And then, barely into my first pay period, I walked into the store to discover that corporate said wearing a mask was a requirement of my essential job function. My heart started pounding immediately. The manager looked at my face. “I know Tink, that you are not comfortable with this, but we don’t have a choice. You’ll be fine.”
It wasn’t that I thought the masks were useless; although I wasn’t completely convinced of their usefulness either. (Even the CDC had indicated that they didn’t do much to stop the spread of microscopic infectious particles. I read the initial wording on their site myself. And then suddenly that statement disappeared overnight. I wish I had screenshot it.) I was fine with complying though, with whatever rules would make this pandemic end as quickly as possible. And if there was a chance this would help, then great.
No the problem was that physically I couldn’t breathe with the mask on. Full disclosure here. The breathing issue was psychological. Once upon a time, in what feels like a lifetime ago, someone tried to suffocate me. And while for the most part, I’ve healed and moved on, things covering my mouth for long periods of time, trigger a physiological reaction that I’ve yet to overcome.
So that day, standing at the register, and doing my best to breathe, I tried to calmly execute my job ringing people out.
Inhale. Exhale. Smile (even though they couldn’t see my mouth.) Ask “Did you find everything you needed?”
The question was rote and innocuous. A polite way of saying, “Thank you for coming, and spending your money. Now please go.”
However, that question led to EVERY person in line complaining. And sometimes yelling. And leaning over the counter to tell me how they did NOT find what they needed, how I was PERSONALLY responsible for the worldwide shortage of paper goods, how UNHELPFUL and USELESS I was, and and and…see you tomorrow.
Yes, we had people who, with nothing to do since we were all in quarantine, made it their mission to come into CVS and harass the staff daily. It was a moral imperative that they let us know that WE RUINED THEIR LIVES due to sparse shelves during a pandemic.
But I tried to keep calm. However I noticed by the third or fourth customer that day, it seemed like the world was muffled. As though their angry tirades were coming from very far away, instead of two inches (not the six feet required) from my face.
I looked at the person in front of me who was snapping her fingers. Was there music? She was saying something but I had no idea what it was. Was she even speaking English? It sounded like gibberish. There was a rushing sound and then…
“Tink, Tink, talk to me…”
I think I was crying. My face felt wet. My manager was leading me to the office. I was still upright, moving, but wondered why the air felt heavy. I started to claw at my face desperate to breathe. Why couldn’t I breathe? And I found this paper over my mouth. What was this thing and why was I wearing it????
The words came unbidden to my head. This was a mask and I had to wear it. Like the day, I opened my eyes to a weight on my body and a hand covering my mouth, I was told I had no choice. This was what HAD to happen.
I could walk away this time. My manager was making calls, and sending me home. I was told they would let me know if accommodation could be made. His inquires about such allowances though, were for naught. It wasn’t possible and the CVS lawyer who later called me personally, was horribly belligerent, as though I had purposefully had a panic attack and ruined the entire CVS staffing dynamic as a result. I can’t remember his name, but he seemed to think that the anonymity of a phone call afforded him the right to be demeaning, demoralizing, threatening, and cruel. It’s funny that when we can hide behind things, and not let someone see us, how the basest of human nature comes out.
Take, for example, the incident that started my panic attacks way before the pandemic. I remember it was dark. Pitch dark in the room when I woke to this nightmare of an event. I never, by the way, sleep in the dark. I’ve always had a nightlight, or windows with curtains open, or some kind of glow to make me feel safe. I’m a sun child, a Leo, stars and moonlight, and fairy dust, illuminated my world. But that night, in the wee hours, when someone decided that I was theirs to overpower, and breathing was optional for me to survive, he had stripped away all the light so I couldn't see his face. And in the dark, he could hide. But also, if I couldn’t see him, he couldn’t properly see me.
It’s the seeing that humanizes us.
I realized this one day in the height of the pandemic. As I struggled with no longer seeing people’s faces. When each day felt like I woke in a dystopian novel.
When we see someone, we can witness emotions. We get visual cues as to what they feel, how they are processing information, what they might be thinking. And while it is true that the proverbial poker face, can prevent some of this information from being received, humans do a whole lot of talking without saying a word. A novel is often written on our faces.
Perhaps that is why social media seems to have gained a reputation for toxicity lately. Like the masks of the pandemic, a user on social media can hide behind a generic or even fake profile. Thus allowing them to harass the people they follow, with rude troll-like comments, unkind posts, or even the propagation of outright lies.
After all, a person on the other side of the computer, may or may not be real. Right? And so if we don’t have to see them and deal with the consequences of our actions, are we responsible for harming them?
Society even pushes us to wear masks. We are told to not let others see us cry, to hide what we are working on in case someone tries to steal it, to be something other than ourselves by conforming to whatever the current fashion screams is the look. And so is it any wonder that many feel so disconnected in a world where we can reach one another from anywhere in an instant. Who exactly are we talking to anymore?
Now technically the pandemic is over. And the requirements for masks have ceased in most areas. Yet I question that since we are so conditioned to hiding ourselves from the world, will we know our own hearts when we look in the mirror?
I’m approached a lot as I walk through towns, travel, or even go to the grocery store. People often comment on my open energy, my friendly face, my lack of pretense as I interact with the world. Maybe it’s because the very condition that led to my inability to wear a mask, has left me vulnerable to being seen exactly as I am. I don’t hide my emotions, my feelings, my thoughts, or my love of this world. Naive as it may be after all that has happened, I still believe that we are meant to be a loving, kind, global community.
And in truth, I’m okay with still seeing the world thru this innocent trusting perspective. Because hiding behind a mask, was never something I felt was natural anyway. And perhaps by seeing me walk thru the world so willing to be seen, others might feel called to step out of the shadows and let themselves be viewed in the light of who they are too.
They say hope can light up a person’s face. I think it’s time we looked for it, instead of covering it up with a mask of fear.
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Tink, world traveler, positivity muse, and adult entertainer, has also freelance written for a number of companies as their ghostwriter. Now talking directly to YOU on this platform, she is also writing two books at her community's request.