I can't stop buying N95 masks: As a hoarder, my instinct is to shop my way out of the pandemic

Where does my responsibility to protect myself and those around me end and my responsibility to share begin?

Published January 8, 2022 7:30PM (EST)

N95 respirator and KN95 respirator mask PPE for protection against COVID-19 (Getty Images/sockagphoto)
N95 respirator and KN95 respirator mask PPE for protection against COVID-19 (Getty Images/sockagphoto)

Logically, I know I can't shop my way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that hasn't stopped me from trying. As I write this, it's close to 2 a.m. and I just spent $186 on N95 masks from nonprofit organization Project N95 for myself and my partner. That's on top of the $25 I spent on masks last week from a different site, which have yet to arrive. 

After reading multiple articles on the need for mask upgrades, I also ordered them for each of my parents and am resisting the urge to check on each of my family's members masking practices and send a shipment to anyone who hasn't upgraded yet. Recognizing the financial privilege I have to be able to afford so many masks, I also donated $180, a multiple of 18, which stands for chai ("life" in Hebrew), to Project N95 to further their mission to help people "stay safe through the COVID-19 pandemic by providing equitable access to the resources they need."

As a hoarder, being prepared for any and every eventuality is so deeply ingrained in me, I sometimes don't even recognize the tendency. It's second nature to me to want to stockpile whatever I can, whether it's food or toilet paper or, now, masks that I hope will stave off the omicron variant that's breaking records in the United States.

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This morning, after yet another friend told me they'd tested positive, I half-joked to my partner that it would likely be a daily occurrence; the joke stopped being funny when I received further similar messages by the end of the day.

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For me, one of the most challenging aspects of this pandemic, which has now lasted so long I can't envision a future without it, is the feeling of helplessness. My partner and I were lucky enough to be able to work from home and afford grocery delivery last year. I too watched in horror as the death toll rose, but I felt relatively protected in terms of my own personal safety. That is, until 2021 rolled around and I had to spend six hours in the emergency room in January, pre-vaccination, with blood gushing out of my vagina during a miscarriage for a pregnancy I didn't even know I was carrying.

That day, I wore two face masks and a face shield, and I was certainly grateful I'd stocked up on them "just in case." Thus far, I've managed to escape the tentacles of COVID-19, but as more people around me test positive, as appointments start being canceled for what are clearly outbreaks — like when I was told the day before a banking appointment that the bank's sole banker would be unavailable for 10 days — it's starting to seem inevitable that I will find myself sending news about my positive test results soon too, raising New Jersey's numbers by one, or two if I infect my partner.

I'd like to think I'm a rational person, and I'm well aware that no matter how much I do "right," this virus doesn't really care. Unless I literally never leave my home or interact with anyone else, I'm still susceptible. I've tried to embrace that reality without too much of a pessimistic, doomsday outlook. One way that I take care of my mental health is to try to wrest a semblance of control out of uncontrollable situations, my personal way of performing the only prayer I truly believe in, Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer. I see that prayer as less about asking an abstract deity for help as about imbuing myself with the power to help myself while recognizing my own powerlessness.

There's a very tricky tension to holding that oft-quoted serenity, courage and wisdom together amidst the daunting, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't decisions this pandemic requires. Is buying more masks really keeping me safe? Should I have had my boyfriend drive me half an hour away to Walmart, a business I'd vowed to myself never to shop from, to purchase six boxes of at-home COVID-19 tests the night before we drove to visit his family so everyone could test ahead of our gathering and I'd have some left over for future trips? Where does my personal responsibility to protect myself and those around me end and my responsibility to share resources begin?

I don't have the answers to those questions, and on most recent days I've found it hard to answer even basic queries about how to spend my time. Should I skip my Sunday trips to our quirky grocery store where the weekly specials often yield delightful yet utterly random seasonal food offerings? Should I keep my early January plans to fly to visit my father, whom I haven't seen in almost two years? Should I entertain the notion of going to Europe in the spring to visit my new baby cousin, who looks more and more adorable in each photo? Should I try to get out of any in-person professional commitments and return to working from home, even though I'm sure that would cause my mental health to plummet?

Decision fatigue coupled with middle-aged insomnia topped with alarmist posts from people I probably should stop following on social media has led me to cry myself to sleep, or wake up crying, more and more often the past few weeks. The joys of life as an introverted homebody have started to fade with every choice I'm faced with making. I was a jigsaw puzzle fiend last year, turning to them in every spare moment. Now I often cross my living room, see a half-done puzzle, and instead park myself on my couch, zone out and mindlessly scroll and scroll and scroll on my phone.

This brings me back to those masks I just ordered. Do I need dozens of N95 masks, especially if I'm going to curtail my trips outside the house? Probably not. But I want to have them in case I or anyone I know needs them now or in the future. With supply chain issues having affected almost every major consumer product, I don't know how long they'll be so readily available. 

It may seem like mere consumerism, but I consider that impulsive but cathartic mask purchase an act of courage in the face of an endless sea of unknowns. I may still struggle with accepting the things I cannot change, and I'm not well versed enough in science to say whether wearing the masks will change my chances of testing positive, but the purchase feels victorious nonetheless, one small proactive step amidst endless opportunities for waffling. Now I just have to decide when and where I'll be wearing them—but I'll save that for another day.

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By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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