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So many things lie beneath our masks

Betty Firth
Posted 8/26/20

As our lives continue in the Time of COVID, I believe we are feeling multi-layered effects of the restrictions and the impending sense of…of what? Of doom? Of the ongoingness of it? Of the …

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So many things lie beneath our masks

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As our lives continue in the Time of COVID, I believe we are feeling multi-layered effects of the restrictions and the impending sense of…of what? Of doom? Of the ongoingness of it? Of the fatigue of keeping hopeful? It’s different for everyone, but I’m quite sure that not knowing what’s going to happen or how long this will last affects everyone.
Some of those layered effects are subtle, some are not. Who ever imagined, excepting science fiction writers, futurists, and environmentalists, that we would live in a time when mask-wearing is mandated? Some not-so-subtle results are that it’s hard to read facial expressions and to hear muffled talking, especially from six feet away. Normally, we might lean in to hear better, but that defeats the purpose of distancing, so we stop ourselves. I think it has made us stiff, a bit robotic, this being careful in ways we’re not used to. I notice a lack of eye contact in places where people are in closer proximity like the grocery store, as we carefully give as much distance as we can passing in a narrow aisle. Sometimes my mask creeps up and interferes with my vision, another thing that makes me feel a bit disoriented and off balance. In the “old days,” I wouldn’t get out the door without at least a couple conversations with people I know, and now that just doesn’t happen as much as we scurry through our shopping to minimize contact...and to get out in the fresh air and take our masks off.
We can communicate a lot to each other non-verbally with minimal effort when we don’t have masks covering our faces. Sometimes I smile and realize no one can tell that I am. I’ve thought I should make up a whole bunch of lollipop-type signs on popsicle sticks that have a happy face on one side and a frowny face on the other so I could pass them out to people in the grocery store. We could have a collection of lollipops with faces or words that express “I’m excited, sad, preoccupied, lonely, hopeful, angry, thoughtful, hungry, or bored” to choose the mood of the moment.
Meanwhile, the mask industry has been booming doing just that. A quick internet search will bring up masks that reflect your profession, hobbies, political affiliations, humor, favorite cartoon character or superhero, and a whole range of opinions about life on this planet. I found masks that said, “I’m actually smiling,” “If you can read this, you’re too close,” “Namaste, get away,” or you can customize your own message. We’re like walking bumper stickers. You can transform your face with your favorite breed of dog, cat, pig, or wild animal. One of my favorites is a realistic snout and mouth of a black Labrador with a BIG hamburger in its mouth.
I saw a set printed in the UK with much more restrained images, like grimaces instead of the giant, grinning, American mouths. There was one that looked suspiciously like Trump’s weird little square mouth. They do so love to ridicule us Colonials, and Trump is giving them lots of fodder. So, you can have a drawerful of masks to express your various inner selves, whether you’re feeling British la-di-dah or rock star wild and crazy.
What is much harder to express is the difficult-to-define unease that we may be feeling, whether we’re aware of it or not. We have all experienced loss of various kinds: some have lost loved ones, jobs, income, and health; all of us have lost the normality of our lives. Well-known author Brene´ Brown said in an interview on the Today Show, “I think, collectively, what I see is a growing weariness. I think we’re tired — physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted.” She said that when we experience crises like natural disasters, we usually have enough adrenaline to get through it, but COVID-19 is not short-lived, and we have to figure out how to do a new normal while grieving the loss of our old normal.
There are different levels of grief going on, and we may not want to talk about it or even acknowledge it. We may have lost the opportunity to attend celebrations or funerals, go on the planned vacation, or visit family and friends.
Lori Gottlieb, therapist and author of “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” says that we have also lost the predictability that we take for granted in daily life: that there will be eggs and toilet paper on supermarket shelves, that we can safely touch a door knob with our bare hands, that we can get a haircut and our teeth cleaned or spend a Saturday afternoon at the movies.” I was at the grocery store today and some empty spaces on the shelves caught my attention, and I stopped short, feeling a little alarm: “Now what’s not available?”
We also may be experiencing anticipatory grief, running an unending hamster wheel of possibilities in our mind: What if I can’t graduate, what if we can’t see our ailing parents, what if I lose my job, what if, what if, what if. Ms. Gottlieb’s advice is to acknowledge the grief, our own and others, including our collective grief; stay in the present; and let those around you grieve in their own way.
If you try to tough it out or stay in denial, your feelings will leak out in various ways: fatigue, inability to sleep, mental fogginess, grouchy or angry behavior, or resorting to food, drugs, or alcohol to numb out. Wallowing in the drama of future possibilities of loss does you absolutely no good. To paraphrase Mark Twin, “Worrying is like paying interest on a debt you don’t owe.” Trying to control how others are expressing their grief isn’t helpful either. Some people want to isolate and be quiet, others want to socialize. Some of us like to bake, sew, or create art; some spend a lot of time in the outdoors; others bury themselves in books or TV. I was talking with a friend who was feeling depressed, and her husband said he just didn’t understand or know what to do because he’d never experienced depression, so he tended not to listen to her. I said, “You really don’t need to fix her or do anything else…just listen to what it’s like for her.”
Ambiguous loss is a specific type of loss characterized by lack of closure, resolution, or clear understanding, first coined by Dr. Pauline Boss in the 1970s. She developed strategies to help people who lost loved ones through wars, immigration, kidnapping, and natural disasters to build resilience through accepting ambivalence and identifying new hope. Our living with a pandemic also brings with it ambiguous loss, and we need to learn the resilience of accepting loss and creating new ways of doing things. If we remember we’re not alone in this and give each other time to talk and be well-listened to, that can go a long way to ease the unease and help us to feel seen and heard.

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