For months, I’ve been immersed in a virtually-based therapy that’s been spectacularly successful. Until we met in person.
Despite some nerves about meeting IRL, I didn’t mentally prepare for the pandemic paraphernalia. The previously unmasked, Zoom talking-head was now both 3D and fully obscured. I hadn’t anticipated the impact.
A latent PTSD symptom unexpectedly emerged when my therapist’s face was covered with a mask.
I became hypervigilant. There was no screaming or crying or running out of the room. That would have been easy to recognize and address. This was subtle, internal, and semi-conscious. Neither my therapist nor I was aware that anything unusual was happening.
Though I couldn’t have articulated this in the moment, I felt like I had been suddenly air-dropped into a war zone without military support. Safety was lost when I was unable to read facial signals. Fear took hold. I huddled and waited for extraction.
It was only after I’d arrived home that I realized what had happened.
I have the advantage of years of study and experience in the field of psychology and the insight and awareness that’s a consequence. Most people have no such training. Surely many anti-maskers feel the way I did in IRL therapy – probably without understanding their own reactions.
We read facial signals intuitively. They help us determine who’s safe and who’s not. Who’s a predator and who’s a friend.
Without these signals, we’re often left uncertain, which is generally frightening. But during a worldwide pandemic, it’s flat out terrifying. We’re at war and we can’t see the enemy’s face.
This experience was difficult but also a gift.
I get it now. Filed in my lexicon, I now have a compassionate story to tell myself when I see someone disregarding mask mandates.
You’re frightened. I’m frightened, too. We have so much more in common than we realized.