Wearing a Mask: 24 January 2021

Two surgical masks in the shape of a sideways cross on a red background

In New Zealand, we are at Alert Level 1 in our war with COVID-19. Alert Level 1 is the freest of all the alert levels, so it means we can move around rather unimpeded, somewhat like what life was like before we even knew what COVID-19 was and how strongly and deeply it could affect our communities around the world.

One of these freedoms is not having to wear a mask, except for on certain modes of public transport, which is understandable. If I took the bus or hopped on a plane, I’d need to wear a mask. But since I’m not doing either one of those at all, the mask requirement is moot.

I am still somewhat uneasy about not wearing a mask. I’m more so semi-paranoid about going out of my home and my office at The Place Where I Work. There is this underlying current of anxiety coursing through me when I go out into public.

My paranoia is that I’ll somehow pick up the virus from somewhere I have been. Even though there are no known cases out in the community — and I think it would become pretty apparent pretty quickly if there were — I have this thing in my mind that maybe I’ll be one of the unfortunate ones who picks up the virus early, before it’s known to be in the community, and I’ll get very sick with it. Maybe I will die from it. It’s probably a fear a psychologist would have a field day picking apart.

The last week of the school holidays, I tried to get out a little bit more. We went to visit friends at their place for dinner one night the week before, and that pushed me outside my comfort zone enough to enable me to do some more. So the last week of the school holidays, we went out for lunch one day; we walked down to the local outdoor mall to buy some Lego; and we went to the hairdressers to get our hair cut. Nothing terribly “out there” but enough to get me comfortable with going out again.

With classes coming up soon, I’m going to have to be comfortable with being with other people in a classroom. We will have to interact, to talk, to learn together, to give each other critical feedback, and I haven’t been a student in a face-to-face classroom experience for a very long time (other than online video chat, but that doesn’t really count). So part of me wonders if this newfound phobia is something older morphed into something else, or if it is a fear of getting back into meeting up with people.

I keep having very disturbing dreams where I am back in the United States but I’m not wearing a mask.

A few nights ago, I had a dream I made it back to Chicago for whatever reason, and I had been going out and interacting with people, but suddenly it dawned on me that I wasn’t wearing a mask. Not only not wearing a mask, but also touching my face and doing all sorts of things we took we could do for granted pre-pandemic. The biggest fear in the entire dream was not getting sick myself so much but passing the virus on to my friends and family, especially my parents. I don’t know if I could ever live with myself knowing I had done that, even if it was unintentional.

Last night, I dreamt I was at the church we attended when I was growing up. There were several people in the church itself, and I didn’t have a mask on, but neither did a lot of them. I did my best to avoid them all, and I thought going into the basement would be the best and safest bet.

The church had remodelled (somehow) though so that the basement now had a large pharmacy like Walgreens in it, several other stores, a large pavilion-like area where people could mingle (perhaps there was a food court there), an ice-skating rink where kids were practicing hockey, a gymnasium. In short, it was like a huge mall.

I kept bumping into people I knew. I nicely acknowledged them but made it clear I was on a mission (trying to avoid contact with people) until I got into the Walgreens and found a sanitisation station. I pumped hand sanitiser on my hands more than once. That felt good. And there were masks there too. They were wrapped in some sort of clear plastic. When I ripped mine open, and I took the middle mask out, it actually was a purple Speedo that had mask straps. Go figure.

I ran into my brother Brian after I had the mask in place. He wasn’t wearing one. I can’t remember what we talked about but he said he was glad I felt safer wearing the mask and I could see our parents now I had a mask. That’s the last part I remember of that dream.

The dream last night seemed fuelled by a post of a verified Twitter user I read last night. He stated he’d been from Washington, DC to Saint Louis and back, and in his travels by road throughout that time, he encountered more people not wearing masks and not social distancing than people wearing masks and / or social distancing.

No wonder the COVID-19 pandemic is a major disaster in the United States of America.

I didn’t feel uncomfortable having the mask on. Whether in real life or in my dream life, wearing a mask hasn’t been an awkward experience other than glasses sometimes fogging up and getting a little breathless when walking too fast down the school itself one time (which is a long building).

Last Friday, after our team meeting, our Principal Catherine and I had a discussion about a lot of things. One of the discussions was around this unease about going out and about in the school due to COVID-19. As she (rightly) said, there’s no evidence that COVID-19 is in our community. But, she added, if I felt that uneasy, I could always wear a mask. There was no shame or stigma in that.

I confided that I feel my health has not always been the best over the last few years, and that was one of the areas where the worry came from. I don’t feel that I’m needing to be hospitalised or there’s some major health issue going on with me, but in my early adult years, I used to have severe panic attacks about my health — Is that pain a heart attack? Is that pain cancer? — and while I’ve been able to rein that in a lot since then, that underlying worry pops back up now and again. Throw a pandemic into the mix, and… you get the idea.

She’s not wrong. If I feel that uneasy about not wearing a mask, maybe I should start wearing one in places and situations where I feel uneasy. While that won’t be all the time and everywhere, at least it might ease some of that tension and stop the weird dreams around it.

Many of you reading this may not be in such a prime position as New Zealand is with COVID-19, so you should be wearing a mask outside your house as often as you can to protect your health and protect the health of others around you.

Stay safe, stay sane, wash your hands, and stay home as much as you can. We’ll get through this together.