Life Behind the Mask

By Jennifer Hill Buehrer LMSW

It seems masks have become our way of life now… at least those of us who are being responsible and understand the seriousness of the pandemic we’re facing.  Nobody likes it.  We hear people complain all the time: “I can’t breathe.”  “My face is breaking out.”  “It makes my nose itchy.”  If we’re really being honest with ourselves, it’s a small nuisance – right?

The thing is, it keeps us from seeing each other.  We’ve always heard that the eyes are the “window to the soul,” and that certainly is true to an extent.  But all these months of constant mask wearing, especially at work, has made it clear to me how much I rely on the whole face to clue me in on emotions, intentions, and connection.  I miss your faces.

But it’s also more than that.  Surgical masks means medical procedures. It’s a symbol that brings anxiety with it for most people, aside from those in the areas where they do procedures all day.  For the general public, it’s an unpleasant sign.  And now here we are – all walking around wearing them all day, seeing them on each other, as a normal part of everyday life.  We’re missing smiles, and laughs, and facial expressions meant to lighten the mood – those goofy faces I like to shoot at my friends to make them laugh.

What we see is just the eyes… and these days they’re frequently eyes that communicate some anxiety, or fear, or grief.  They’re often searching ours for some reassurance that this will end at some point or at least get better.  I’m certainly not suggesting that we back off on the masking.  But I think what we need is to take advantage of those situations where we can take the masks off in our little cohorts, and direct some intention at really appreciating the chance to take in each other’s faces.  I like my Zoom meetings with friends for that purpose; even though hanging out online isn’t ideal, it sometimes feels even more normal because we’re looking at each other’s faces and I’m getting the whole picture.

Just when we think it’s getting better, we start to hear about new restrictions and requirements. Masks are now required everywhere, so it’s not going away anytime soon.  Like in so many other ways, it is essential that we be intentional with our coping strategies.  I’m ramping up the yoga, the outdoor walks, and the Zooms.  And within my little cohorts, where we’ve abandoned the need for masks while we’re together, I’m going to pay that much more attention to those laughs that give me so much more than I ever realized.  

Jennifer Buehrer, LMSW is a palliative care social worker at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor