The Masked Me

Last month when the CDC made the announcement that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks, it felt like a weird fever dream. I feel like I can’t remember what life was like before the face mask became a daily accessory, and I’ve come to associate it with feeling safe and secure. And not just because it cut down on the risk of getting the virus. I’d come to use it as an emotional shield between me and any strangers in my proximity. Those pieces of cloth covering the lower half of my face have become a mask in more ways than one, I guess. They became a part of the “masked me.”

I have really bad social anxiety, so basic things like grocery shopping can be a nightmare for me.

I’ve written about my social anxiety once before on the Shadow’s Edge blog. I get so anxious that my heart starts beating like crazy. My hands tingle and go numb, and every sound and light gets overwhelming. My body gets shaky, and I struggle to form words and it comes out a garbled mess. I get any shopping done in the middle of a weekday while people are working so I can avoid crowds and loud voices/noises. This is all very ironic, because I crave social interaction just like everyone else – there is just a weird anxiety I get being around people I am not close to.

I have struggled with this for as long as I can remember and only got the hang of it in the past few years.

After a lot of practice by forcing myself into social scenarios outside of my comfort zone, I was starting to feel comfortable being around people. Before COVID, I had even managed to forge a few friendships with people I saw regularly and wasn’t feeling so down on my social abilities. I lost a lot of this progress when I started working from home during lockdown.

Face masks have been providing me with a mobile comfort zone when going anywhere with people.

When everyone was keeping their distance from one another, I felt more at ease when going anywhere. I still got overwhelmed, but it was still better when I didn’t have to be so close to someone else. I also didn’t have to see a frown or laugh and wonder if I had done something stupid (a constant fear of mine: “Were they laughing at me? Are they mad at me? But I don’t even know them!” That kind of stuff).

I was able to mask myself from others and only show what I wanted to be seen.

This past year and a half, I didn’t have to worry about others seeing how I nervously chew my lower lip or when I felt like I was about to cry from the overwhelm. Having this disconnect made me feel safe to be around others, in a strange way. The constant and loud dread of having others dislike or judge me was quieted when I wore the mask. I could seem calm to others when wearing it, and I kind of felt like I was passing as normal for once in my life.

It’s been really weird walking into Walmart and seeing more and more people shopping without a face mask.

Where I live, a lot of people are starting to go out without being masked. Now I am having to force myself to get used to looking at a stranger’s entire face again. I nervously joke to cashiers that I forgot what chins looked like (my awkward attempts at small talk) and do my best to keep my eyes on the floor or on product labels. My comfort zone, my emotional barrier, has been taken away and I am struggling to cope with that.

Even though I am fully vaccinated, I am still going out masked out of personal preference. But now I am seeing what looks like judgement from others for still wearing it.

Like maybe they are thinking that I am super paranoid (not a complete lie – anxiety will make a person paranoid). Or like I am planning on robbing the store and need to hide my identity. Or whatever else they might be thinking. But I choose to wear it while others are still getting the vaccine. That’s the logic part of my brain saying that. But I also like being “the masked me.” I like that others don’t see the anxiety that I constantly deal with around people. So I can be “normal” for just a little bit longer.

I’m telling myself that things are going to be okay as long as I am gentle with myself while I get used to people again.

I have to keep reminding myself that my social anxiety doesn’t have to control me as we are transitioning. People aren’t as judgmental as my brain tries to convince me they are. Everyone is just trying to live their lives. And I remind myself that it’s okay if someone judges me for still going out masked. My choice to be extra cautious is no less valid than theirs. It’ll take time to get back to feeling okay again, but I know I can do it again eventually.

If you are struggling with social anxiety as the world is opening up again, I just want you to know that you are not alone in this. We are going to be okay, even through the socializing practice it takes to get there.

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