‘I’ve been shouted at three times for not wearing a mask – despite being exempt’

Lisa Harding
Lisa Harding has been confronted on three occasions for not wearing a mask, despite having an invisible disability
Lisa Harding has been confronted on three occasions for not wearing a mask, despite having an invisible disability

When Boris Johnson announced that face masks were going to be mandatory in shops around the UK, I felt terrified. I’ve suffered from chronic depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. I had a traumatic incident in my childhood, and I’m fearful of anything covering my face; even if I wear a face shield, I feel claustrophobic. Despite this, I have already been verbally assaulted three times for not wearing a face mask. This is the reality of having an invisible disability. 

It comes as no surprise to me that one in eight people have been confronted or reported for not wearing a face mask - the equivalent of six million Britons. Even my 84-year-old neighbour was left in tears after being shouted at for not wearing a face covering at the local supermarket. I live in a small village in Lincolnshire. If the problem is this bad here, I dread to think what it's like in bigger cities.

I've done everything I can to make sure I was prepared for this new way of life, including ordering an exemption lanyard. It clearly reads: ‘face covering exempt.’ But people don't seem to get the message.

On one occasion, I popped into a small local shop to pick up some milk and bacon. I had just turned the corner of the first aisle when a lady approached me. The first thing she asked me was why I wasn’t wearing a mask. I immediately showed her my lanyard, and said that I was exempt. She replied that I was being extremely selfish, as anybody could order a lanyard off the internet and pretend that they were exempt. Her exact words were: ‘If I can wear one, so can you.’ That’s an argument I’ve heard before. I started to feel quite uncomfortable, and in the end I put my basket down and left the shop.

There had been a couple of people nearby, but they all averted their eyes, and pretended not to look. I felt small and humiliated. With an anxiety disorder, any form of confrontation is a challenge, so this felt like the end of the world. The shopkeeper in the next store could see that I was incredibly upset, and even offered me a cup of tea. Supermarket staff have, on the whole, been very understanding of my disability. It’s customers that are the problem.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. The week before, I’d just got out of my car without a mask and a man shouted expletives at me and called me selfish. The week before that - when masks weren’t even mandatory - a lady confronted me in Sainsbury's. I live alone, so online shopping isn’t always an option when I just need a few essential items. Now, I limit myself to one weekly trip to the supermarket on Fridays at 8am. 

Of course, there’s a part of me that’s starting to question whether I’m doing the right thing. But I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’ve tried walking around with a mask on at home, and I've even practiced breathing exercises with my friend on the phone while wearing one, but I can’t do it. On one occasion, I had such a bad panic attack that I scratched my face after trying to claw the mask off. 

Of course, I understand that masks are mandatory for a reason. But aside from wearing one, I do everything I can to try to mitigate the risk of Covid-19. I don’t have people over to my house, I keep my distance and I rarely visit anyone. I used to look forward to going outside on bike rides, and taking photographs, but now I don't have any desire to; I'm too worried someone will confront me again.

Society seems to have lost all its compassion. I just wish people would think before they challenge people. You never know what somebody else is going through.

As told to Alice Hall

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