past. It’s never been my style to take the easy route, so I am letting go of the fear and choosing faith. In 2011 I thought I had it all — or so it seemed. I had just moved to Atlanta. I was living in my dream apartment and working my dream job. I was an entertainment business manager for some of the most popular celebrities in the music industry. It was exciting…all the events, celebrities, trips, and the access. So why was I so miserable? How could I have everything I thought I wanted and still be so unhappy? Deep down inside, I just wasn’t living my authentic self. I had been praying to God to find my true purpose because I knew I wasn’t living it.
Be prepared, because when you pray He will answer you. God works in mysterious ways. In the midst of living this “dream life,” just after my 30th birthday, I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). And not just regular Lupus, but the more severe form that included Lupus Nephritis. At first I didn’t understand what that diagnosis meant, but as I researched it online I began to feel like I had been given a death sentence. I was being told that I would need dialysis and eventually a kidney transplant. Absolutely not!! This was not happening to ME! What did these doctors know, and did they know that I didn’t have time for this right now? But this was very much happening to me. Not only was my body attacking my kidneys, but I felt as if I were being personally attacked. The lifestyle that I was clinging to and the “me” I thought I was (and wasn’t ready to give up), were all under attack. I refused to accept it. I visited doctors all over the country, waiting for one of them to tell me something different: that I wasn’t going to need the ten prescription medications they kept prescribing me. And I certainly was not going to take those steroids and blow up like a balloon. I was in DEEP denial. With each visit, my condition was getting worse. In just a few months after my initial diagnosis, most of my hair had fallen out, my joints had locked up, I had a severe rash all over my body, my eyes were swollen shut, and worst of all, I was retaining so much water that I had gained over one hundred additional pounds. I could no longer stand the sight of myself. Every time I got out of bed and passed a mirror I would cry and just crawl right back into bed. After a while, I stopped leaving my apartment completely. I couldn’t bear the way I looked and I didn’t want anyone else to see me either. I became a recluse. I even stopped taking phone calls. My family, including my mother, had to call my doorman and ask him to knock on my door to see if I was still alive. Truth be told, I really did not want to be…I was so over it. I lived on the 14th floor and I can’t even count the number of times I contemplated jumping. The only reason I didn’t was the fear of living through it and becoming even more disfigured.
I was miserable. What had I done to deserve this? Was I a bad person? I thought about everything I’d done my entire life, trying to figure out what I was being punished for. I just couldn’t imagine that this was going to be my quality of life. Even though to a large extent I had given up on myself, thankfully God never did, and He sent people into my life who would not allow me to either. Back then I was fiercely independent and very guarded; I typically did not let people in. However, I had hit more than rock bottom and was at my lowest point. It seemed that only in that place was I able to open myself to receive the help I needed. I had finally accepted that I couldn’t help myself and that whatever control I thought I had was gone. A colleague urged me to talk to her friend, who was also a unique type of physician who practiced Integrative Medicine. Although I really did not trust doctors at the time, I felt I had nothing to lose and decided to connect with her. It was the strangest thing, as she was working in the Middle East and could only converse with me by phone. Nevertheless, this stranger not only convinced me to leave everything in Atlanta and move all the way across the country to Los Angeles to let other strangers take care of me, but she was willing to send her husband from Abu Dhabi to take care of me as well. What was even stranger was I actually agreed to it!
I really was not the trusting type. Yet I thought, “I could stay in Atlanta feeling sorry for myself or I could step outside my comfort zone (yes, I still had one) and go to Los Angeles and put my life, literally, in the hands of complete strangers.” Well, I left Atlanta within a few days with the only pair of shoes I could still fit into and I never looked back. That moment of trust changed everything for me. I had always relied on appearances and only trusted my own senses, but here I was, having never seen or spoken to these people, having no idea of what would happen, and in my most vulnerable moment I chose to trust…to let down my guard, drop the persona of strength, and let my vulnerability show. To ask for help for me is to show weakness, but in that moment it was the strongest thing I’d ever done. I had peeked from beneath my mask of invincibility. It was a leap of faith.
Once in Los Angeles, I saw a Lupus specialist and as soon as he saw me, I was sent directly to the ER and admitted to the hospital. At the time I was too sick to be aware of it, but I later found out that my prognosis was poor and I was not expected to leave the hospital. The Integrated Medicine doctor, her husband, and my colleague-turned sister, cared for me and held my hand through the process. Not only did I eventually allow chemotherapy to be administered, but I also finally took the steroids that I had feared so much. I didn’t fear any of it as much anymore partly because, as I said, I had hit rock bottom and didn’t have anything to lose. But also a greater part of me was beginning to learn about relinquishing control, trusting, and higher powers.
In addition to the conventional medical treatments, the doctor and her husband, who I now refer to as my gurus, placed me on a protocol that included a combination of Chinese herbs, supplements, and dietary modifications — and most importantly, mental and spiritual healing. I learned how to take care of myself (not to please others, but to really take care of me). I learned how to prepare the foods that nourished and supported my body, how to prepare my herbs, and how to ask for help. I began to believe there is good in the world. Moreover, I also learned how not to take things so personally, how to have an attitude of gratitude, and how to forgive. I was essentially unlearning everything I thought I was and knew for the last thirty years.
I spent about 6 months unlearning and relearning with my gurus before I was able to move forward on my own. The spiritual and emotional healing has been much more difficult than the physical for me. I feel my true healing began when I started to let go of everything superficial that I had placed way too much value on. As I let go of that persona or elements of the mask that I wore on a daily basis, I began to discover who I really was and how beautiful I REALLY am – not just on the outside, but on the inside. It mattered less to me what other people thought and more about what I thought of myself. I finally cut that thinning hair I was holding onto for dear life. I never returned to that apartment I had loved so much.
What I valued changed and I chose to focus on forgiveness, family, and even love. I started accepting people in my life for who they are and stopped trying to make them into who I wanted them to be. I stopped worrying about how long I had to live and decided to pay attention to HOW I lived my life. I started appreciating what I had and grew a compassion for others that I had never known before and that still surprises me today. I stopped feeling like a victim and realized that all this was done FOR ME, not to me. While I am not saying that I embrace the diagnosis of Lupus, I do embrace the principles I have learned and the “me” that evolved as I went through the apparent challenge that Lupus presented. I also feel my diagnosis was much bigger than me, as I believe sharing my story can help others. I wasn’t always ok with this because I didn’t want that burden. I wanted my old life back, the one that Lupus didn’t control. But I’d prayed to God for purpose in my life, and I believe He gave it to me through my diagnosis. While not the route I intended, next time I’ll be more specific!
Physically, I no longer have symptoms of Lupus. I am energetic, I travel, and I have not just survived …I am thriving. I have never been admitted to the hospital again since leaving Los Angeles, nor have I had any sick visits or flares — ever. I feel very fortunate and blessed. While my labs are not perfect, I have chosen not to let numbers determine my fate or my feelings. I have stopped obsessing over them. I still have times where I may feel sorry for myself, but I don’t let those thoughts go too far. I go through experiencing the emotion, pick myself up, and I move on. I focus on my attitude, how I handle stress, and accepting that I am not in control. My faith has been strengthened and I now know what it is to have a true relationship with God. I know He is in control and that makes it easier for me to let down my guard and just live life. For a long while I have struggled with the “idea” of the woman I used to be. I have thought about her a lot, and I realized that almost everyone is pretending to be someone else. Almost everyone is wearing a persona to hide his or her true thoughts and feelings from others. From the time we were young children we have been taught that we are not enough as we are. That people would not accept us as we are. They wanted us to think, look, and behave in different ways than we did. And since it is natural for humans to desire social relationships, most of us compromised. We had to find ways to convince those around us that we are worth their friendship, worth their acknowledgment. We had to act in certain ways to please others: our parents, our teachers, our friends, our colleagues, and just about everyone we knew. In other words, we had to pretend. After a while we learned to cover ourselves well under the mask of pretense. Now as adults we always have a dozen masks ready at hand, so that we can easily choose which one to wear, according to the situation we are in. Many of us have been such great hypocrites that we’ve even convinced ourselves of our lies. Trying to please others for such a long time, we have forgotten who we are and what is truly important to us. We have forgotten how to enjoy, how to express ourselves, how to be spontaneous. This type of thinking and living contributed to my illness by creating excessive stress and pressure in my life as I tried to maintain a persona and lifestyle that was not in line with the greater truth of who I really am.
More recently, I realized how important it was that I stopped trying to be the “me” that I was before I got sick, the person that I had wanted the world to perceive me as. I had to remove the mask that I’d been presenting to the world; then, and only then, could God truly heal me. He could not heal my representative (she wasn’t willing to let Him in). The most important and hardest work has been taking off my mask and facing myself. I realized that God could heal me once I removed my mask and revealed my true self — not because He wasn’t willing to before, but because I hadn’t been willing to be vulnerable and humble enough to receive that healing. Hence my company name, Beneath Your Mask.
Behind every mask lies a deep-rooted fear: the fear to express yourself and reveal to others who you truly are. We pretend because deep down we feel empty and lonely. We pretend because we don’t feel that we are enough as we are. Many of us even wish we were different people because we have not yet learned to accept and appreciate ourselves. But when even you don’t appreciate yourself, how can you expect others to appreciate you?
More importantly, beneath that mask lies a beauty that transcends being defined by society’s approval. Ironically, the “you” that you are afraid to show is the you that holds your health, wealth, and your real happiness.
Beneath Your Mask’s first product, Heal: Whipped Skin Soufflé, was created in 2012 as an expression of self-acceptance. I had always been somewhat of a cosmetics junkie, but now my needs had changed. I was looking for a product to help repair the damage done to my skin from the excessive weight gain and loss, from the Lupus, and from the chemotherapy. Many products on the market contain harsh chemicals, synthetic fragrances, and damaging toxins. The skin, being our biggest organ, can absorb these chemicals and cause the immune system to work harder in order to detoxify them. These chemicals can then go on to cause clogged pores, skin irritations, premature aging, and much much more.
I wanted the natural beauty of the skin to come through, so I sought to create products that were safe, non-irritating, and non-toxic for the skin to absorb and that would not challenge the immune system. This was something I couldn’t find in stores or online. Many people with health challenges involving the immune system such as Lupus, various cancers, and other autoimmune diseases have difficulty with the detoxification system and become very sensitive to even the most minor of synthetic chemicals. They may also have a tendency toward drier skin. I strive to create the highest quality, most potent, non-toxic, all natural, organic, vegan* products that actually work to hydrate the skin as well as feel and smell incredible for people all over the world. Head over to my blog to read more of my story and see my favorite foods, recipes, and supplements that have helped me end my struggle. I hope that my products and my story can help someone else faced with what seems like an overwhelmingly impossible, life-altering event in their life. When you are true to yourself, you allow your individuality and uniqueness to shine through. To be true to yourself takes self-acceptance and courage; it requires you to be introspective, sincere, and open-minded. It means that you will not let others define you. It means that you stop wishing to be someone or somewhere else and instead focus on finding out who you really are and why you’re in that place.