The Woman Behind the Mask (And Face Shield)
today at 12:32 pm
If you know me, you know I’m anxious. Depending on when you met me, you’ve know me at various levels of anxiety. My friends who have met me in adulthood see me as anxious, but my friends who met me in middle or high school will actually inform you that I’m super chill now. So how has this pandemic affected my anxiety?
The first couple of months, I was actually much calmer than a lot of people I know. I honestly didn’t think it was going to be as bad as people thought–much like when the weather reporter says we need to prepare for 2 feet of snow, and then we end up with 2 inches. At the beginning of March I nannied a family trip to Hawaii for 10 days. I worked so much, that I really didn’t have time to open my laptop or look at the news. In my ignorance, I didn’t think much had changed from March 3-12. I was flying back to Chicago for 1 night of rest at my parents’ house before flying back to New York on the 13th. When I got home at about midnight, my parents were waiting for me. They informed me how serious coronavirus had gotten while I was off the grid. They seemed genuinely worried about everything, especially me going back to New York. They both actually cried and asked me to stay in Chicago. I agreed, figuring it would be for a few days (because I didn’t understand what a pandemic really was back then. Ahhhh youth.) I cancelled my flight for the next morning. My dad said it might be 2 weeks, and I thought that was a bit extreme. I ended up staying in Chicago for 4 months. I didn’t have the luxury of knowing I’d be gone for so long when I packed for my trip, so I was stuck with just my essentials.
The first couple of months were easy. For the most part, everyone was staying at home, so I didn’t have any sort of FOMO (Fear of missing out), because everyone was in this together–apart. The difficulties in my anxiety started when people started to slowly emerge from their caves. They slowly started to go back to grocery stores and meet-ups with friends, and of course, I became jealous. The only social interaction I was having was nodding to people I’d pass on my daily walks. I then asked my parents if I could go to the grocery store on occasion–my mom wasn’t getting the exact foods I liked. They allowed it, but the amount of anxiety and guilt I had in the stores was so overwhelming, that it wasn’t as much fun of an outing as I had expected. There were a couple of times I went to the store, walked in, saw too many people (many not wearing masks) and decided to go back when fewer people would be there. When I finally worked up the courage to actually shop, my heart was racing and I would try to get in and out as fast as I could, sometimes forgetting items on my grocery list, but not caring. People were coming too close to me. I even saw 2 people sans masks hug!
For the month of June I was asked to nanny for a family in Chicago. My family and I decided it was safe as long as I was driven to and from the family’s house by either my parents or the family (I don’t have a license). I was slowly starting to open up my circle. Then I decided to go on some masked social distancing walks with friends. My issue was that I took the 6 foot rule very literally, and quickly found out that not everyone did. I tried to make a joke about being anxious, to make me moving to the other side of the street less awkward, but I quickly realized my precautions weren’t sustainable. So 6 feet became 3 feet when necessary. After every walk, of which there were only a few, I’d feel incredibly guilty for potentially causing the spread of coronavirus. Especially as someone who was so vocal online about the importance of social distancing. Was I being hypocritical?
When my month of nannying was done, and covid numbers had decreased, my family and I decided I should return to New York. I would have loved for my parents to drive me, but that wasn’t feasible with their work schedules. So I booked a flight. The prospect of getting on an airplane in the middle of a pandemic freaked me out. Especially when the most dangerous thing I had been doing was going to the grocery store every couple of weeks. But I did research on plane air quality, and the airline’s policies, and decided it would be relatively safe. And I could just do a 14-day quarantine when I got back.
When I arrived at the airport, panic set in. I assumed it would be empty, but it wasn’t. I hadn’t seen that many people since early March. 95% of people were wearing masks, but my mind focused in on the 5% who weren’t. 6 feet of distance wasn’t possible. I remember standing in the security line, a few feet away from someone who wasn’t wearing a mask. I was shocked and appalled that none of the airport workers were saying anything. I started hyperventilating–Not a good thing to do when the air around you is literally toxic. But I figured once I got through security I could find a nice empty spot.
I walked to my gate, and it was full. Strangers sitting in chairs next to each other, flippantly taking off their masks. My hyperventilating got more intense, and my eyes started to water. I eventually found a gate that had no flight scheduled, and was able to properly distance myself from others. But of course people were taking off their masks.
Once on the plane, we were told the plane was completely booked (excluding the middle seats). I had really hoped I would have a row to myself, which I’ve always wanted on an airplane, but now more than ever. I sat by the window even though I prefer the aisle seats, because I figured I would have less exposure to other people this way.
Then snacks and drinks were handed out, a service I had thought was suspended due to the pandemic. People were already taking off their masks before there was food, and I knew that having a drink in front of them would make them think the mask rule no longer applied. Not one flight attendant enforced the mask rule. The girls in front of me had their masks off for almost the entire flight. I had to ask them to put them back on–which they did for about 2 minutes before sneakily taking them off again. I had to ask my seat partner to put his mask above his nose. Was I being crazy?
Then I arrived back to New York and had to Uber home. I left the windows open to allow for air circulation, and had to ask the driver to put his mask on. I was starting to question my decision to come back to New York. But I needed to get back to my life and work. I was also in the process of applying to a grad school program that I needed hospital volunteer hours to get into. Being in a hospital during a pandemic? I was going from 0 to 60 really fast.
Within 2 days of being back, I had to go to 2 different doctor’s appointments and the grocery store. The receptionists at the doctor’s office had their masks on under their noses. Then on my third day of being back, the hospital I’d be volunteering at asked me to come in for an interview. I was hesitant, but I figured the hospital was taking all of the necessary precautions. I had to take public transportation to get there, but luckily it was pretty empty. When I got to the volunteer office, I saw 6 people in an office and none of them were wearing masks. They put masks on when they interacted directly with me, but stood much closer than I was comfortable with. Then I was sent to a small room with 2 others to watch an orientation video. Both of them quickly took their masks off. I attempted to subtly push my chair further and further away from them. After 3 days back in New York I was already exhausted from asking people to put on their masks, so I decided I could only be responsible for my own actions.
On my way home, the guilt set in. Was this an essential activity? I needed to do the volunteering to go to grad school to get the job I wanted… Then friends starting asking to hang out. I declined for a while, then agreed to meet up at a park, as long as we both wore our masks and sat 6 feet apart.
It became clear that my expectations for social interactions were a bit unattainable. I realized the grocery store was always going to be too crowded to maintain distance, and I realized not everybody walking down the streets was going to be wearing a mask. I can’t control what other people do, but I can control what I do.
Then comedy started to come back. Outdoor, “socially distanced” comedy. Then the anxiety came of not wanting to miss out on comedy, but also not wanting to risk spreading covid. I talked to several of my friends, asking for reassurance in my decision to not go to outdoor comedy. I saw pictures posted online of these so-called “socially distanced” mics and shows, and they seemed far from distant. Very few masks. A lot of close conversation, and of course touching and speaking into a communal microphone.
I started posting more online about people needing to wear masks and social distance. I was becoming one of those people. But I was also missing the human interaction. I started reaching out to my med school friends and others I trust to get their opinion on what amount of socializing was okay. Unfortunately no one was giving me a concrete answer. It was all about weighing the risk. So I ventured out to a comedy show. It was within walking distance, so I wouldn’t have to take the train. But once I got there, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to have fun, because I was standing on the outskirts of the show boundaries while others seemed comfortable talking to each other. I was excluding myself from the fun, and then feeling excluded. I ended up going home because I couldn’t handle both the anxiety of feeling left out and the anxiety of me taking this risk. Was I being hypocritical?
I decided that for my own sanity, I needed to buy a face shield. I knew people would judge me, but it was the only way I’d feel safe doing any sort of outdoor socializing. At first I was self conscious wearing my face shield, worried about strangers judging me. I quickly got over that. I stopped caring what strangers thought about me–besides, with both a mask and a face shield on, no one could tell who I was. I knew my friends would understand my need to wear a face shield, I didn’t care what strangers thought, but I was very worried what acquaintances would think. These were the people I was still trying to win over with my charm.
I figured wearing a face shield was a way for me to take safety into my own hands, without relying on other people to wear their masks. I figured it was something that only affected me, and that no one else should care about. But I was wrong. Some people were personally offended by my face shield. When I was at the hospital, I was in an elevator with 2 other people (too many people if you ask me), and one woman asked why I was wearing a face shield. I told her it made me feel more comfortable, thinking that would be the end of the discussion. But she contested– “I understand if you’re interacting with patients, but just around the hospital?” I again told her it made me feel safer. She contested again and then informed me she was the director of volunteers (trying to pull rank on me). I pulled my “I’m diabetic” card, even though it shouldn’t matter. She replied with “so am I”. She contested one more time, until she finally gave up. I started to cry. She then later called my supervisor trying to get me in trouble for…being safe? Luckily she was the one who got in trouble, but it still baffles me why she had a problem with something that didn’t affect her.
Another time on the train, a man with no mask sat down directly across from me, when the train car was mostly empty. I moved further away, and clearly offended his whole being. He looked at me, and then aggressively coughed at me. I looked up, and he yelled “You have a problem with me? Then f***ing leave”. I did. Now I have to weigh my risk of covid with my risk of immediate physical safety. I’ve heard stories of people getting attacked for asking someone to wear a mask, and I didn’t want that to happen.
I do feel much safer now that I have a face shield, but the guilt of taking the risks is still plaguing me. I feel guilty for doing any socializing, and then I feel anxious if I’m not doing any sort of socializing. Like I could lose my friends.
I was taking all of these risks, but was also incredibly stressed about covid. I felt like no matter what I did, I was in the wrong. Didn’t leave my apartment for 3 days? Unhealthy and lame. Met a friend at the park? Selfish and risky. I was afraid of judgement from others, probably because I had been judging others so harshly.
Now I’m at the hospital once a week, and nannying 2 days a week. I try to limit my socialization other than that to about once a week. I’ve become the flakey friend, who I’ve always despised. If I’m out and about one day doing work, or going to the grocery store or doctor’s appointment, I feel the need to spend 2 days at home. I have cancelled plans a few times just to do some sort of 2-day quarantine, which really doesn’t do anything. I’ve been taking my temperature, limiting my expeditions, but it’s all hard. I’ve heard outdoor social gatherings are relatively safe. But that’s also assuming everyone is being cautious. Winter will be coming soon, and then what will we have? No one’s going to want to gather outside. It won’t be safe to gather inside. We’ll probably have a surge in cases. So should I be getting my socializing in before then?
I’m constantly comparing myself to those that are socializing less than me, and those that are socializing more than me. Sometimes I’m judging the people who are socializing and sometimes I’m judging myself for becoming a recluse. Sometimes I’m judging myself for socializing while other people won’t even go to the grocery store.
What sucks is that everyone’s definition of being safe is different, and the government is giving us no guidelines. I just need someone to come out and tell me exactly what I need to do. I need someone to say “You can go to the park once a week as long as you’re wearing a mask”, but no one is doing that. Even if it’s okay to go to the park, should I be going to the park? Going to the park is always more dangerous than staying at home. But also I have my own mental health to worry about. But I’m not going to put my mental health above the safety of millions of people.
As you can tell, it’s hell inside of my brain. But according to my friends, pretty much everyone is going through the same thing. Not sure if that makes me feel better or worse. I think we could all really use a competent government right now. Too bad everything sucks.
Let me know if you want to hang out with me! Maybe we can FaceTime or meet at an abandoned building. Either way, I’ll be super anxious, so I guess it doesn’t matter to me.