Recently I made a rare trip into town to pick up some packages from our island UPS facility. Since the pandemic, I’ve minimized contact with the “outside world” because I’m at high risk for complications from COVID; not the physical kind of complications, but mental. In 2019, I suffered a fourth concussion, which earned me the diagnosis of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) as well as MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment). This status increases my chances of getting dementia, especially since my mother died from Alzheimer’s Disease.
I still had my mask on as I walked back to my car after retrieving my package. Another woman, unmasked, was close behind me since it turned out her car was parked right next to mine. As I reached my door, I removed my mask, looked over and greeted the woman. She returned what sounded like a half-hearted “Hello,” then asked with obvious irritation in her voice, “Did you know the mask mandate has been lifted? You don’t need to wear a mask anymore!”
I smiled. “Yes, I did, and actually, I do—need to still wear a mask,” I replied. Then I proceeded to deliver a Cliff-Notes version of my mental health saga. Her response was predictable:
“But you don’t look like anything’s wrong. And you act completely normal!”
One might assume her comeback would feel uplifting, but beneath her words was a not-so-subtly implied “Aren’t you exaggerating a bit?” This kind of response is more common than I would have imagined. Sometimes the subtext feels more like, “I don’t buy your story!” (In other words, I’m lying.)
When I told her that brain injury is often an invisible condition, our alienation was complete: She grimaced in awkward silence, opened her car door, and drove away.
We make so many assumptions about people without having all the information necessary to respond from our most generous and compassionate selves. I caught myself doing just that as I started up my engine. Hmmmm. Suddenly the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from The Little Prince spring to mind:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
I’m wondering how our exchanges with others–and ourselves–could improve if we applied that wisdom more frequently.
Any thoughts? I’d love to hear.