A handful of days ago, I was sitting in a small clinic in my neighborhood waiting for a TB test. I was dutifully wearing my mask, and I was hyperventilating. The young woman assigned to give me my test was casually making small talk with me, waiting for me to calm down. She was being so patient.
“Why don’t you take your mask off for a second?” She asked.
“No, no, no,” I replied through tears. “I don’t feel comfortable with that. I don’t want to risk spreading anything. Or getting anything.”
She continued to wait. She asked why I needed a TB test (I’m a teacher who works in school–we’re virtual now, though I don’t know how the heck I’m going to go into a school with this mask issue). I told her I was an elementary education graduate student at a DC university. “Oh, I’d like to go there to get a master’s in public health!”
Her small talk really did help. I was eventually calm enough for her to take the test, and I was out the door in a matter of minutes, now with a snot-filled, soggy mask (do you know how gross it is to cry in a mask? If you haven’t had the joy of experiencing it, it’s gross). Yet, I felt embarrassed and shameful. Despite the patience the young woman showed me, I don’t consider it my finest moment that she had to wait for my body to calm down before she could administer a simple medical test due to my mask issues in the midst of this global pandemic.
Unfortunately, this is my reality. As someone with mask anxiety, I still hyperventilate every time I put a mask on, even six months into this Coronavirus pandemic. While the hyperventilation eventually subsides each time, I’m left feeling physically exhausted and with a headache (whether from the hyperventilation itself, or the fact that my breathing is restricted, I’m not sure. I suspect it’s a combination of both). The DC summertime heat and humidity tends to increase my anxiety. I find it easiest to wear a mask in the freezer section of the grocery store, though any heavily air conditioned space suffices. While in the midst of my hyperventilation, people frequently stop to ask me if I’m okay. While I’m grateful for the concern of others, it’s also embarrassing. Do you know how much it sucks to struggle the one thing that makes you an upstanding citizen in 2020? Yeah, it sucks. It’s exhausting. I hate it.
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I discussed a lot of my pain and anger about wearing masks a few months back in this post. Yet, I have more to say. I don’t feel like I articulated myself as gracefully as I would have liked in that post. I missed a few points that I feel are crucial in discussing the reality of my mask anxiety. Furthermore, I found myself frustrated that none of the articles on mask anxiety out there supported me in the way I felt I needed it. I eventually realized I couldn’t expect anyone else to support me in this issue. So, I decided to write the post I’ve been aching to read. Don’t the best writer’s write what they want to read, anyways? There’s an authenticity in that. So, here I am again, six months into the Coronavirus. Still writing about my mask anxiety. Because, I’m still dealing with this issue. It hasn’t gone away. It may never fully go away, no matter how much I explore my psyche and dutifully mask up despite how much it scares me. Because wearing a mask does scare me. What I don’t think some people understand is that this isn’t just a matter of discomfort for people with mask anxiety. It’s a traumatic experience. Every single time I put on a mask, I’m essentially traumatizing myself for the benefit of others.
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I write that above sentence knowing full well some people will roll their eyes at it, thinking me over-dramatic. Think what you will about me. I really don’t care. I’m exhausted from feeling shameful about this. Mask anxiety is real, and if you can’t see that, I’m going to suggest you need to look inside yourself for some empathy and compassion.
I can also see this argument: “People have been wearing masks in Asia for decades. You don’t see them complaining. Get over it.” First of all: You don’t see them complaining, because they have been wearing masks for decades. Between the SARS and MERS epidemics of the last couple decades, people in Asia have had years and years to adjust to masks. Wearing them is culturally acceptable and encouraged whenever you are sick–when I lived in Thailand in 2015-2016, I frequently saw people wearing masks. It’s long been a cultural courtesy there to cover your face when you’re sick, because Asian countries have had their fair share of serious epidemics that we haven’t encountered in the west. In the west, we haven’t had the same experience with recent epidemics. We aren’t used to masks. And for many people–people with mask anxiety–this isn’t going to become second nature overnight. Or in 6 months. I hope it doesn’t become second nature forever, because I’m not sure I can handle that. That thought makes me nauseous.
Second of all, Asian cultures are entirely more collective and community oriented than western cultures. Saving face is a huge part of many Asian cultures. When you save face, you withhold your true thoughts and feelings for the benefit of others. This, naturally, would make enacting nation wide mask policies much easier. While the U.S. could take a word of wisdom from the collective nature of Asian societies in terms of pandemic response, I do see a downside to saving face–in covering up true thoughts and feelings, the opportunity to discuss complex, nuanced issues can fall by the wayside.
Though I don’t have any evidence to back this up, I have a hunch that mask anxiety is far more widespread than we are led to believe. I think most people who experience it are too afraid to speak up about it, because it’s not the socially acceptable thing to do. At best, you’re seeing as a whiny cry baby who is too self-absorbed to take one for the team. At worst–at least among liberals in the U.S.–you’re seen as an anti-masker. I also have a hunch that some anti-maskers have closet mask anxiety. Though that’s merely a hunch and not at all grounded in fact.
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The thing I keep coming back to in my own battle with mask anxiety is that there is literally no room for a discussion about mask anxiety in the current U.S. political climate. Don’t even get me started on how stupid it is that a global health crisis has become political in the U.S. But the fact that it has become political has made the Coronavirus a very black and white issue here. There is no room for nuance. This is especially true when it comes to the discussion of masks. If anything symbolizes the divisive nature of the United States in the 2020–whether you have the luxury of choosing to believe in the severity of the Coronavirus or not–it’s the mask. We’ve all seen it–protests by anti maskers demanding their individuality and freedom. Those irate, maskless customers at Costco and Starbucks being asked to leave. The GOP gathered en masse and largely without masks at the RNC.
The thing is, when things become black and white, we lose important, nuanced discussions that might lead to greater transparency and understanding. For me, I need people to understand that mask anxiety is out there, because I have it. I also know that I’m not the only one experiencing this–though I don’t know anyone in my immediate circle who also experiences mask anxiety, I have read comments from other people online.
I’ve felt frustration at a lot of the articles I’ve read about about treating mask anxiety. The mental health community agrees that this is a thing. Yet, if an article isn’t bluntly telling me to shut up and mask up, a lot of other articles are from well-meaning therapists telling me how to combat my anxiety (Think about how wearing it is helping others, breathe deep breaths, etc). The thing is, this advice doesn’t help me cope with my anxiety. A cut and try article telling me what to do about it is not helpful in the moment when I’m hyperventilating. Anyone who has suffered an anxiety attacks knows how hard it is to take deep breaths. And oh please. I’m being blunt here, but when I’m hyperventilating the last thing I’m doing is thinking about how the thing that’s causing me a near anxiety attack may be saving someone else’s life. Right now I’m focusing on how I’m hyperventilating and looking like an idiot in public. Anxious people don’t think logically. Isn’t that a well-known fact? It should be. The truth of the matter is, people with any type of anxiety need to feel supported and understood. But with masks being utilized as such a polarizing tool in the U.S., there is currently no room for any such support of people with mask anxiety–leaving these people feeling alienated and afraid to voice that they do have a real issue with masks that isn’t based on selfishness and/or politics.
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I’ve felt a lot of shame at myself for experiencing mask anxiety in the first place–especially since I don’t have any PTSD experiences that would trigger such anxiety. I just have a weird body that apparently rejects anything covering my face. But is that such a bad thing? Our bodies are designed to breathe through our noses and mouths. We would not exist without breath. Is it really so weird that my body feels an anxious rejection to something covering my mouth and nose? Maybe all y’all that can wear masks without issue are the weird ones and I’m normal. 😉 I do think I’ve been too hard on myself in not accepting my mask anxiety for what it is, though–and that has not helped me cope with it. So what that I don’t have PTSD or another mental health condition that would bring this on. My mask anxiety is what it is, and I should honor that.
I think the thing that really gets me about masks–what brings on so much of my anxiety about them–is how unnatural they seem to me. There is something completely unnerving to me about covering one’s face to go about normal, daily activities. I don’t believe it’s a way we as a society can truly thrive. I’ve seen a meme comparing masks to underwear–you wear underwear so your body fluids don’t to spread to others. The meme argues that masks are the same deal. Yes, masks are necessary for covering up the spread of a deadly global pandemic at the moment. Yet, I will never believe they are a normal necessity like underwear. Masks are a current necessity that I do firmly believe are unnatural to normal human existence. It is not natural to cover our noses and mouths, the two orifices we rely on for breath. It is not natural to not be able to see other people’s facial expressions, what so many of us rely on for social cues. I also apparently have really bad hearing and struggle to understand people through masks (Mom and Dad did warn me that I was blasting my music through my head phones much too loudly throughout my teenage years…perhaps this particular struggle is my own doing…whoops!). Most people would agree that genitals are a private area not meant to be viewed in public. Faces are our window to the world, though.
I also experience an extreme claustrophobia from anything covering my face. While not claustrophobic otherwise, I’ve always been sensitive to anything obstructing my nose and mouth, a fact about myself that I never had to think deeply about until the arrival of COVID-19.
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In a political atmosphere where masks have become another weapon of polarization, we need to be having a more nuanced conversation about them. It’s okay to believe in COVID-19, take it seriously, wear a mask, and still have issues with the mask. You don’t have to like the mask on your face, even if you believe in the science behind it. It’s okay to have mask anxiety, and it’s okay to cope with it and treat it at your own pace.
I’m not asking for a mask exemption card. What I do want is to be heard. The Coronavirus Pandemic is leaving people with all kinds of mental health issues and trauma–whether that’s from being socially isolated, not moving enough due to spending too much time at home, going out onto the front lines everyday as an essential worker, dealing with the economic trauma of losing a job, or the racial trauma brought on by all the recent police brutality towards black and brown bodies–it is no secret that this pandemic has only heightened racial inequity and inequality in the U.S. Mask anxiety is another mental health issue and trauma that some people deal with every day. It is another unfortunate symptom of this pandemic for many. If we, in the U.S., weren’t focused so damn much on winning our political debates, perhaps we could actually see that.