'I'm A Rape Survivor With PTSD. This Is Why I Can't Wear A Mask'
Warning: Contains distressing content
Last week, Sainsbury's and Morrisons became the first major UK supermarkets to announce they would refuse entry to customers who can't provide a medical reason for not wearing a mask.
Georgina Fallows, 30, from London doesn't suffer from asthma, breathing problems or underlying health issues.
But she has been left unable to wear a mask after the sensation of having her mouth covered triggers flashbacks to when she was raped several years ago.
While many have rightly welcomed the tightening of mask-wearing rules, the fact is face coverings are not a suitable means of protection for everyone.
And the lack of awareness around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - which constitutes a "reasonable excuse" for exemption under government guidelines - has made lockdown even more difficult to navigate for people like Georgina.
Her reaction to wearing a face mask is so visceral that on previous occasions paramedics have felt it necessary to summon the police to restrain and sedate her, so that she can be safely taken to hospital.
"A covering across my face, especially my mouth, can trigger a flashback of my rape," she tells Tyla. "I physically and mentally am not here anymore. I will believe that anyone touching me, even to try to comfort or stop me from harming myself, is my rapist.
"There are other things that can trigger a flashback, things that remind me of my rape: cigarette smoke, a knife, underpasses, so I avoid those things if I can. But in this current climate, face coverings are unavoidable, and that is why life is currently so difficult for me and many others in my position."
With the rules becoming increasingly strict, and with Georgina being left unable to wear a mask, she is feeling increasingly isolated as social contact has dwindled.
Georgina is not alone - a number of people suffering PTSD as a result of rape, child sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence have reported difficulties with wearing face masks.
Katie Russell of Rape Crisis England & Wales tells Tyla: "This is usually because their mouths and noses were covered, or they were choked or smothered, as part of the abuse and violence they experienced, so that covering their face and nose now can trigger flashbacks, panic attacks and severe anxiety.
"'Severe distress' is already recognised by the government as a legitimate exemption from the mandatory use of face coverings in public spaces and is specified as such in the law.
"Face coverings clearly have an important role to play in slowing the spread of coronavirus and the vast majority of sexual violence and abuse survivors, like the majority of citizens, want and try to use them. But not everyone is able to wear them, for a range of different reasons, and legitimate exemptions aren't always visible or obvious."
Face masks were made essential to visit stores and use public transport in England on July 24th in a bid to try and curb the Covid-19 pandemic. Repeated failure to wear a face mask without an exemption can lead to a maximum fine of £6,400.
The new rules have turned Georgina's day-to-day movements into a logistical nightmare, with the solicitor now isolated from the rest of her family and friends, and resorting to staying inside her home in London to avoid both spreading the virus and facing confrontations from strangers asking why she is not wearing a mask.
"I have not been on a bus or a tube or a train since June," Georgina says. "Given I live in London, this causes a huge restriction on my ability to leave the very near vicinity of where I live.
"It has meant I have stopped going into work because I am fearful of walking home as the nights get darker, as I was pulled off the street by my attacker when walking home at night alone.
"I am very fortunate my employer allows me to work from home but psychologically I suffer from lack of human interaction I would have normally with colleagues."
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She adds: "I haven't seen my family or friends from at home in Essex. I have seen them this a total of four times this year. I couldn't even see my twin sister for our 30th birthday in October."
The few times Georgina has chosen to leave the house has left her open to harassment, criticism and scrutiny for not covering her face, despite being able to show a face covering exemption badge supplied on the Transport for London app.
"I went into the hairdresser once, and I called ahead to check that it was okay to go without a mask as I was exempt," she recalls. "A customer in the hairdressers started shouting at me, saying people like me were the reason that the virus still exists, I was selfish and that people like me were killing her father.
"I was completely destroyed by that. I have also been similarly challenged in a nail salon. I tried to explain on both occasions I was exempt and showed [the badge] on my phone but both times I was told it meant nothing."
The general public's lack of awareness of those who can't wear masks in relation to trauma saw Georgina take further action with higher powers.
"When the use of masks started to encroach more and more, I began to get very worried about the ability of myself and those like me to move freely without harassment from the public," she explains.
"I wrote to my local MP, local councillor and the Mayor's office. In December they replied."
The letter from Justin Tomlinson MP and Jo Churchill read: "On the 3rd December, we launched a public campaign to raise awareness of hidden disabilities and to explain why some people cannot wear face coverings. We have been particularly keen to stress that people do not have to use a visual cue to show they are exempt from wearing a face covering, in addition to highlighting the range of cues people can use to show that they are exempt, including the gov.uk exemptions card and badge and the hidden disabilities lanyard."
Of their response, Georgina says: "Unfortunately it does not seem that the positive indications in the letter have come to pass, insofar as face covering exemptions were to be a 'key message' from the Government through the month of December. That does not appear to have been the case.
"I did ask for more information on how 'the communications' would manifest but did not receive a response. You will appreciate that in this instance words are meaningless without the action behind them. As such, we will be taking the campaign further in the New Year, especially in light of the new restrictions announced yesterday which will no doubt have an impact on public perception of those not wearing a face covering."
She continues: "I'm not ashamed of having been raped but I do want to be known as something more than a victim and I knew going public would make that more difficult. But I didn't feel I had any choice having exhausted the usual channels."
Since speaking publicly about the difficulties she has faced, many other rape victims have been in contact with Georgina who are also "equally as desperate" for awareness to be raised around the PTSD exemption.
"We don't walk round with a sign that says 'victim'," Georgina says. "Most of us are battle hardened, having been through some of the worst of human experience so we won't look like victims.
"Most of the time we can hide it but the struggle is present everyday, especially if you suffer from PTSD- memories don't fade so the pain doesn't fade. How can you learn to forget if your [memory] feels real?
"We need the government to be more vocal and supportive of those who cannot wear face coverings. A published list of exemptions means nothing whilst there is a fundamental lack of public understanding as to the existence of and reasons for the exemptions."
Georgina has been working with MP Bambos Charalambous to help bring the issue to the wider attention with the support of several charities, such as Mind, MenCap, Alzheimer's Society, National Autistic Society, Sense, Disability Rights UK, as well as the organisation Hidden Disabilities.
They want the government to launch a public awareness campaign and promote a recognised identifier for those who cannot wear face coverings.
Kate from Rape Crisis England & Wales adds that some in society need to be more considerate about the private reasons which may prevent someone from donning a face covering in a public space.
"We ask that people show compassion, empathy and awareness of those who've experienced severe trauma in their lives and are living with the impacts of that every day," she says.
"By no means all, but some of these people may have difficulty wearing face coverings and they are not obliged to potentially increase their distress by explaining the reasons for this to strangers.
"Please don't assume that anyone without a face covering is selfish, stupid or careless. There is no justification for abusing strangers whose personal circumstances you do not and cannot know."
For information or support, contact thesurvivorstrust.org
If you have been affected by the content in this article, please visit: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/
Featured Image Credit: Unsplash
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