woman holding face mask

Photo by Anna Shvets on

I haven’t ventured out much since the beginning of the coronavirus shutdown. But after a month, groceries were needed so I made out a list that would fill our cupboards for another month.

Shopping for a months worth of groceries requires a large cart. I went to Sam’s Club and filled the cart to the brim. I wore a mask while shopping and the heavier that cart got, the more faint I felt. My reading glasses steamed up as well. I started to get a sense of claustrophobia and panic was threatening to take over.

There are many types of fear:

  • Fear from a past event or PTSD fear
  • Fear over an anticipated future event or anxious fear
  • Existential fears like the fear of death, fear of success, fear of being good enough
  • Irrational obsessive fears that once served an evolutionary purpose but are now getting in the way of regular life, also known as phobias (heights, spiders, contamination)
  • Fear of being rejected by your “tribe” whether that be with family, work, friends, or relationships in general
  • Survival fear where you jump out of the way of an oncoming car
  • And there’s the innate fear your body experiences when something is wrong with it, i.e. when the pH changes, with blood pressure, with hormones, and especially when the body feels oxygen deprived

I couldn’t catch my breath and if I didn’t get out of that store soon, I didn’t know what would happen. I paid for my stuff, got outside, took off my mask and started to feel immediate relief. Later I learned that masks can cause oxygen deprivation and I had just experienced the signs of it. No more long grocery trips walking endless aisles pushing a heavy cart shopping for a months worth of supplies. I decided ‘then and there’ I’d just have to go shopping more often with quick short runs.

Today I went for one of those quick short runs. And again I wore a mask and again I started to get a queasy uneasy feeling. I felt my balance was off when I was walking and I couldn’t see my feet. The mask prevented me from looking down. I didn’t like that.

I always look down using my peripheral vision to see where my feet are at, I have to, I don’t have the normal sense of position in space (proprioceptive and vestibular integration) that other people have due to my sensory processing problems. I compensate for that by visually keeping track of my feet when I walk.

This is stressing me out, I’m feeling nervous I’ll step into something or lose my balance and embarrass myself. And when people are under stress, the abilities they have begin to ¬†decompensate. When life is good, I can almost be normal and only glance down occasionally to assess where my body is at. But when I’m under stress, all my sensory problems are exaggerated.

With the mask on I can’t see my feet unless I tilt my head way down, my balance feels off, I’m getting nervous, my breathing speeds up, I’m not getting enough oxygen through the mask, I’m using self-talk to calm the intensifying stress response … having a hidden disability sucks. Trying to look calm and cool, following the rules and maintaining socially appropriate behavior, but it’s taking all I’ve got and draining my reserves. I get home and crash, taking a two hour nap to recover from a 15-minute shopping trip.

Who would ever think of the struggles some people experience having to wear a mask. But not wearing a mask in the current environment is paramount to being reckless, irresponsible, uncaring, unconscionable. It can lead to fines, judging looks from others, and even being denied access to the grocery store.

I don’t want to be an outcast. I don’t want to be judged. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I just want to get my groceries. So I wear a mask and I silently suffer, no one will know because I’m good at keeping my problems hidden. I will adjust my life to do what I can, just like anyone else with a disability does every day of their life, even those of us with the hidden disabilities.

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