I Can’t Stop Smiling
Decade N° 5: A Not-so-Average Blog on Middle Age
As a highly expressive person, I’ve struggled with mask wearing during the Pandemic.
By Carrie McConkey
I sat perched on the corner of my favorite vintage wingback chair, leaving a voicemail for a therapist I’d seen several years before. Despite my efforts to sound poised, my voice began rising as I started to cry. I apologized into the phone, realizing that this was probably not the first time he’d been left a tearful message.
I’d been experiencing confusion; as if my brain was in buffering mode, it would take me an extra beat to find the right words. I’d always suffered from sleep issues (I nodded off like a narcoleptic by 8:00 pm, but was fully awake at 3:00 or 4:00 am), but now the periodic problem was occurring regularly. And, although my husband joked that I shed more hair than a family pet, lately the curly strands were coming out in handfuls. I realized I was suffering from anxiety.
As I sat across from my counselor a week later, the kind doctor helped me unpack my emotions. We quickly got to the bottom of the problem: the mask-wearing requirement of the Coronavirus Pandemic was taking its toll on my emotive psyche.
The human face is a miraculous thing. The same nose, mouth, and eyes that stimulate and fulfill our senses offer countless ways to communicate. A raised brow, a wrinkled nose, a smile. For me, facial expressions are a large part of my identity.
My face is more animated than most. I’m often captured in photos at weddings and events with my eyes and mouth open wide in an exaggerated, “I can’t believe it!” look, or an empathetic countenance of epic proportions. When I see the finished pictures and feel a tinge of embarrassment at my funny face, I remember the person to whom I was listening appreciated my engrossed features.
Facial expressions are how I show love to people, friend or stranger. We’re all fellow humans, occupying this earth during the same period of time. We’re experiencing life together, so like classmates in school, why wouldn’t we share a cheerful look, if even for a moment?
At a professional conference years ago as I stood in line for the restroom, the woman next to me and I gave an enthusiastic grin to one another — a bright, welcoming signal. We started chatting, and never stopped for the remainder of the event. Those initial smiles were our cues to one other, saying, “This is the day we’re meant to meet. And in the years to come, we’ll be sharing supportive phone calls, making the effort to visit when we’re in each other’s town, and exchanging Christmas cards. This is the moment — we’ve found each other!”
My smile certainly doesn’t show off a picture-perfect set of teeth. During my childhood, the tooth fairy had a hard time paying a visit… my mouth decided it wanted to keep all of my teeth, causing new and old ivories to jumble together. And despite adding braces to an already awkward adolescence, my upper and lower teeth eventually found their way back to an uneven lineup.
Once I got very close to securing a host spot on an HGTV cable show. When one of the producers and I spoke about exploring other options, he was encouraging, but also gently advised that a long-term career would involve having my teeth fixed. Needless to say, I didn’t choose that career path. I do think that teeth are an underrated part of one’s uniqueness… can you imagine the talented actor Steve Buscemi with a perfect smile?
When I put my mask on, my way of connecting with people comes to an abrupt end. Although I keep smiling at folks — thinking surely they can tell by the laugh lines around my eyes — in return I receive a blank, emotionless stare. I’m not sure if they aren’t picking up on my outreach or are just feeling some version of the same stress I’m experiencing. For me, not being able to share this tiny moment with others has led to an emotional drought.
We’re always learning more about ourselves, and I guess in my 50th year this has been my lesson: I relate to people through my face. I know that the unusual circumstances we’re living under due to COVID-19 will pass, and I need to develop a quiet patience while I wait to “see” my fellow humans again. In the meantime, my sleep cycle has been more consistent, and my shedding hair has gone back to its normal levels.
I’m experimenting with new ways to relate to people by verbalizing my hellos, offering a clear and upbeat greeting to mask-wearing passersby. I’ve been surprised to see a few of the blank faces light up, and cheerful voices reply from behind the cloth coverings. I might try raising my eyebrows in a “Hello, I see you!” manner. Or practice giving happy winks. Whatever I figure out, I’m betting this COVID-proof new way of communicating will still come in handy in our Post-Pandemic lives.