It’s Time to Suit Up and Stop the Mask-Shaming

What would resorting to public displays of personal protection say about ME? Had I become weak? Had I always been?

FYI – This post will NOT cover the following mask-based material: 

  • Politically charged discussion re: mask availability/approval (though it’s no doubt mixed messages and misinformation are leading players in the delayed decision to recommend them.)
  • Controversial discourse regarding public access to masks and healthcare professionals shortage. (though trust me, it’s caused me a significant amount of heartburn.)
  • Heartfelt pleas, imploring you to wear a mask, based on my firsthand witness of ongoing tragedies. (though each shift bears more testimony that masking vigilance is necessary. And OK, there may be an overture or two within.)

The following is an examination of human behaviors and relations, of judgment and compassion, and tracks my evolution from mask-critic to humble mask-aholic.

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In 2003, fear and judgment escalated throughout the lands as international news circulated reports of a deadly new virus.

The SARS outbreak originated in China, infiltrated a dozen countries, and resulted in nearly 800 lives lost.

I was in college at the time, studying human sciences. I’d never traveled outside the U.S. (OK, except for Canada, which was an hour’s drive).

Was I interested in the virus? Sort of. Was I Concerned? Hell, no.

The concept of minuscule droplets traveling halfway around the world and affecting my home town: Impossible.

And I would know.

Being 21 years old and a first-year nursing student, I pretty much knew it all.

I watched the news broadcast from a comfy spot on my couch, unable to empathize with panicked families facing a legitimate threat. Blurry images of crowds rushing through streets, faces obscured by white and green surgical masks, proved effective scare tactics for some. But for many, these visuals were a laughingstock, mere fodder for ridicule.

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Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

My mind darted from one criticism to the next.

That’s ridiculous. Is that necessary? I’d never go out in public like that.

Nearly two decades have passed. I’m a licensed healthcare professional with extensive experience in the ICU and have traveled to multiple countries. Yet these narrowminded assumptions still have a tendency to prevail.

This is distressingly painful, yet increasingly imperative to admit.

Over the years, I’ve encountered numerous people, many of whom I’ve assumed of Asian descent, wearing a mask in public. My mind conjures up this condescending narrative without pause.

Didn’t SARS happen forever ago? What are they afraid of? Do they think our air is contaminated?

Today, a statistically less deadly, yet much more easily transmitted strain of the virus permeates the globe.

Our country’s response to Coronavirus has accelerated from “Proceed as normal” to “Proceed with caution” to “Proceed in public with a mask on!”

It’s been a harrowing month for me, a nurse employed at the first hospital in Washington State to care for a coronavirus patient, working in the Intensive Care Unit, the very last line of defense for someone infected.

The fear is visceral. Even masked, I find myself holding my breath at work as I walk through halls where Covid-19 positive patients undergo treatment.

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In the grocery store, I find myself doing the same. I’m careful not to exhale in other shoppers’ general direction, or touch anything I won’t be taking home with me.

I am in the throes of a traumatic experience and will be processing it for years to come.

Perhaps, for those intimate with SARs in 2003, the suffering was similar.

This awareness has provided an opportunity to question my mask-condemning moralistic high ground.

What was my motive, silently judging these strangers? Why did I feel such contempt? Distaste for their fashion sense? Did I think them frivolous or ignorant?

Maybe.

But the bottom line of my pejorative internal monologue was this:

“If you wear a mask, you’re weak.”

Looking down my mask-free nose at a population brimming with dread somehow served to inflate my ego.

“I’m strong, you’re fragile. I’m resilient, you’re powerless.”

This line of thinking is what divides us.

It keeps us ignorant. Separates us from our higher selves.

This line of thinking keeps us from experiencing and offering pure love.

I’d love to say I dropped the disparaging mindset when our country came under Coronavirus fire. But I didn’t change that quickly. Humans ordinarily don’t. We transform through painful repetition, often in stuttering starts and stops.

New light was shed on the pandemic, and hesitantly, I brought my mask out in public, timidly pulling it over my nose then hurriedly taking it off. I wasn’t sure I could tolerate the conspicuous and unsightly addition to my attire.

What would resorting to public displays of personal protection say about ME? Had I become weak? Had I always been?

Perhaps.

Too weak to rise above vanity. Too weak to self-advocate. Too weak to advertise that I, like most humans, endure the fear of sickness and death.

And now I’ve walked a mile in the shoes of those I once belittled.

Who am I to judge a fellow human and their self-protection? A decision that in no way affects me? (other than to possibly offer me protection.)

Uncovering the impetus behind a judgment does wonders to help one let it go.

Today, I shamelessly don a mask. And based on the PTSD we nurses and other healthcare professionals will likely face, I might wear one for the next decade too.

In public, my mouth and nose are entirely concealed. In stores, I silently high-five anyone sporting face-gear, whether it’s a simple mask, N95, a respirator, or bandanna.

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Paula Williams, http://www.shamebooth.org

Wearing a mask doesn’t constitute weakness. Or ignorance. Or frivolity.

Wearing a mask is self-advocacy and community-advocacy.

My suggestion?

Wear one, because you’re worth it.

If you’re superhuman, or super stubborn, with no concern for yourself?

Wear one for the sake of others, because they’re worth it.

If you still choose to go maskless, please keep your distance. And consider checking in with yourself. Are you going maskless because you’re ‘better than that’? Do you consider a person who chooses to protect themselves and their friends and family “weak”? Instead of casting judgment, perhaps offer this sentiment to mask wearers:

Thank you for your self-care. Self-care is caring for all.

We’re far from understanding this virus in its entirety, but current research offers strong scientific evidence to err on the side of caution. Check out This article by Eddy Joe, MD, which cites research out of the University of Nebraska. (Within days of publication, hospitals promoted universal masking. Within a week, the CDC followed suit.)

Stay Home, Stay Safe, Stay Healthy, and if it’s your thing – Stay Sober!

If you are a healthcare professional affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic, I would love to hear your stories and support you!

We are in this together. We will recover together. 

Contact me to schedule a free call. 

 “The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of my workplace. Regarding Covid-19 I reference the most up to date information I can, as well as adding my personal opinions and reflections. Nothing written is for treatment or diagnosis. Please consult your healthcare provider, your local department of health, the CDC or the WHO where applicable.”

 

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