I absolutely biffed my first opportunity to be indoors in a public space without a mask. Just dropped the ball entirely. When I got into the meeting, everyone else in the room was maskless and chatting (except for the guy running the A/V, who was wearing a mask and not chatting at all).

And even though I knew I’ve been fully Pfizer-vaccinated since January, and even though everyone else in the room was a grown adult who was clearly either vaccinated or OK with the risks of being unvaccinated, and I wouldn’t have hurt anyone by taking the mask off – I just couldn’t do it. My brain went “nope.” And so I kept my mask on.

Fortunately – or maybe not so fortunately, depending on the situation – I have an anxiety disorder, so I’m accustomed to my brain going “nope” and stopping like a parking brake, utterly refusing to move. Or sometimes it goes “you must,” puts forth a compulsive behavior and won’t stop screaming until I do the compulsive behavior or fall asleep. While I can use logic as well as any other primate, my brain is fairly illogical in its thoughts and pathways; I am not a rational person.

I suspect one of the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a huge rise in people experiencing symptoms of anxiety for the first time in their lives. Not just people being anxious sometimes – that’s part of the human condition – but persistent feelings of fear that do not go away, even when assuaged by facts and in the absence of actual threats.

And this can be scary, on two levels. First, there’s the actual anxiety itself; for example, a persistent feeling of dread that you will catch and spread a deadly respiratory virus if you take off your mask in any setting where there are people around. Then there’s the scariness of your brain refusing to respond to logical facts, knowing that there is no reason for you to be afraid but feeling nauseous, itchy, sweaty fear.

For example, you might tell yourself, over and over, that you and your family are vaccinated, and nothing bad will happen if you walk into Dunkin’ Donuts without a mask on, but you just can’t make your feet cross that threshold. And not having your brain respond the way you’re used to can be a frightening experience.

I was an anxious child who grew up to be a clinically anxious adult. It’s something you can learn to live with, sort of like living with a dog who barks at the mailman. It’s annoying, but you won’t stop ordering packages to your house. Fear is a noisy animal that sits next to you.

I did manage to take my mask off while I was donating platelets at the Red Cross donation center last weekend. I felt mostly OK doing this for two reasons. First, in order to donate blood or platelets at the Red Cross, you have to be – to use a medical term – healthy as a horse.

So I felt confident that everyone at the donation center was up to date on all their shots and hadn’t been exposed to the coronavirus recently. Secondly – and more importantly – donating platelets involves a needle in each arm for about two hours. Blood goes out through one arm, gets put through a machine that looks like it was designed by some cartoon mad scientist and separates the platelets from everything else, and then the everything else goes back into your body through the needle in the other arm.

You cannot move for two hours, and you will get an itch on your face at some point. It’s more physically uncomfortable than donating blood, and a mask would have added another literal layer of discomfort, so I went without. Having my whole face out was weird. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it, exactly.

I was either emoting way more or way less than usual, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which. I was also watching a documentary about dogs and had to stop my face from crying at how sweet it was, because that would have for sure caused the staff to think I was having a medical emergency. (I wasn’t. Just an emotional emergency, as usual.)

The unmasking of America is a bit of a hot social topic right now. Personally, I think I will continue to wear a mask in most public indoor spaces, for a couple of reasons. When people rib me about it, I joke that I like people not knowing what I look like … except it isn’t really a joke.

Mostly, I want to be an example. I want other people who still want to wear masks to be able to walk into a room, see me in a mask, and feel more confident knowing they won’t be the only one. I want parents of young children who can’t receive the COVID-19 vaccine yet to be able to point to me and say to their kids, “Look, that lady is wearing a mask, so you have to wear yours, too.”

And of course, I want to keep from catching colds and illnesses other than COVID-19. After all, I’ve got more platelets to donate.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial


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