Breathing the Masked Air

girl wearing a mask, covering her nose and mouth

Amy Ratto Parks

The topic of masks has become unbearably intense in American conversations. Somehow, it has become a nexus for debates about scientific accuracy, political power, and whether one is either an "independent thinker" or a "sheep." While I listen to the conversations, I find that I'm curious about comments about how it feels to wear a mask. My ear catches when I hear people saying that they feel claustrophobic - that they can't breathe - because I can't breathe makes me think of the ways that our conversations about masks and our conversations about police brutality collide -- and then topic spirals and balloons into monstrous complexity. I'm left to wonder if the experience of wearing a mask can highlight something essential about shared human experiences.

Even though I wear a mask everywhere I go, I feel smothered and hot, bathed in my own breath, and irritated by the panic they induce. Maybe panic sounds dramatic to some of you, but I'm willing to bet that if you've ever struggled to breathe - really struggled - then you already know what I mean. The past decade or so of my life has been checkered with experiences that made me value easy air. In college, I nearly drowned in a freak SCUBA diving class accident at the bottom of a 20-foot dive well. I woke up on the side of the pool, gasping for air. For months, I couldn't sleep in the dark: the moment the lights when off, I sat up choking out invisible water. In my early 30's, I got a staph infection that centralized in an abscess in my neck, just under my chin. I learned to breathe slowly and carefully while it was healing - a lesson which served me well when I got pneumonia soon after that. In my late 30's, I learned that I was allergic to wasps when one stung me and I went into anaphylactic shock. I stood in a clinic trying to ask for help but could only hear my breath whistling like air through a barely-cracked car window.

The point is that it's scary when you can't breathe. There are millions of people who suffer from asthma, respiratory allergies, panic disorders, and PTSD from all manner of illness, injury, and abuse and every single one of them can summon the special panic brought on by strained breathing. I'm willing to bet that like me, those folks struggle with wearing masks. When I inhale too quickly and fabric presses against my mouth, for a quick second my blood runs cold and my adrenaline fires warning sparks. I feel myself move my head side to side like I want to shake it off of me - but I leave it there.

I go ahead and wear a mask because I know how it feels to struggle for air and I don't want an illness that would bring me that experience. Even more though, I don't want to share an illness that would give that experience to someone else. I don't want to watch my children or my husband or my mother struggle to breathe. I don't want to think I caused that experience in a stranger.

And so I try to let the mask remind me of our shared humanity. I remind myself to feel grateful that my past experiences have been medical and have not been at the hands of others; I have not begged another human for air. I summon gratitude for remembering so viscerally that despite conflict and political division and cultural disparity, we all need the same few things to live. When I inhale and feel the mask press on my face, I pause and think,  look at me, being human, needing air to stay alive.