I have a medical mask exemption for my PTSD. I usually wear a mask in public but when I’m especially vulnerable, wearing a mask can trigger me into re-experiencing a traumatic event in which my mouth was covered and I couldn’t breathe. This is a horrible experience in which all of the fear and feelings in my body from that moment come flooding back like it’s happening again. It is terrifying and completely debilitating, impacting my body and mind for anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. Obviously, this is something I prefer to avoid.

Recently, I went to Jackson Square mall in downtown Hamilton and wasn’t able to wear a mask for a period of time. Mall security said it was fine to come in with no mask. Dollarama security said it was fine. When I went to grab some groceries from Nations, there was nobody at the entrance to ask if it was ok. I kept my distance from people and was super respectful, plus I have received two doses of the Covid vaccine so the risk to others was minimal.

While inside, a large aggressive man comes towards me and demands I come with him. He was wearing all camouflage and combat boots, with the look and feel of what you would expect from a radicalized militia-wannabe who was about to drag me out back and beat the crap out of me under the assumption that I was an anti-mask extremist, flagrantly putting others at risk. Having been physically assaulted in public in the past, this was overwhelmingly scary for me. I said no in a fearful but firm tone and backed away.
“You aren’t wearing a mask. You’re coming with me!” He said as he continued towards me with his arm outstretched like he was going to grab me. I told him that I had a medical mask exemption and he said “That doesn’t matter. You’re coming with me!”
I reiterated that I’m not going anywhere with anyone, especially not someone dressed in full camo with no name tag, no uniform and nothing to identify him as working there. He said he did work there and didn’t need ID or a nametag. I said I’m not going anywhere with you without seeing ID and kept backing away as he kept aggressively coming towards me like he was going to physically force me to come wherever he wanted to take me. He repeated that I was coming with him right NOW!” I repeated that I’m not going anywhere with him and I’ll just leave the store. He said “NO YOU AREN’T LEAVING… you’re coming with me!” I said “No, I’m not! I’m just going to put a mask on and walk myself out and never come back here!”.

I’m impressed with my ability to be effective, communicate firm boundaries and stand up for myself in that moment while my body was stuck in a trauma state.

He paused then and said “So you have a mask?” while I fumbled for my mask with shaking hands and accelerated breathing. I was already in a terrified trauma state from this interaction. Putting on the mask triggered me into starting to have more intense flashbacks of having my mouth covered and not being able to breathe or scream during a traumatic abuse episode. It was fucking awful. I started walking towards the exit as he continued to pursue me and I basically ran out of the store, shaking, crying and hyperventilating until I got to the fountain just outside the store. I basically collapsed on the fountain wall, ripped off my mask and was crying and gasping for air while re-experiencing the emotions and body sensations of past traumas. He kept watching me from the store entrance with some other unidentified “security” staff member.

I couldn’t even move. I could barely see. I focused on consciously slowing down and lengthening my breathing, using grounding skills and reminding myself of where and when I was, that I was an adult, I was able to keep myself safe, and that I was not in fact experiencing the assault that I was flashing back to. I was beginning to get myself to stop hyperventilating and breathe more slowly and deeply. I was vaguely aware of a bystander yelling at the “security” guys, stating that I clearly couldn’t breathe in the mask and had the right not to wear it with a medical exemption. I was not present or grounded in reality enough to recognize what was happening at the time but looking back, I am incredibly grateful to whoever that was who was brave enough to stand up for the rights of a complete stranger in crisis. Thank you.

I don’t know how long I was stuck in that trauma state trying to ground myself but at some point, mall security showed up. I had previously already told the security person (who appeared to be a manager or supervisor) that I was mask exempt and she had acknowledged that it was ok for me to be there without a mask. She walked up to me, much closer than I would have normally been comfortable with, and said “We meet again”. I raised my hand in a “stop” gesture and fearfully respond through laboured breaths, “Please back up.”

Having someone enter your personal space while triggered feels extremely threatening and can make things much worse. If you ever encounter someone struggling like this, please maintain physical distance. NEVER touch someone without consent. Even if you are just trying to be supportive, do so from a distance. It was difficult in that state to maintain enough awareness of reality to recognize that the security person was not part of the Trauma that I was re-experiencing and was not actively trying to hurt me.

She continued coming towards me, saying “You don’t have to be afraid of me!” To which I responded in a loud, terrified voice, “You don’t get to decide that! I need you to back away from me please!” She took a step back but about 6 men in security uniforms with their hands on their weapons (batons?) all continued moving towards where I was sitting, surrounding me and aggressively moving in towards me as if I were a dangerous criminal about to escape.

The mall security woman asked if she should call an ambulance. I said “No, I’m getting myself under control I just really need EVERYONE TO BACK UP and give me space!” They didn’t back up. She responded “Well you don’t seem to be ok!” I felt like I was under attack. I firmly said “No, I’m not ok and you’re making it worse! I need everyone to back the fuck up and give me some space so I can keep breathing and get myself back to being OK.” In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, we call this skill “broken record” – continuing to repeat the same thing firmly and clearly, reinforcing a boundary over and over again while trying to remain mindful and not escalate the situation with ineffective behaviours. She thankfully had the security team back away and watch me from a distance at that point.

I eventually was able to get to a more tolerable level of triggered with calm deep breaths and less shaking, more grounded in reality than stuck in past trauma. I was able to tell her what I needed (to be left alone so everyone stops triggering me and I can continue using skills to get myself well). After observing for a little longer, she told her team that I seemed to be getting better and they could leave. Camo man was still watching me though.

Once I got myself to a point where I was able to do so, I explained what happened inside to the security person. She said the camo guy was the store’s security and was not affiliated with the mall, so he didn’t have to have a uniform or nametag but that he would have ID. I told her that I had asked for ID and he said he didn’t need it. She went and talked to him and his counterpart and came back to say that he did not have ID because he was still in training. I very loudly replied so the men could hear me, “He clearly needs more training!”

The rest of the conversation was ok enough. She asked if she should take my name and I said no. She asked if I was ok or needed anything and I said “I really just need everyone to please give me space so I can get myself to a point of being ok.”

She walked away and camo man was still standing there staring at me so I pulled myself up slowly and shakily walked around the corner where I collapsed on a small set of stairs that are mostly blocked from view and that are closed off at the top. A moment later, I saw camo man walk by in the direction I had been heading. That shook me up again, feeling like I was being stalked. He didn’t see me though so I stayed sitting there, using grounding skills, and got through it. I pulled myself together enough to call my husband to come pick me up and dragged myself to the door to meet him.

When I got home, I went straight to bed. Being triggered is mentally and physically exhausting and continues to impact the body long after its over. I cried, I breathed, I self soothed with soft familiar things, I mindfully smelled some soothing essential oils and I allowed myself to process everything that came up. I was lying in bed trying to recover from this incident for hours. This is what is often required to return to a balanced state in a healthy way after being triggered with PTSD. It is incredibly difficult, time consuming and physically and emotionally exhausting. Being legitimately triggered is not something that you can just get over and move on from easily. It really is as if the traumatic event has just happened all over again and I just barely survived. This whole experience was really not ok. Had I not been so incredibly skillful, this incident could have been MUCH worse.

In the days and weeks following this incident, I had an extremely difficult time going out in public with or without a mask. Even without the added stress of being retriggered, it’s mentally and emotionally exhausting to constantly have to explain to people that I have a medical exemption or to tolerate the looks of judgement or disapproving comments that I receive. Most of the time, I appear to be a reasonably healthy young woman like any other. When people see me without a mask, the fact that I could have a medical exemption is unlikely to be the first thought that crosses their minds. It’s more likely that they are going to assume that I am either anti-mask, lazy, inconsiderate or stupid. This is why I started making “Medically Exempt – NOT Anti-Mask” buttons and apparel to wear during the mask mandate. I wish I could change the world and how people think of and treat each other so that a situation like this doesn’t have to happen to anyone else. For now though, I can at least take a stand for myself and provide people with a tool to stand up for themselves and inform others that medical mask exemptions are a thing that they need to be aware of.

Thank you for your time, your consideration and your compassion.


Nikki Hammerl

Mindfully Well