There's Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself - and the Shit Monster

There's Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself - and the Shit Monster


NO CAVITIES CLUB read the sticker from my dentist.  It featured a smiling, thumbs-upping cartoon tooth that was brushing itself with a giant toothbrush.  My 7-year old self peeled it away from the wax paper strip and placed it proudly on my shirt.  Hell yeah, I was ready to walk out of the dentist office proudly proclaiming my cavity-free status and wearing my sticker with pride.

The dental hygienist who had cleaned my teeth came back into the treatment room as the dentist was leaving.  “Dr. Pearce said I’m in the no cavities club!” I told her, pointing to my sticker as proof. 

“Yeah, but your gums are really swollen and red,” said the hygienist.  She handed me a complimentary toothbrush and a coloring book filled with more smiling teeth who appeared to be brushing themselves to the point of orgasm, given the euphoric looks on their faces. 

“I’ll brush better. And floss too,” I assured her.

“It’s caused by sleeping with your mouth open,” she corrected me.  “You’ve got to learn to sleep with it closed.”

I thought she was kidding, so I laughed.

“It’s not funny,” the hygienist scolded me.  “There’s a little monster that comes out at night, looking for a place to use the bathroom. If the monster finds someone sleeping with their mouth open, that’s his favorite place to go.”




I jumped up out of the chair like my ass was on fire and ran to my mother, begging her to get me out of there. I was such a weird and awkward kid at that age, I didn’t want to create any additional stress for my parents by revealing to them that a monster was shitting in my mouth while I slept. Until I could master the art of sleeping with my mouth closed, I had to keep this vile secret to myself.  I did, however, rip off my ‘no cavities club’ sticker and trashed it on the way out the door.  The victory of having had my mouth declared cavity free was short-lived, undone by this terrible news that my mouth was being used as a toilet. I didn’t want any visual reminders of that traumatic trip to the dentist.

At home, I searched under my bed, rummaged through my closet, checked the walls for holes, pulled up the corners of the carpet searching for signs of the monster. I couldn’t find any. When it came time to sleep that evening, I used a pair of socks to make myself a gag. Hopefully the monster would take it as a ‘restroom closed for service’ sign and move on.

I don’t think I slept that night. I’d drift off, then jolt awake as saliva pooled in the back of my throat, coughing uncontrollably to clear my airway.  I tried resting on my side, which helped somewhat, but resulted in drool all over my pillow and bedclothes. Then I tried covering my mouth with my bedspread, but that made it hard to breathe. I spent a few more nights trying to train myself to sleep with my mouth closed. In spite of my lack of success, I was committed to keeping the embarrassing news of my mouth-shitting monster to myself.  

My entire approach to dealing with that problem unraveled in the blink of an eye when I saw the movie ‘Cat’s Eye.’  I’d become a fan of Drew Barrymore for her performance in ‘E.T.’ and couldn’t wait to see her in this new movie. Little did I know it was not another heartwarming family film, but straight up horror from the mind of Stephen King.

In ‘Cat’s Eye,’ Drew Barrymore played Amanda, a little girl who took in a stray cat.  Her parents joked that the kitty would steal her breath in her sleep, but there was actually a troll living inside her bedroom walls who was trying to do just that.  It would come out at night, trash her room, climb up onto her bed, creep across her chest, and attempt to suffocate her.  The stray cat, which she named General, was protecting her from the troll. The parents blamed Amanda’s messy room and disrupted sleep on the cat and tried to get rid of him. 

Thankfully, General found his way back to little Amanda and killed the troll.  He won the reluctant parents over and secured his rightful place as Amanda’s beloved pet and protector. The otherwise gruesome movie had a lovely ending, but I couldn’t appreciate it at the time.

The moment I laid eyes on that extremely realistic-looking troll climbing onto little Amanda’s face, I fucking lost it. Now I had a visual of what my nocturnal shitting monster might look like and it was horrifying. 

I broke down and told my parents. They told me there was no boogeyman relieving itself in my mouth at night, and that the dental hygienist was an asshole for saying such a thing. Once I was reassured that my red, swollen gums were likely a side effect of medications that dried out my mouth, I felt better.  The monster became a joke in my family.  We blamed it for waking up with bad breath in the mornings. We even gave it a name.  The only logical name there was.

The shit monster.

While I can laugh about the shit monster now, I vividly remember suffering through a stretch of nights during which I worried what horrible things might happen if I couldn’t learn how to sleep with my mouth closed.

I wonder what the dental hygienist had been thinking when she put this horror story in my head.  I was right at the age at which most kids start questioning the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as they begin to recognize the difference between reality and fantasy.  She could have talked to me and my mom about what red, swollen gums meant, and definitely should have given us some suggestions for what to do to improve my gum health.  Something more practical than terrorizing me into trying to sleep with my mouth closed, that is.

Instead, she gave me the shit monster.

It was lazy. It was cruel. It was an abuse of power.

We’re supposed to be able to trust people who are responsible for our health and safety. When they tell us there’s something we should be afraid of, we listen. We take them seriously. It’s an inexcusable betrayal when they abuse that trust.

In the spring of 2020, health authorities around the world told us that Covid-19 was something we should be afraid of, and we listened. Throughout much of the world, government officials implemented safety measures involving isolation, business closures, remote work and school, and masking. The media fed us a steady diet of news on current events, interviews with experts, and images which confirmed for us that Covid-19 was deadly. They all told us, and showed us in real time, what we stood to lose if Covid came into our lives.

Almost four years later, the story has changed. Now they tell us NOT to fear Covid.  They say it’s mild.  They say it’s more important to get back to living normally, and that those of us who remain Covid-cautious are afraid of the wrong things.

Be afraid of masks, they say.

They tell us masks compromise children’s development, ignoring the fact that most of what children learn happens at home, where no one masks. They ignore that children born blind still develop normally, in the absence of ever seeing a face, masked or not.  They ignore that children raised by mothers and caregivers whose faces are obscured by a niqab still develop normally. They tell us it’s exclusionary for people who depend on lip-reading for communication, ignoring there are respirators with clear panels for viewing the mouth, as well as simple tools such as voice-to-text communication apps which are available on most any smartphone.  Some say that wearing masks or respirators for extended periods of time is unhealthy or unsafe, ignoring that millions of people around the world across a variety of professions and industries used masks or respirators to keep them safe throughout prolonged work shifts well before the Covid pandemic. 

Be afraid of remote work, they say.

They tell you that you aren’t a team player and it can hurt your career if you don’t show up to the office, ignoring the fact that remote workers often end up covering for colleagues who are out sick. Which, by the way, happens a lot more often now than it did a few years ago. They say it’s bad for your health because you won’t be as active, ignoring that people who work from home often strike a healthier work-life balance than their colleagues in the office.  Without the daily commute to and from work, they have more time on their hands to engage in physical activity as they wish and can set boundaries between office obligations and home life with greater ease, which is excellent for mental health. (By the way, did anyone’s employers care about how much physical activity they were getting prior to the pandemic? Didn’t think so.)

Be afraid of social isolation, they say.

The Surgeon General has platformed social isolation as the most pressing health issue affecting Americans.  We’re supposed to be getting together more often, getting back to normal in social settings like shopping malls and restaurants, and of course none of it counts unless we’re all SMILING at each other!  Of course, the folks who tell us to do that ignore that we can enjoy all kinds of social activities and engage with others while maintaining precautions.  Masking, using air purifiers, quarantining and testing before gathering, avoiding larger crowds, and gathering outdoors or online give us plenty of choices for safer social engagement.

Be afraid of your fear of Covid, they say.

They tell us it’s bad for our mental health to remain vigilant. They tell us we’re living in fear.  They ignore that fear is a natural response to a threat.  Fear is essential to our survival. If sniper squads suddenly appeared all over the world and started shooting people without rhyme or reason, killing 7 million and causing debilitating injuries to millions more, we’d all logically be afraid of getting shot.  Experts would study the sniper activity and do their best to inform us which situations make it more likely for us to get shot. They’d encourage us to avoid those situations and would recommend precautions, like bullet proof vests for when we do have to assume risk. Those of us who had witnessed loved ones dying from gunshot wounds, and those of us who had already taken a bullet or two, would have firsthand information to inform us that the snipers truly are a threat and that we should continue to avoid them. It would be a lot like our Covid response for 2020 and the first half of 2021. Can you imagine being told that even though snipers are still present, and are now specializing and getting stealthier and smarter about shooting us, that we shouldn’t be afraid of them anymore? Can you imagine being told you have Gunshot Anxiety Syndrome and you need to see a therapist?

Me neither.

Hell yes, I’d still be afraid of snipers.

And yes, I’m still afraid of Covid. I’ve had it once and more than a year later, I’m still feeling its impacts every day. Yes, I’m afraid of getting it again, knowing it could cause more damage to my body or kill me next time. Yes, I know that fear causes a fight or flight response and that living in that state long-term can also be stressful on the body and the mind. That’s why I take efforts to counter that stress as best as I can. I have a therapist. I meditate and pray. I get outdoors; fall is my favorite time of the year and I’m forever in awe of how visually beautiful this season is.  I journal. I stay connected with other Covid-conscious people for support. I set firm boundaries with those who expect me to endanger myself.  I seek out the latest news about Covid from reputable sources to stay on top of new and evolving threats related to the virus, as well as hopeful developments in vaccines and therapeutics. I step away from work at a reasonable hour and spend time with my family every evening. I find something to laugh about every day. I sleep well at night knowing I’m doing the best I can to navigate through this bizarre era of my life. 

I’m not living in fear.  I’m living *with* fear, recognizing it’s a normal response to the enduring threat to my life and wellbeing.  It’s imperative for my survival.  Do I want to live this way for the rest of my life?  Of course not.  But until Covid is no longer the threat it is now, I’m thankful that my drive for self-preservation is still intact, and that I can still discern which threats are worthy of fear.

You might be living with the fear of Covid too.  If you’ve been made to feel bad about it, stop right now.

The rest of the world is choosing to live with Covid, instead of living with the fear of Covid. It’s destroying them.

It’s not a coincidence that all those things which kept us safe from Covid at the beginning of the pandemic are now the things we’re told to fear.  We’re supposed to trust those leaders and authorities and believe they have our best interests at heart.  We’re supposed to believe these are far worse threats to our health, safety, and quality of life than an airborne pathogen that has killed 7 million people worldwide and disabled countless millions more.

They want us to believe that maintaining precautions involves scarier things than a virus for which there are currently no vaccines that can prevent infection, and a slim list of therapeutics for treating both acute and persisting infections.  

They want us to fear prevention rather than the infection, which can swiftly kill you.  And if it doesn’t, it can still kill your career, your relationships, your life savings, your comfort, your mobility, your housing situation, your independence.  And then it can still kill you later.

The powers that be are afraid of our fear.  Our instinctive, protective, rational, fully justified fear of Covid. They’ll keep bombarding us with clickbait headlines and news stories and ‘studies’ in an attempt to convince us we need to give up and conform. They may as well tell us to fear seat belts and condoms. Or that motorcyclists should be afraid of helmets, and law enforcement and military servicemen should fear Kevlar vests. 

It’s insulting.

We’re adults.  We know the difference between fantasy and reality.  So do the people who give us a hard time over the choices we make to protect ourselves from Covid.  Deep down, they know the messaging about the horrors of masks and other precautions are absolute bullshit, but they’ll swallow it for all the same reasons why people choose the blue pill over the red one in The Matrix. That red pill disrupts fantasies. It’s much, much harder to swallow and digest than the blue pill.

#MaskholeClapbacks – humorous responses for those who ask you why you’re wearing a mask - have become my comedy calling card on social media, and they’ve resonated with many of you who have been put on the spot with the uncomfortable question, ‘why are you wearing a mask?’  I’m thankful we can laugh together about what we might say in an alternate reality where we didn’t have to worry about our safety, and we could endlessly savor the satisfaction of witty replies to the dumbest fucking question that anyone could ever ask us.

The truth is, when people ask that question, they’re not really asking you why you’re wearing a mask.  They’re not looking for a legitimate answer. They’re looking for confirmation that you’re a fool or a hypochondriac or a weirdo.  They want to believe fear of Covid is irrational. They want reassurance that they don’t need to be afraid.

It’s disconcerting for them when you can’t offer them any.

Maybe it’s even a little scary.

People don’t always react well when they’re frightened, so remember you don’t owe anyone a response to that question.

But if the question is sincere, and you’re somewhere you can safely speak your mind, and you’re feeling benevolent, the kindest thing you could do is tell the truth.  That Covid isn’t over, and until it is, we can follow simple precautions and protect each other.  Someday in the not-so-distant future, they might start to see they’ve been afraid of all the wrong things.  They’ll remember that someone tried to warn them.  Chances are you won’t be the only one.  Covid-cautious people are still a minority, but we’re growing. Even if people aren’t yet returning to masking or changing other behaviors, they’re starting to feel more concerned about Covid. You can see it in the most recent Gallup Survey from September 2023 on Americans’ beliefs related to Covid.  More people believe the pandemic is getting worse than when surveyed a few months prior.  More are worried about getting infected.  Fewer people believe the pandemic is over.  Fewer believe life is back to normal.  All of that tells me that in some cases, there is genuine fear behind the question.

People are wondering if they should trust it.

Don’t worry, I’m not going soft on you. I’ll still be posting #MaskholeClapbacks for comic relief until this pandemic is over, or I run out of ideas and inspiration, whichever comes first. But I’m also going to make more of an effort out in the real world to hear that question with an open mind and respond, when in safe spaces, with respect and compassion.

Stranger: Why you wearing a mask?

Me: Hey, thanks for asking. I know wearing masks aren’t very popular anymore and I stick out like a sore thumb, but the reality is, Covid is still out there. There’s not much about it in the news, but there are some reputable data sources that I check regularly, so I know that right now is not a good time for me to let my guard down.  I got Covid once before and it’s caused some lingering health problems for me, so I don’t want to get it again, nor spread it to anyone else. This mask is an N95 respirator and it’s actually so comfortable, I don’t mind wearing it. There are hundreds of studies which show that N95s do an excellent job of protecting us from airborne viruses. In fact, I’ve got a spare if you’d like one.

Not everyone wants a micro-dose of the red pill, but you never know who might be willing to listen and consider what you have to say.

And for those who ask you that question just to mock or harass you, fuck them. 

Just tell them you’re masking because the shit monster got you the night before.

Then tell them it’s coming for them next.


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In good humor and solidarity,

Guiness Pig