Friday, March 24, 2017

The View from Behind the Mask

I don't know if it's that people are just tired of winter and want something to pick them up emotionally, or whether they are wearing less bulky clothing on some days and are wanting to celebrate, but lately I have been wearing my mask a lot more. Those of you who follow my blog know that I have multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) and that my sensitivities (not allergies: worse) are to the kinds of petrochemicals that exist in all sorts of scented products from shampoo to antiperspirant to laundry detergent to room deodorizers. I could go on and on about what scent is, and repeat myself (ad nauseum) that it's not the "smell" but the "chemical" that I am sensitive to ... but I'll spare you that rant today.

Today, I am just pondering and interpreting the looks I have been receiving just because I refuse to be made sick any more by the invisible clouds left behind by people who have no clue of the havoc their cleaning / cleansing / moisturizing products cause. 

For example, I went to a meeting yesterday with a bunch of people, most of whom respect the scent-free policy at work.  Then this one person walked in and sat across from me.  Within seconds, the tissues in my eyes started to swell up, I started to get a headache and lose concentration, and I would have had disorientation and memory loss if things had continued. So, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my trusty mask and put it on, fitting the upper metal band to the bridge of my nose. I had to sit for the entire meeting (over 30 minutes) breathing through this thing, which filtered most (but not all) of the chemical out. It was rather amusing (but not really) when I saw the looks on people's faces. 

My manager was there, and since she and I had talked about this problem before, she just minded her own business.  But others were rather unprepared and most averted their eyes, as if I had some sort of big zit on my face and people were too polite to point it out.  A couple of people were shocked; however, nobody said a word or asked me why.  The lady whose chemicals had made it necessary for me to use the mask did not offer to move, but looked decidedly uncomfortable. But instead of leaving to go to my desk and phone into the teleconference, I persisted in this overt display of self-care, and at the first opportunity to leave after the meeting was done, I left. Once across the hall, I could remove the mask and all was well. Well, sort of.  I was "off" - feeling not quite myself - for the rest of the day, so much so that one of my team members told me four hours later that I looked like I wasn't feeling well. (Sighh.)

Image "Female Doctor Wearing Surgical Mask"
courtesy of stockimages at

The mask is a stop-gap measure until I can leave whatever situation is causing me distress. It is not a perfect solution.  A perfect solution would be for people to educate themselves about fragrance-free options ... but I digress.

I thought about people's perceptions to my mask again this morning as I sat in a walk-in clinic waiting room, waiting to have some blood work done.  Someone was in the lineup with me who was "using product" as I call it, leaving behind pockets of scent. Out came the mask.  Once I had my turn and sat down, every patient who came around the corner into the waiting room saw me wearing the mask.  The reactions were anything from alarm (she has H1N1 or something), to pity, to double-takes and then confusion when I turned out to NOT be Asian. (Where I live, many Asians wear masks in public to protect themselves from others' germs.)  The best reaction, though, was from a little girl.  She was perhaps 5 years old, and came in with her mother, standing in line beside her to see the receptionist.  She caught sight of me, and stared at my face, unashamed, curious, with a questioning look on her face.  I met her gaze and smiled under my mask, and she could see my eyes crinkle.  She relaxed, gave a little half-smile back to me, and amused herself with other things.  

She could see the humanity behind the mask.  Many others could not.  If we had been alone, with nobody else around, she probably would have asked me why I was wearing a mask.  I don't mind that question; I welcome it.  What bothers me is the fear and the ignorance combined with suspicion and sometimes even disgust. That is uncomfortable for me (and no doubt for others too!) 

I wish I could tell or show people what it is like to have MCS.  I don't like having to wear my mask.  I don't like being a public spectacle.  I don't like the moist, sweaty feeling inside the mask when I am forced to wear it just to be able to breathe without getting sick.  But I like being sick even less.  And maybe, someday, that mask will open a discussion with someone who will finally understand how debilitating this disease is and who will be motivated to do whatever is necessary to allow me to NOT wear it. 

I have been given a lot of advice about this illness. Go to this naturopath. Take that allergy medication.  Allergy medications do no good; in fact, they open my nasal passages so that more toxin enters my bloodstream and causes neurological symptoms (headache / migraine, brain fog, disorientation, dizziness, muscle weakness, even an inability to speak more than a couple of words at a time, etc.)  And while I understand that naturopathic doctors can help, I am taking a supplement, prescribed by a specialist, that acts as a bounty hunter in my bloodstream, taking those free radicals captive and delivering them to my bladder to be eliminated.  The only problem is, they keep getting put into my bloodstream by those chemicals people use to make themselves (or their clothes or their houses) smell good or to keep themselves from smelling bad.  And it's not like there aren't fragrance-free options out there.  (Hint: choose "fragrance free" and NOT "unscented." It's not the "smell", it's the CHEMICAL. Plus, not everything that says it is "pure" is fragrance-free. Just saying.)

The view from behind the mask sucks, really.  I would love nothing better than to be rid of the need to wear it.  However, I know people who are way worse off than I am, people whose symptoms are far more severe than mine, who suffer from MCS.  If my mask helps to raise awareness so that even one person refrains from wearing or using chemically-scented products, then I'll wear it ... because it will have all been worth it.

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