Mind Games

An Open Letter to Every American Who Doesn’t Want to Wear a Mask

To avoid another devastating nationwide lockdown, we all have to do our part

Photo: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

Author’s Note: This post touches on a range of sensitive topics, including mental health, suicide, and domestic violence.

I know better than most what it’s like to isolate yourself from the outside world, to live inside your own head for days, weeks, and even months at a time. I spent the better part of a decade living the life that millions of Americans are now anxiously trying to escape after just a few short months. I suffered, and still do, from a severe form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Folks like me often refer to it as “contamination OCD,” a type of OCD that compels you to do everything you can to avoid exposing not just yourself, but also the people you love, to germs, viruses, and bacteria. One way to do this is to isolate yourself from the outside world as much as possible.

That’s precisely what I did, and it nearly destroyed me.

Human beings are extraordinarily adaptable, but there are times when that can work against us. I figured that out about a year or so into my self-imposed quarantine, which was right around the time that I began substituting imagined interactions with imagined people for real interactions with real people. You might call it daydreaming. I called it an adaptive response.

I would pace around my apartment for hours, debating imaginary talk show hosts, academics, and political rivals on an array of subjects ranging from the relationship between nihilism and atheism to whether the Philadelphia Eagles should keep Nick Foles or Carson Wentz as their starting quarterback. I wasn’t delusional or hallucinating, nor was I drifting closer and closer to the brink of insanity. I was just trying to feel alive and connected to humanity like I was still a participant in society rather than an observer of it.

Of course, I still had to go to work, the grocery store, and various other places, but I kept my interactions with people to a minimum. At work, I had just two simple, straightforward objectives: get through the day without “contaminating” anyone, then go home and “decontaminate” myself with a hot shower. To accomplish this, I wore gloves as often as possible, refused to shake hands with co-workers and strangers alike, and carried a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere I went. I did everything humanly possible to eliminate physical contact not just with other people, but with any object that someone else had already touched or would need to touch in the near future, such as doorknobs and light switches. I had turned into a poor man’s Howard Hughes, minus the technical brilliance, name recognition, and endless wealth that made him an iconic figure. I also never got to date Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, or — okay, so maybe I wasn’t Howard Hughes. Whatever. You get the point.

The one thing I did have going for me was that my job didn’t require me to interact with very many people throughout the day. In fact, on most days, I spent more time driving than I did working. And I didn’t mind it one bit. There was something oddly comforting about the long drives from my office to the many unfamiliar towns and neighborhoods I was sent to explore. Inside that car, I was safe. Inside that car, I could move through the world, be a part of the world, and interact with the world without having to actually throw myself into it and risk contaminating either myself or someone else. And all that car ever asked for in return was a full tank of gas and the occasional oil change. It was a very convenient arrangement, but one that I intuitively understood was extremely unhealthy.

When I wasn’t working, I was at home scrubbing countertops, mopping floors, and disinfecting sinks, toilets, and bathtubs. I cordoned off two rooms — my office and bedroom — and declared them germ-free zones. This meant I couldn’t bring any food or drink into those zones, and that I had to take a shower before I could go inside them. Once I stepped outside of either zone, I considered myself contaminated, which meant that I would have to take yet another shower before I could reenter it.

As my OCD became worse, the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, until it all melded together into one giant, amorphous cluster of mundane events. At that point, I was just going through the motions. If on any given day you had asked me what I had done the day before, I could have maybe pieced together something close to a coherent answer. But a detailed, chronological account of 24 straight hours of semiconscious activity? I couldn’t do it. There were never enough meaningful moments to remember.

That’s what happens during long periods of isolation. You lose all sense of time and direction. You don’t really feel like you’re going anywhere. You’re existing, but not really living. You’re getting things done, but you’re not really accomplishing anything.

Years later, after making a good deal of progress in my battle against my OCD, I was ready to go back out and start living my life again. Family barbecues, picnics, and holiday parties; poker nights with the handful of friends who stuck with me during my many years of seclusion; once-a-year visits to my uncle’s home in Boca Raton; it was all on the table again. But when the opportunity to start living that life finally arrived, it slipped right through my fingers. I had grown so accustomed to being alone that I had forgotten how to function around other people. That’s when I realized just how psychologically and emotionally damaging my isolation had been.

I was duped by my OCD into believing that the harm I was inflicting upon myself was much less serious than it really was.

After many more years of therapy, introspection, and lessons learned through trial and error, my life is about as close to normal as it has been in over a decade. But when I look back on the time I spent living like a hermit, waging an unwinnable war against a phantom enemy, the thing that surprises me most is how easily I was duped by my OCD into believing that the harm I was inflicting upon myself was much less serious than it really was. Every aspect of my life — my physical, emotional, and psychological health; my relationships with friends, relatives, and co-workers; my career; my finances — suffered immeasurable damage, and I’ve been working my ass off to repair as much of it as I can.

I’m not sharing my story with you in the hopes of winning your sympathy. On the contrary, I would politely ask that you pass your sympathy on to someone more deserving than me. The truth is that as bad as things were for me, I’m incredibly lucky to still be alive, let alone still have a job, a roof over my head, and a family and friends upon whom I can depend. Many others who suffer from extreme OCD are not nearly as fortunate.

The reason I’m sharing my story with you is because I want you to know that I get it. I understand why you reflexively oppose these lockdowns. I get why you want to “reopen” America. And for the most part, I actually agree with you.

I don’t want Americans to become too accustomed to the isolation that I myself experienced for several years. I don’t want them to have to struggle through the monotony, loneliness, and loss of purpose that accompanies it. I’m intimately familiar with the pain and misery that struggle brings. Human beings simply aren’t designed to live that kind of life. They’re not designed to live in solitude. And if I had to choose between going back to that life or taking my chances with this virus, I’d choose the virus 10 times out of 10, without hesitation.

If self-isolation becomes the new normal in America, it’ll be at least as destructive as Covid-19 has already been. In some parts of the country, that destruction has begun to reveal itself. In New York, a “dangerous uptick in domestic violence” led to the creation of a new task force dedicated exclusively to addressing the problem. In Walnut Creek, California, one doctor at John Muir Medical Center recently told local news station ABC7 Eyewitness News that his facility had “seen a year’s worth of suicide attempts in the last four weeks,” and mental health experts have expressed concerns that the situation could become much worse if public officials don’t jump on it soon.

Long-term lockdowns just aren’t sustainable. I know it, and so do you. And I think that deep down inside, even the most ardent defenders of these lockdowns are aware of it, too. But to avoid another series of lockdowns, we’re going to have to take every reasonable step we can to prevent another major outbreak of Covid-19.

And one of the easiest, least burdensome steps any person can take is to put on a mask.

Some people would like to you believe that refusing to wear a mask is patriotic. Don’t listen to them. If anything, refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is the antithesis of patriotism. Patriots don’t shy away from making very minor sacrifices to try and help preserve the health and well-being of their fellow countrymen during a crisis, nor do they complain about the trivial discomfort that wearing a mask produces. And they certainly don’t go around threatening or assaulting workers at stores that require customers to wear masks. Patriots are better than that, stronger than that, and more selfless than that.

Some other people would like you to believe that wearing a mask makes no difference whatsoever, but the evidence says they’re almost certainly wrong. A recent meta-analysis from Oregon Health & Science University indicates that wearing a mask indoors could potentially reduce coronavirus transmission rates by as much as 80%. Another recent study out of the University of Hong Kong shows that surgical masks can reduce the rate of airborne Covid-19 transmission by up to 75%.

It’s also worth noting that in many of the Asian nations that have experienced the most success in the fight against Covid-19, wearing masks in public spaces is a common practice. One public health official in Taiwan, where just seven people have died from the virus, has even theorized that face masks could cut transmission rates all the way down to around 1–2%, but only if both healthy and infected people are wearing masks.

When you get right down to it, unless you have a legitimate medical condition that makes it inadvisable for you to put on a mask, there is no good reason not to wear one. Refusing to put one on doesn’t make you courageous or patriotic. All it does is increase the chances that there will be a second wave of Covid-19, which in turn will likely lead to a second wave of lockdowns. If you don’t want that to happen — if, like me, you want to do whatever you can to prevent the extraordinary physical, psychological, emotional, and economic harm that another round of long-term isolation is bound to inflict upon the citizens of this country — please do what you know in your heart is the smart thing to do, the right thing to do, and the patriotic thing to do. Please start wearing a mask.

Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.

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