Tuesday, March 21, 2006

How the Avenger Got her Bionic Nose

In the ancient personal history of many superheroes is the story of how they acquired their remarkable powers. While I am something of a self-styled crusader against evil, in this regard I am no exception. I couldn't always smell perfume from a distance the length of a tall building or escape it as fast as a speeding bullet and I will tell you how I came by these talents.

I was thirty-six when I came down with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) eleven years ago. I'd been in ill health already with bronchitis and unusual fatigue. I started noticing that I was bothered by things like scents in the cleaning supplies aisle at the grocery store. Imagine swimming in a vat of Pine Sol. It didn't smell "clean" or "fresh" anymore. It smelled poisonous.

When I told my doctor she looked at me sharply and said, "you know such things can be serious." I felt warned and somehow reprimanded, yet her only suggestion was that I drink a lot of water. A few weeks later results were back from tests she'd ordered and she announced that I had an Epstein-Barr viral infection, which I later learned, God help me, was a controversial diagnosis--for me, controversial diagnosis number one. She didn't suggest any treatment, other than rest, and, again, the water.

I went to the beach for a week and headed home feeling generally better. In my absence my roommate had decided to spray Raid Flea Killer on the rugs in our apartment, intending well by doing it while I was away. Given my reaction when I set foot through the door it might as well have been nerve gas. I spent the next days and weeks feeling as if I had some strange variant of Alzheimer's disease. I was having intense reactions to all kinds of things: my shampoo, cigarette smoke, perfume, dishwashing liquid, hand soap. They seemed to go straight to my brain, as if I was smoking something on which 13-year-olds try to get high.

Even when I wasn't feeling acutely poisoned by formerly innocuous odors I felt foggy and disoriented. I was losing my bearings, losing my keys, losing the words I wanted. In a related move, my roommate was losing her patience; she wanted the stove off and the door locked when I left the apartment. The short-term reactions--during which I really couldn't think straight--began lasting longer and longer. I became afraid I was incurring permanent brain damage.

After the flea killer episode I wasn't able to tolerate the air at my day job for a minute. One of my co-workers elicited general amusement with, "Yeah sure, we're all allergic to this place." In fact a number of people had made earlier complaints about the air quality in the high-rise. The windows weren't the opening kind and there had been constant remodeling as the company had grown. We had new computers, new carpeting, and new paint. We had new fabric-covered cubicles squeezed into the minimal amount of space that would hold them. Management had dismissed the concerns with a number. I seem to remember the figure 16, but not the units, something relating to fresh air intake, something that felt irrelevant to me as I was descending into dementia. I quit and applied for disability.

At home I had piled the insecticide-sprayed rugs and other items that failed a sniff test in the living room, provoking glares from my alarmed roommate who was now clearly finding my behavior bizarre in addition to insupportable. Once my bedroom had been stripped of immediately-offending contents I blindly thought of it as a safe place. I wore a carbon-coated dust mask on the street--despite the stares--to protect myself from car exhaust and thought I'd done all I could. Then in dawned on me that the black mold that grew readily on the walls of our dank apartment was a health hazard. I committed myself to a new rental sight unseen and, before moving, discarded my mattress and upholstered living room furniture. With grief I parted with my books, all of which smelled of mold.

The first real check on my free fall came when I took another trip out of town. I stayed inland this time, at a rustic cabin that served as a way station in my move. Upon arrival the first day I felt a visceral, almost mystical, connection to the trees--big oaks and redwoods--which I had never felt before and haven't since. Lest anyone get misty-eyed, let me say I'm now allergic to any number of trees. That day, though, when I stepped out of the car, I was breathing, drinking, absorbing the trees. I felt distinctly better every subsequent day of the week I was away. There was less around to provoke reactions, my baseline state improved, and the reactions I did have were less devastating. I wasn't out of the nightmare, I still was avoiding much of the world, but I had tasted relief.

On my way back to the city I visited a specialist referred by my doctor, an "environmental medicine" specialist--controversial doctor number one for me. He officially gave me controversial diagnosis number two, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), then commonly known as Environmental Illness (EI), not that this was news to me at this point in the game. At my impatiently-awaited first visit he talked to me in a friendly way, at a leisurely pace, about measures for curtailing mold growth in the home. Among other things he suggested that potted plants and wicker baskets might no longer be good decorating ideas for me.

I couldn't understand his nonchalance. I tried futilely to impress upon him that I was in crisis and in need of immediate intervention. Perhaps he thought it was reassuring to act unconcerned, but to someone trying to put out a fire he seemed hopelessly out of touch with my reality. He sold me a sackful of expensive nutritional supplements, tablets of blue-green algae and the like, and said he thought I would get better. I stumbled out of his office, looped from something I'd inhaled while inside, and not believing that was it, all for which I'd been waiting. I thought another hour with the trees would have been a smarter bet.

When I reflect on that initial crisis what strikes me most about it was how alone I felt, and how abandoned by my society. I did get better. I got much better for long periods of time (although not to any degree approaching normal), and I am grateful for the help I got in my recovery. I did have a few friends who did what they could and came through for me in crucial ways--leaving off the hair gel, understanding and believing me, putting their needs aside for awhile. I had a chemically-sensitive acquaintance who sold me his old air filter, told me where to buy unscented shampoo, and shared other survival tips. I wouldn't have given up his counsel before that of any M.D. I saw. In the longer term I had an acupuncturist who seemed to understand something important about what was going on, even if she talked about it in terms like "chi" and "wind" that meant little to me, and I thought she was able to affect some change.

Despite all this, nine tenths of what had to be done I did myself, sick as I was, and felt no choice about it. I got better largely through making lifestyle changes far more drastic than giving up wicker. I remember countless trips to futon and bedding stores for sniff tests and custom orders. I carted a series of mattresses in and out of my new place until trial and error yielded one I could tolerate. I remember sitting on the floor and crying over an all-organic-cotton futon that had required a doctor's prescription to be custom-made without flame retardant. It stayed in my bedroom only long enough for me to shed and dry my tears. It turned out that certain cotton fibers used in batting, cotton linters, were a common allergen.

Getting better involved some luck, such as my new place chancing to be environmentally hospitable, and also a certain ruthlessness of which I'm not entirely proud. A man I was seeing at the time didn't rise to the occasion, or even seem to grasp that there was an occasion that called for rising. I witnessed his response with icy clarity and eliminated him from my life with as little ado as I could arrange.

Doctors of Medicine, with few exceptions, only proved helpful because they were in a position of power. They, and only they, could corroborate my story for government agencies. Even if they believed me they often resented this role--a role that it seemed to me they as a group had secured for themselves and jealously guarded. While they may have felt that recording my misery for third parties was beneath them, they ate up a lot of my financial resources with little other result. My health insurance did not cover most of my medical expenses (certainly not controversial treatments one through five) and I couldn't afford the big name doctors.

About a year ago I relived a version of my original collapse. Life since then has impressed upon me how little has changed in the spheres of medicine, law, and government for those with MCS, particularly if a sufferer doesn't have a lot of money. I still feel abandoned, if less stunned by finding myself so. There are still no accepted ways to diagnose or treat the disease, nor is there even acceptance that it exists. There are no hospital environmental units in this country, no accessible hospice beds. There are precisely eleven affordable housing units built for MCS access (Ecology House) and the waiting list for them is a mile long.

I know my outrage and sense of entitlement to something better reflect the relative privilege in which I grew up. There are many people abandoned by our society in worse shape who complain less of their fate. Still, I claim the right to outrage on my behalf as well as theirs. No one should have to go through what was preventable of my ordeal, and much, arguably all, of it was.


Lynn said...

Hi Masked Avenger,

Whew. It still hurts to read your post even though the lifestyle of having to sniff and test everything and getting sick from most objects brought into my house is considered "normal" to me now.

The way some people treat other people is the hardest aspect of MCS for me. The isolation I need to survive and the cynicism I'm met with, especially from doctors, changed me. Not for the better.

It's traumatic losing relationship after relationship. I can live without chemical sprays and I can live with the symptoms but by nature, it is killing me slowly feeling so judged and discarded by other people who just don't see or believe or care if I'm dying because it infringes on their rights.

Keep up the great posts.


linda said...

I'm so sorry you've also had to go thru this crap.
Your writing about it, however, is wonderful!
I'm starting to think that another long-term side effect of mcs is improved and essential writing skills!