Empathy & the Mask Situation

When it comes to wearing masks, we are not all in this together. I’m writing this in the hope that I can increase some empathy to those who are being shown little right now. I’m going to share my experience of wearing a mask and know that there are people with far greater struggles than I. This is me coming out of the mental health closet in the hope of helping others.

In 2006 I contracted a severe case of whooping cough. For those who have never experienced it, consider this: The only way I can describe it is that you get a tickle in your throat, which then instantly responds with uncontrollable coughing. You know those times when you’ve been sick and gasping for breath between the waves of retching? Amplify that tenfold and that’s what it’s like. And on top of the coughing, the throat then closes. So imagine coughing uncontrollably, while retching and gasping for air while breathing through a straw that someone is pinching tighter with every cough. Can you imagine the panic that rises in that situation? You can literally feel life slipping away. And life very nearly did for me early one morning as I collapsed to the ground unable to breathe. Thankfully with every ounce of energy and will power, I was able to force that one breath as darkness crept into my consciousness.

From the time I contracted it to when it had passed was nearly 7 months. A period which has left me with scar tissue in my lungs and an anxiety close to panic whenever my breath is restricted even slightly.

I’ve done a lot of work on myself since then and have learned to manage the anxiety and panic as best I can to maintain a normal life. But it’s still there and I imagine it always will be to some degree.

When I put a mask on, even that slight restriction in my breathing is enough to send my adrenal glands into overdrive. I can tell myself all the analytical, logical and rational stuff that I’m sure would pop into your mind too, but it doesn’t change the physiological reaction. Every time I put that mask to my face I feel a panic akin to being pinned underwater longer than what’s comfortable. The panic can fade over time and then randomly surface again without warning.

On top of that, I have ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). For most who don’t really know me well, you’ve probably never seen it as I learned to cover it up really well. I essentially mimic what is considered normal human behaviour even though I don’t really understand it. Because of this, I can blend in for short periods of time, time that is incredibly exhausting to me. Only those closest to me get to know the real, weird me, although in recent years I’m allowing my facade to drop somewhat on a more public level.

There are some factors of my particular autism that add another level of discomfort to wearing these masks. Firstly my senses are heightened to the point of almost being a superpower. I can see better, smell better, taste, feel and hear better than probably you and the majority of others. Sounds like a blessing and it is, but it can also be a curse. Those masks are made from chemicals to create the fibres. To me, the chemical stench is overwhelmingly offensive. The smell is so bad that it gives me a headache if worn for more than a few minutes at a time. And I won’t go into detail of how bad it is if I’ve recently eaten something, even something as innocuous as chocolate.

I’ve tried wearing the masks while out but the discomfort makes me think that the $200 fine is a better option. So when I’m not near people I take it off or slide it down to my chin so I can have a moment’s reprieve. In the shops when no one is close, I lift it away so I can take a couple of clear breaths and allow that adrenalin to settle for just a moment.

But I see the looks of contempt from others even though they are 10 or more metres away. I see the looks, I feel the division.

Feeling apart and disconnected has just been a part of life for me. I experience the world differently to most and have always struggled to understand it from a normal human perspective. I recognise that it is this unique way of experiencing the world that makes my talents and skills stand out from the crowd but it is also what separates me. Now that there are no faces to see and so many judgmental eyes looking my way every time I seek unhindered breath, I feel the chasm of disconnect growing further and further apart.

Up until now, I’ve actually experienced these lockdowns quite well. I get to stay home and not be bothered by people and not have to make up excuses as to why I don’t want to hang out. If I did need some human connection I could still go to the shops and buy something as an excuse to make contact for just a moment, to put a smile on someone’s face and see their eyes light up for just a moment until fading over again for the next customer. But now with everyone masked up, it seems like even that connection has been taken away.

This is not a woe is me post, I’ll be fine, I always am. I’m lucky enough that I had the self-awareness and insight to know myself, to learn the skills needed to deal with situations and the persistence to continually better myself in this never-ending quest to be human.

But there are people out there who aren’t so lucky. People who are struggling on a much deeper level than I, as they don’t have the skills or awareness to find them.

When you say things like “just wear the mask and stop complaining” or share videos or memes of doctors, surgeons or firefighters saying “I wear a mask all day and I’m fine so you can too”, just remember, not everyone’s experience is the same as yours. We are not all in this together like the media keeps pumping into your brain. There are those who can do what they’re told calmly, easily and without question or discomfort and there are those who struggle more than you could know.

We are not all the same. Each of us is having our own unique experience of this world. A surgeon chose that life for themselves and not once have I seen one speak of how the environment they wear those masks in all day are highly optimised for that experience and significantly different to that of a crowded shop or out on a street. For the rest of us, this was not, nor ever would have been our choice. It has been thrust upon us. Some are okay, some are not. Your judgement, your criticising, your flaunting what horrible people they must be to not wear a mask is only contributing to how hostile and ugly the world is becoming.

Now more than ever is the time for us to come together as a community of beings capable of such great empathy. Let’s exercise that ability to its fullest and not use the current situation or any future ones as an excuse to discard it.

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