Friday, December 23, 2005

To a Fellow MCS Sufferer

There you stand, with or without your protective face mask, explaining yourself. You are telling some man as nicely as you can that the way he smells makes you sick; or, you are letting some woman know as politely as possible that you are reacting violently to her perfume. Are you hoping this is going to go well? Do you imagine that this time the poor soul in front of you will pause and reflect on the implications of what you are telling him? Are you thinking she will consider what conclusions might be reached if she entertained the hypothesis that your perceptions are entirely accurate?

Perhaps he will turn to you as a source of information about the toxic effects of his fabric softener. Maybe she will be inspired to research the governmental regulation of perfume ingredients. (That's a short project after all.) He will become a radical environmentalist. She will develop a career as a consumer safety advocate. At your next encounter you will breathe in only his or her musky human odor and be irresistibly drawn into a passionate embrace.

As you know, back in reality, it is more likely that your fragranced friend will feel the need, perhaps unconsciously, to take a verbal shot at you, the proverbial bearer of bad news. People who think they've been told they stink may not connect all the dots right off the bat. I am sorry for the many word bullets you have had to dodge, in addition to the chemical assaults, being a victim of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. However, you are a uniquely challenging messenger, carrying a message with unwelcome depths, and should expect to take some fire.

It's true there are an abundance of other messengers bringing similar ominous warning: dead fish washing up on beaches, kids sucking at inhalers, unlucky towns with far more than their share of cancer patients. Yet you are different. Unlike the doubly silent fish messengers, although they are eloquent in their way, you can talk. Further, it is harder for a healthy person, try as he may, to regard himself as being so vastly different from you as he regards himself as being from a fish. If I may digress, let me say that if you look at yourself through others' eyes I know you may feel at times like a talking fish. You may feel like a talking fish from another planet who is wearing a protective face mask. I am so very sorry and even if this illness has driven you completely crazy I still recognize your humanity. Anyway, my point was, fish present less of a challenge to the comfortable assumptions of your fellow humans than you do.

The asthmatic child tugs more at the human heart than fish, but still she is relatively voiceless and easy to ignore. Artificial fragrances may affect her breathing, but she's got her inhaler after all. (Thank God for modern chemistry.) She's also more likely to live in a poor neighborhood than an affluent one, contributing to the illusion that her message is not for those with means.

What about others affected by environmentally-induced or environmentally-exacerbated diseases? Often there isn't anything we are asked to do about them directly, in the immediate present. The cancer victim can account for himself without implying that an unaffected person could work on getting the local factory shut down before they meet again. The listener is not confronted with being part of the problem.

But there you stand with your MCS, declaring that you have been stricken ill by the collective hand of man, and that you would like the person in front of you to recognize it and take corrective action--action they might prefer not to take. You may not relish this role. If you are the type who really hates to be a bother you may ask only that she not take offense at your desire to keep a healthy distance. If such is your nature I hope you are not living quietly and invisibly in isolation. I hope you can band together with like-minded souls and form a fragrance-free, non-toxic haven. (I envision a sort of secular Amish community.)

However, if you have a greater sense of entitlement it also seems to me a noble path to continue as a thorn in the side of the general public--not that you necessarily have a choice. Your participation in society is arguably more valuable than people's right to exude toxic chemicals, and, certainly, in my book, to profit from their sale. You have an urgent stake in reordering the consumer society's priorities. So, truly, does that person smelling sweetly of benzyl acetate. You can consider yourself chosen to let her know. Plant a little seed as you are ducking for cover.


linda said...

hey, I've had to duck, but I try to do it with a smile on
: )

L. said...

thanks for this post. I am the type living quietly in isolation and this post made me cry because I felt someone understood! thanks again :-)