Masks and Mental Health

In Asian countries, it is not uncommon for people to wear masks. They wear them in crowded spaces because in their cities they have some very crowded spaces. And in some places they wear them because of pollutants in the air.

This is a foreign (if you’ll pardon the expression) concept for much of the western world. And because we are not used to the practice, we’ve had some adjusting to do over the last 18 months.

And some people have not adjusted well.

I am one of them.

And the stupid thing is I’m not in the anti-mask camp. I have some opinions about the state of affairs but I’m not vehemently anti-mask or pro-conspiracy or any of that. I have seen, not first hand but through the eyes of others, the worst of the worst.

But I’ve seen a lot of other ugliness in the last year and a half, too.

So, I wasn’t really sure why I was having such an averse reaction to the whole situation. I couldn’t quite pin down what it was about wearing a mask and seeing people in media wearing them that was bothering me so much.

Because my only reaction to seeing other people wearing them in real life was that person is wearing a mask.

But seeing fictional characters on the television wearing masks really gets under my skin.

And I finally put things together.

There are a couple of things happening here. The first is my own self esteem. This is the reason I struggle with the idea of wearing them personally.

I spend every day staring at myself in a mirror. For hours at a time. Before all of this started, the person I saw in that mirror was short and overweight and dressed in unflattering clothing that accentuated the short and the overweight.

But that person could smile.

See, I was bullied for a few things as a kid but one major one was a condition called strabismus.

I actually didn’t have a word for it until just a few years ago. But as a kid it was a “lazy eye.” Technically, they’re different but similar conditions but according to the one and only optometrist who took the time to really examine me, I don’t have a true lazy eye because it responds to stimulus.

ANYWHO . . . I didn’t know that until my mid-20s but even if I did know that as a kid, imagine being a kid trying to explain the medical tech to other kids. But I have spent the better part of 35 years watching people look behind them to see who I’m talking to, even when I address them by name. And I spent most of my childhood being called cross-eyed.

Because I wasn’t diagnosed, properly or at all, until my 20s, obviously nothing was done to fix the problem. Though often the fixes don’t work and have to be done again and again, especially when they are performed on adults. So I still have a weird, wonky eye that makes people look over their shoulder for the other Jim or Sally standing behind them. And I’m still a little self-conscious about it.

No, that’s not true. I’m only self-conscious about it when someone or something calls attention to it.

Like covering up the lower half of my face so all that is left are my eyes.

I think my personal aversion to wearing a mask comes from the fact that it is constantly calling attention to this traumatic thing that I hate about myself.

I also figured out that while I’m not hearing impaired (I actually have impeccable hearing, probably because my vision isn’t perfect), I have trouble hearing people talk. I think it’s a form of dyslexia, maybe, but I hear the sounds they just don’t always make it to my brain in the right order. Which is why I hate talking on the telephone.

But then I realized . . .

What do talking on the phone and wearing a mask have in common?

I can’t see your lips.

I’m not, technically, reading people’s lips, but if I can see your mouth moving I am far more likely to understand what you’re saying to me.

And I think that is part of why it bothers me so much to see fictional characters in masks on television.

The other reason is . . . it’s fiction. It’s meant to be an escape, not a reminder.

I just caught up to the abbreviated 2021 season on New Amsterdam and Daniel Dae Kim just joined the cast. In the episode I watched most recently, they were talking about the virus in the past tense because things had calmed down from the chaos they had endured in the early months. One of the other characters says to Kim’s character, “Hearken back . . . ” and he cuts them off saying, “I’d rather not hearken back to a time when thousands of people were dying every day.”

That sums up my feelings about wandering into pandemic episodes of television shows after the fact. I’m still about a season and a half behind on Wolf’s Chicago franchise so we’ll (hopefully) be well past all of this when I hit pandemic episodes of those shows.

And I don’t want to hearken back.

I want to move forward and I want my means of escape to be escaping, not reminding.

That was a lot of thoughts for very late in the evening (or early in the morning though I haven’t gone to bed yet) but I had an epiphany . . . a couple of them, and needed to get them out of my head.


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