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Unmasking My Mask Problem

I like to think of myself as a caring person, and attempt to behave compassionately towards others. Sometimes I fall short in that effort, but failing is what humans do, and successful humans learn from failure. I'd like to discuss what I believe is one of my more recent failures, and what I've come to learn about what's behind it.

When the masking guidance and mandates first dropped, it short-circuited me. I reacted in disbelief, anger, and refusal to enter places that required masks. Masking was a simple act that was both scientifically and morally justified. I wondered if I really was a decent person, or if this reflexive pushback was just uncovering undiagnosed sociopathic tendencies. I started to wonder if my outward behaviors of positivity and kindness were just facades that I'd constructed around a dark psyche.

Given the rhetoric surrounding mask-wearing, which can — as far as I understand — be reduced to “you're a monster if you don't do this,” it was hard not to wonder if I was indeed morally bankrupt. So many people seemed to embrace mask-wearing without complaining, and then quickly decided who was good or evil based on the presence of a face covering. It's taken me at least a year of trying to understand my reactions to mask-wearing before I was finally able to start scratching the surface.

When I see a face covered with a medical mask, I see death and despair. I see a patient with a terminal illness, or see a person from a part of the world who cannot breathe clean air because of chronically poor air quality. When I see children with masks, it becomes even more heartbreaking because my mind immediately jumps to a cancer ward for children. I don't like to use the word “trigger” in a colloquial sense, but it's the only word I can find to describe the overwhelming flash of despair, fear, and sadness that hits me in that instant. After a full year, I still avert my eyes when I see masked people in person or on television, news sites, etc… I can't even bring myself to wear a standard mask (medical or cloth). Instead, I carefully put together two folded over bandanas which gives me four layers of cloth. Wearing a bandana helps me cope with masking because I view the bandana as a makeshift solution to a problem that will go away. And it will.

Many anti-maskers have presented themselves as nothing more than belligerent adult-children with an embarrassingly low degree of emotional intelligence. That is not in dispute among most rational adults. However, some of you who have consistently complied with guidance and have been doing all the right things have not escaped my notice. The virtue-signaling, sanctimony, and shaming are simply on a distinct part of the spectrum of unacceptable behavior — not equally unacceptable, but still unacceptable. Your behaviors will fix no one. I wrote about that in more detail in my previous post.

I often hear the question, “What's so hard about putting a piece of cloth on your face?” I think that question demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of people who struggle with the concept of mask-wearing. There are people who legitimately struggle with trauma, which something like a medical mask can trigger. Don't just take my word for it; Psychology Today outlined it well in this article.

Trauma might explain the aggressive and sometimes violent anti-masking behavior we've seen over the past year. These people are using anger as a coping mechanism, and a mental health professional could probably help them cope with their trauma in a more manageable way. I can only say that with some confidence because my own therapist helped me understand that fear often manifests as anger.

My intent in writing this post is not to ask for compassion, empathy, or even superficial platitudes. It's to capture my current understanding of the mental state I'm navigating now, and expose people to the idea that not everyone who struggles with mask guidelines/mandates is inherently a bad person.


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