I have lived alone throughout this pandemic, outside of two months. I consistently wore a mask with others, outside, from march 2020 till early May2021. My only mask free time with others since the pandemic started had been the two months (April, May 2020) when I stayed with friends and a few days when a friend stayed with me and we both tested negative before they arrived.
On April 28th, when I heard, that the CDC was saying it was no longer necessary to wear masks outside, I had instant panic. I tried to make it better by switching the radio station fast! (Does anyone else use this method to relieve themselves from triggering information you’ve already heard?)
I anticipated that I would spend precious time I receive support-- dedicated to my trauma around not being able to adjust; while it seems the rest of the country would take off their masks yell “hooray! We are back to normal!” and run outside, I’d be left inside in an agoraphobic (fear of going outside) state.
I worked on some trauma that day. The following day I was able to listen to a full radio interview with Dr. Monica Ghandi, an infectious disease doctor in SF who had been consistently wearing masks. Dr. Ghandi said, starting at the end of April, that Dr. Ghandi chose not to wear a mask outside to model what the studies claim is safe: that its extremely difficult to pass the Corona virus outside. This helped and confused me. I again, told myself I should be fine outside without a mask, and I wasn’t. Information, logic and left brain clarity doesn’t overrule right brain trauma. (I also struggled with--has the CDC steered us wrong before? Was it the CDC who said not to wear masks at the beginning of the pandemic leading to heaps of preventable sickness and death?).
That day, I got to where I was going for a run and I tried to not wear a mask. I did for a bit while alone but when I passed people, none of whom were wearing masks, I had to put my mask back on and go into a bit of rage internally at them. The lack of care for others. Not knowing how scared or stressed this could make others but why should we care as long as I’m comfortable?
I started crying (I often do, not out of my norm) and I thought about this past year, most of which I have had solely masked relationships. I’ve made a few very important friendships this year. One of them, I still did not know my friend’s face. We had only been mask free a few seconds here or there when they were drinking in front of me. I felt grief to be told suddenly “just don’t wear a mask. And you should be fine with it.” Thinking about my first unmasked experiences after a year of hell (not only because of the pandemic) would culminate in being mask free with strangers. I decided not to go unmasked around the strangers who were without masks. That evening I visited with my friend and told them what I learned and asked if we could try to hang out mask free at a distance. We sat in my backyard and talked, each of us every few minutes naming how weird it was to see each others face.
A few nights later I went to a party where one person asked if they sat far away could they have a mask off. I said it was OK, and my friend did too. No one else did, they just all removed their masks. I went into immobilization, and shame. I couldn’t take my mask off and I wasn’t wanting others to put their’s on. Nothing felt right. My friend came over and expressed concern for the lack of consent that transpired. He was the only other one wearing a mask at moments. It was his birthday. I knew if I left it would relieve him of masking up out of “solidarity with Kangs”. I tried to leave but he encouraged me to stay, and I did. At one point someone joined us in a conversation and said “do you want me to put on my mask? I notice you have yours on”. I said I didn’t know, which I truly didn't. They started quoting statistics and explaining at me with information. I said “I didn’t consent to being educated”. So they walked away.
A bit later they returned, masked and apologized and we chatted about the complexities.
The complexities: We have spent a year or more now, having the universal experience (getting messages in every direction) that people without masks on are dangerous. Hearing new information does not make the brain and nervous system instantly shift into feeling safe with people without masks on. It’s a process. It’s work. I have not seen this named by anyone anywhere. (except me trying to do that here and very few others I’ve talked with).
It is, and can be an experience of post traumatic stress (PTSD) to be around people without masks and feel uncomfortable, stressed or fear. You are not crazy if you are having this happen. You are having a sane reaction to an unrealistic expectation to suddenly be fine around others without masks.
You may have made unconscious contracts about this, making it more unbearable.
Here is my contract:“I Kangs (your name here) do swear to my essential self that I will not be around anyone without a mask in order to ensure that I (and my family, friends etc) are safe from risk of illness and dying no matter the cost, even if that cost is social isolation.” The words may differ for you.
When I released my vows I started to feel like I could be around others without masks. I still wanted care for anyone I may pass who hasn’t or can’t just shift.
My nervous system settled and I began to notice how I could be in social situations where I truly didn’t feel worried about the virus or have my consent boundaries stepped on.
Here is what I have done: when I got out I usually throw a mask around my chin. If I see someone (s) approaching who are masked I put it on my face as I pass them. I feel in integrity to support the sense of safety they may need, and I can still keep adjusting to the new new normal. I take my mask back down when I feel like I’m a distance where if I were in their shoes I would feel care and respect.
When I’m in a social situation I start with a mask on and say “do you want to keep masks on or are you comfortable with masks off?” If I initiate a consent conversation I feel in integrity and also am empowered that I can choose the mask off.
I am in no way saying that what works for me will work for you or is what you should do. I mostly wanted to share my experience with this. And minor celebration at having worked through this relatively quickly and smoothly. Relief in reflecting on how panicked I was that first day in April and where I am now.
Counselor, friend, attempting to write