Masking the Effects


There are many things I fear living in the USA (apart from Trump, that is). 

In Manhattan, you can become a fatality of falling scaffolding or even a manhole explosion (strangely common). Like anywhere else, you can be mugged on the street or have your belongings stolen when you go to the rest room (that bastard in Mr Biggs still has my lovely cream duffel coat; every winter, I scour the streets looking for it. Woe betide you if you’re wearing it. And I’ll know it by the wine stain down the front).

The day-today anxieties, however, are as nothing compared to my phobias, the main ones being a fear of balloons (globophobia), clowns (coulrophobia) and masks (maskaphobia). It’s believed that the last two are related; they might also be related to a fear of humanoid figures (automatonophobia). In my case, they certainly are; anything with its face hidden or disguised in any form produces genuine panic symptoms – raised heartbeat, sweating, intense anxiety. I can barely speak to bearded men (let alone women, and there are some of them out there, too) and the idea of a masked ball fills me with terror. A masked ball with balloons would be enough to bring the paramedics running.

Imagine my distress, therefore, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Saturday that masks will be compulsory in New York. That’s it. I am doomed never to leave my apartment again; forget Coronavirus putting me in hospital, the Admissions form when I am in a coma will read “maskaphobia.”

The problem is that it’s impossible to get a mask. My order doesn’t arrive for another week, so until now I’ve been wearing an eye mask that came with a spa beauty kit – the only problem being, given its design, that I have to choose whether I cover my nose or mouth; never both. Apparently, scarves or any other covering will suffice, and if you disobey, the Mask Police will be at hand to tell you what’s what. I’m trying to ease my distress by watching TV, but inadvertently caught The Masked Singer last night, which set me back somewhat (just for the record though, Governor: happy to model masks for you privately).

For the most part, I keep panic at bay, but at times it’s not easy. I have become very accident-prone in my own home, dropping and spilling things as if my body is slowly losing touch with gravity. I also had a bad fall, which brought back memories of breaking my humerus last year in similar circumstances. This time, I was luckier; it was only my neck I nearly broke.

These new difficulties are doubtless to do with having to spend so much time indoors. In the UK, I lived in an enormous six-bedroom house with a huge garden and never bumped into anything; now, I am confined to a little over 600 square feet (a veritable mansion by most Manhattan standards) and every day the walls seem a little closer.

Two nights ago, trying to rearrange my fridge at 2am (don’t ask), I mishandled a pint of giblet stock I’d been saving for a rainy day (as you do) and it rained all over me and the kitchen floor. Last night, I spilt a very large glass of red wine, while trying to rearrange my pillow while watching Murder, She Wrote in bed (don’t judge; these are trying times).

This morning, two packs of six toilet rolls fell on my head. Yes, I know I should be grateful to be in such a position, given the shortage, and I hereby apologize to said rolls for my outburst. I’m probably the only person in the world cursing toilet paper at the moment.

Even before the pandemic, I was struggling, and the day a 3lb bag of loose rice that fell out of a cupboard, continues to cause issues. Like Christmas tree pine needles you are still discovering in July, I am finding tiny grains in kitchen orifices I previously never knew existed.

In the current climate and in this confined space, every inanimate object poses a threat, and my food cupboards are a domino effect of dangers. Today, carefully trying to manoeuver a can of beansprouts next to the black bean section (I am organized, if nothing else), it slipped onto the baked beans (an orchestra unto themselves), which in turn fell onto the giant containers of cumin and basil, all of which came hurtling towards me like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Who knew there was so much danger in domesticity?

I’ve also started to dwell on ailments I hadn’t previously noticed. I have a bruise on my stomach that today I became convinced was the plague; every head pain is a tumor; my lady bits look like killer triffids when viewed in a 20x magnifying mirror (small wonder a lot of guys don’t want to go there).

Irrational fears are, I suspect, upon us all in these unsettling times. On any one day, Coronavirus is Frankenstein’s monster, the ten plagues of Egypt, the Apocalypse, all rolled into one; what’s not to be scared about?

But like all animals, we are survivors; we do what we have to do to ensure the continuation of the species. That will be different for everyone, just as this whole experience is. So, is there anything we can do, collectively, to conquer the fact that, at some level, we are all s**t scared?

The writer George R. R. Martin said: “Laughter is poison to fear”. He’s right. To me, laughter is the answer to pretty much everything in life, but more so now than ever. I’ve been laughing with friends and family on the phone and on social networking; today, I walked with a friend, six feet apart, both of us masked (I was okay, having taken a Valium beforehand), and we laughed just the same as if we had met in a pub.

Fear cannot change who we are. 

At the moment, the devil sits on both shoulders, seemingly unshakeable, and in my good moments I try to laugh both it and the fear away. Old episodes of The Big Bang Theory, Frasier, Gavin and Stacey. 

Yes. Laughter is the poison to drive away fear. 

And until something else comes along, it is our vaccine.