Behind the Mask

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“We think caged birds sing, when indeed, they cry.” – John Webster

I’m very, very sensitive to chemicals; not just the ones everybody knows are dangerous, but the ones people use every day on their bodies and in their bathrooms and kitchens and on their sofas and in their yards. And what happens to me when I am exposed to those chemicals is not trivial. The sore throat and headache and heavy chest were uncomfortable, but not enough to stop me from living my life.

What stopped me was when I began to lose my mind. I don’t mean that I become overwrought and anxious.  I literally lose my mind when I’m exposed to chemicals. I mean, I lose IQ points. I become stupid. I also lose my ability to function normally due to exhaustion and pain.  Neurological symptoms such as numbness and tremors are also part of the mix. That’s not okay with me, and that’s why I avoid triggering chemicals.

The social implications are enormous. It’s not just that I have to be careful about what I use in the shower, or what I use to clean the toilet, although that’s part of it. It means I have to avoid other people who use the things that I can’t use. I can’t go into their homes or be close enough to them to hold a comfortable conversation. Public areas like places of worship and schools are very difficult places to be.

It seems like some people think, if they are aware of chemical sensitivity at all, that it takes a special kind of crazy to be this way. Because of the skepticism I’ve encountered and because I do not want to be defined by illness, I don’t like to talk about this.  In spite of that, I often find myself doing it anyway, feeling all the while like I’m treading on thin ice.  If I talk too long, eventually something will slip out that sounds like slap on the wrist:

“Yeah,  fabric softener really does me in.  I think it’s worse than some perfumes.”

My unfortunate victim looks away, searching for a graceful escape.  “Oh really?” she says, “I didn’t know that!” all the while thinking, What a loon!  I use fabric softener every day and I’m fine.

My face reddens as I quickly change the subject, mentally slapping my own wrist for creating an uncomfortable moment.

I have not had to stop meeting at my place of worship, the Kingdom Hall.  This is because I am allowed to sit in a back room with my air purifier and my family.  Behind a wall of windows, I am able to see and hear the meeting.  It is a blessing.  But I always wish I could be on the other side of the glass.

Sometimes I wear a mask to keep me well in toxic situations.  It gives a measure of freedom.  Without that little piece of carbon and fabric, driving our new-smelling car, exhaust fumes pouring in through the vents, would be out of the question. Using a fragranced public restroom would be a nightmare.  Even visiting some of my friends is sometimes made possible by the mask, but that is something I rarely do.  I’ll tell you why.

I hate the mask.  We all wear masks.  But the difference between the mask I wear and mask you wear is that yours is probably socially acceptable.  In his book The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak wrote that “nothing is more real than the masks we make to show each other who we are.”  The way we dress, the way we do our makeup or hair, and the expressions we wear on our face are all masks.  Sometimes they reveal who we are, and sometimes they conceal, if that is our intention.  But when I wear my mask, the only message I project to the world is one of fear.  The mask says, “I’m afraid.  The world is a dangerous place.”  But that is not what I want to say.

“When we know Love, fear has no value in our presence.  There is no pressure to perform and mask our humanity.” – E’yen Gardner

I don’t want to mask my humanity, I want to reveal it.  Oliver Wendell Holmes said that ” without wearing any mask we are conscious of, we have a special face for each friend.”  I want to reveal the special face I have for each of my friends.  I want my friends to understand just how happy I am to see them.  And just like I want to be able to look into the face of a friend and read his or her emotions and intentions, I would like for my friends to be able to see my face and read me as well.

“Masks were used to alienate and silence prisoners in Australian jails in the late 19th century. They were made of white cloth and covered the face, leaving only the eyes visible.” – Wikipedia, Mask

I would fit in here

I would fit in here

Masks tend to frighten us, and for good reason.  Faces reveal intentions.  We cannot read a masked face, and for that reason we associate masks with bad intentions.  Villains wear masks: Phantom of the Opera, Jason, Hannibal Lecter.  I frighten children when I wear my mask.  There is nothing worse than looking into a child’s eyes, seeing fear, and knowing that I am the cause.  That alone is reason enough for me to leave the mask in my purse.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see someone wearing a mask in public?  The first thing that comes to my husband’s mind is that the person is a thief or a terrorist.  He becomes very uncomfortable if he has to be seen in public with me in my mask, and I don’t blame him.  I’m uncomfortable being seen in public in my mask. Others have told me that their first thought upon seeing a masked person is that the person may have cancer or AIDS and needs protection from germs.  I don’t want people to think that about me.

And as if all that were not enough, carbon filter masks just don’t work very well.  They’re somewhat helpful for nuisance-level pollution, but they’re worse than useless in a truly toxic situation.  I once thought that I could enter a feed store as long as I had my mask on.  I was mistaken.  The mask was no match for the overpowering pesticide fumes.  I was sick for weeks, and it all could have been avoided if the mask had not given me a false sense of security.

When I forgo social opportunities that my mask might afford,  it is not because I like to be alone.  Something that has become more clear to me than ever before is that I love people.  Forced isolation has taught me that.  You tend to appreciate things far more when they are rationed.  If I were I dog, I’d be Dug from the movie Up:

“My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you.”

But just like Dug did not like his “cone of shame”, I do not like my mask of shame, and I long for the day when I will never have to wear it again.

I don’t want to be this way.  I’m not trying to make a political statement about chemicals.  My body does that for me.  I am an unwilling “canary in the coal mine” .

In my day-dreams I imagine myself surrounded by people: all my closest friends, my family, and new faces too.  On my face there is nothing but a smile and between me and my friends there is no glass.  I am free.

Helping Those With MCS, Awake! 2000

Good Health For All – Soon!

My Story

Photo by Patrik Jones

Photo of canary by tanakawho

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our World Through the Eyes of Thoreau

 

canoe

“Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau

I wonder if Thoreau understood how incredibly privileged he was in his Walden shack?  I think maybe he did.  Even in his much quieter time, he must have known there weren’t many who enjoyed that kind of liberty and peace.  He would likely have been horrified had he been suddenly dropped into our time and into our culture.  If he resented the railroads of his time, what would he have thought of the roaring rivers of asphalt called freeways, never quiet day or night?  If he thought the newspapers of his time full of frivolous gossip and inconsequential happenings, what would he think of CNN, Google, Facebook, and Twitter?  I think he would have taken a stance that might have earned him the Luddite label.  And maybe he would have become a little depressed like a lot of us.

” I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” – Henry David Thoreau

Psychic pain is nothing new, but has it ever before in history been the epidemic that it is now?  I think not.  And it’s no wonder.  We are profoundly disconnected from each other and from the sources of our life and health.  We replace genuine connection with the sedating effects of chemicals, those we can get from a bottle and those that are released in our own brains when we pacify ourselves in front of our myriad of screens.  Even our beloved home, our little jewel in space, reflects our dysfunction and adds to our stress with its strange and frightening symptoms of planetary fever.

My mind is my escape.  I often dream of a little cabin by an isolated and beautiful lake.  All that would be audible there would be the rush of wind through the trees, birdsong, the buzz of insects, the lap of water at the shore.  Every day I would paddle out over the mirror-like water in a little wooden canoe.  I would stare down into the clear, clear water all the way to its brightly green, moss-covered bottom.  I would watch schools of fish swim underneath me.  The cool air would be spiked with the spicy scent of birch, aspen, and evergreens.  Sometimes the warm sun would make the water seem very inviting and I would, like an otter, slip into the cool wet and swim awhile with the fish.  The cold shock would soon become a cool caress, and I would emerge dripping, enlivened, and vibrantly alert.

Coping Joyfully in a Hectic World

Photo by Ryan M.

Pet Power

Lilly Goat 004

Meet my dog, Lilly Goat – aka Lilly the Pill, Pilly, Pill Pill…I think you get it.  She’s a troublemaker.  But I love her.

Here’s a typical conversation between the two of us:

Me (in baby-talk): There’s my little stupid!  You a poop faced fuzz bucket!

Lilly:  I’ll eat you up I love you so! (Proceeds to try to ingest my toes)

Me:  You bad, bad!  You baaaaad witto pup pup! (playfully incite dog to further toe violence.)

Lilly gets into a toe eating frenzy, at which point I must take evasive maneuvers.

Lilly is more than just a fun companion.  She is also good medicine.  The Healing Power of Pets, an article originally written by Peter Browne and adapted from the August 200o Asian edition of Readers Digest by Martin Williams, says that “even desperately ill patients respond to this unorthodox therapy – a cold wet nose and a furry cuddle.”  I agree.  I’m no expert on the science behind the healing power of pets, but I do know what they’ve done for me, my family, and my friends.

Fourth and fifth grades were stressful for me.  I was the quiet girl in the funny-looking glasses and hand-me-down clothes.  The kids bullied me and math was a perpetual thorn in my side.  I’m not sure how I would have coped had it not been for our horses, Honey, Tobey, and Strawberry.  Going to the pasture was my way of decompressing. I sat there in the grass just to be close to them, listening to them munch while I drew.  There was something satisfying about the rhythmic crunch, crunching, the sweet, horsey smell, the quiet snuffling.  All the stress would drain away.  I could have lived in the pasture then.

The cats helped too.  I had a big fluffy tom called Mr. Moose.  He was a lazy good-for-nothing when it came to hunting, but his cuddles were medicinal.  He was my leg warmer in bed, my dolly, and a good-natured nuisance when I was trying to draw or read.  His purr, his warmth, and his loving and trusting personality were soothing to me.

This guy looks a lot like Moose

This guy looks a lot like Moose

I don’t want to underestimate my childhood miseries, but I had no idea at that time just how painful life could become.  Just a little over two years ago when I was enduring a horrible bout of insomnia, it was my dog Elsie who was there for me day and night.  When the whole world was asleep, and the screaming black of night threatened to drive me crazy, I would lie on the floor and hug my patient dog, a warm, living, loving creature, and I would feel a little less alone; a little less like my whole world was caving in.   I always knew by her constant attendance and the look in her warm dog eyes that she knew I needed her.  Elsie is gone now, but I will never forget her calm devotion.

Lilly came to us while Elsie was still alive, a white whirling dervish, the Tasmanian Devil of dogs.  We didn’t choose her, she chose us.  Once we tamed the little beast and she became aware of what was expected of her, she began to wheedle her way into our hearts.  John Muir said in one of his essays that terriers have “little tricksy ways”.  This is true.  Lilly makes us laugh, which is one of the things that make her worth every bit of trouble she causes.  Even on my worst days, Lilly can make me feel good.  She’s the house jester, my lap warmer, and my walking buddy.  Her energy level is very high, which is just what I need right now.  I need for her to make me feel bad if I don’t get up off my butt and take her for a walk.  She has no idea she’s being useful, she just wants to go.

Animals are pretty generous with their affection.  But the love should be mutual.  For example, my mother bought her horse, Honey, when she was thirteen.  The reason she was able to do this with her $100 of babysitting money is because Honey was considered a “dog”, which is horse person talk for good-for-nothing.  She had been horribly abused and given up as a lost cause.  My mother, though, could see potential in Honey.  And she was desperate for a horse.  So she took that horse and loved her with all she had in her thirteen-year-old heart, buying the best feed, again, with babysitting money, brushing and currying faithfully, earning trust by showing affection, and eventually, training Honey to be ridden.  When Honey eventually won reserve grand champion at a horse show, people were amazed.  A newspaper article was written about how a girl had transformed a “dog” into a prize-winning show horse.  My mother’s love and devotion to that horse is the reason I could safely sit near her in the pasture and listen to her graze.  It’s why I could approach honey and touch her soft muzzle, feed her apples, and brush her flanks.

Moose and Elsie and Lilly and many of the other wonderful animals I’ve had the privilege to know over the years had love to give because that is what they had received.  Animals have needs, and sometimes those needs can seem overwhelming to those who have never experienced the responsibility.  But the responsibility itself can be healing.  We need to be needed.  The knowledge that a living creature would suffer if we did not get up and feed them, that they would miss us if we weren’t there, is often enough to keep us going when we want to give up.  I know that’s how it was for my Grandma.  Her little dog was her friend.  That’s what she always said.  The night Grandma passed away, I sat in her favorite recliner and pet that dog like my life depended on the reality of her tiny body.  I love that dog because of what she gave Grandma during the last years of her life.  And I was grief stricken not for myself and my family only, but for Grandma’s little friend.

All animals have love to give.  But how much would an animal have to give if they seldom got enough to eat, never felt a caring human hand, or never heard a kind word?  What if an animal felt that humans were too unpredictable to be trusted?  How much love would they have to give?  To experience the healing power of furry love, we have to give love first.  And the rewards are priceless.

Photo by Richard Gillin

Healthy Homes: Building the Way Our Ancestors Did It

What if I told you that it was possible to build a beautiful house out of the dirt under your feet?  “There’s no way I’m going to start living in some mud hut,” you say.  I’ll bet you think I’m crazy.  But the truth is that people have been building beautiful dwellings out of earth for thousands of years, and they are still doing it.  Many buildings in the middle East are still constructed using the old mud brick method.  England has it’s thatch roofed cob houses.  The Native Americans of New Mexico have their adobe.

Earth building is a time-honored technique that has much to offer modern people.  Earth homes are easy to build.  People often learn the technique during a weekend intensive and immediately afterwards begin work on their own project.  These homes provide a healthier living environment than almost any other type of building.  Earth walls insulate well, but they also breath.  Air quality inside an earth home is excellent because few if any toxic products are used in its construction.  And the aspect I like most about earth homes is that they are often beautiful.  Because earth is moldable like clay, walls in earth homes are often more than walls, they are works of art.

The following slide show demonstrates just how beautiful and versatile earth dwellings can be:

This next video is almost an hour long, but I found it fascinating.  I had been interested in earth homes for a long time, but did not understand how they were built.  This video shows the construction process and includes commentary from builders who learned from experience.

Move!

walking the dog

“Walking is man’s best medicine.”  – Hippocrates

I guess I’m a pretty good spokesperson for guilty non-exercisers.  I exercise in jerks and starts, mostly sitting on my derriere but every once in a blue moon trying to behave like a seasoned outdoorswoman and failing miserably.  This has to stop, because I, like nearly everyone, understand that movement is absolutely essential to bodily health.  It strengthens muscles, including the heart, moves lymph, increases lung capacity, and the one that interests me the most: it can dramatically improve mood.

I found a great article in U.S. News and World Report about the mental health benefits of exercise.  Here are some choice excerpts:

 “Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain.” – John Ratey, author Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

“Working out also helps keep us from ruminating ‘by altering blood flow to those areas in the brain involved in triggering us to relive these stressful thoughts again and again,’ says study coauthor Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF.”

“Research suggests that burning off 350 calories three times a week through sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants.”

“Exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn.”

“Even mild activity like a leisurely walk can help keep your brain fit and active, fending off memory loss and keeping skills like vocabulary retrieval strong.”

Pretty impressive, especially when you consider the fact that the medications we use to treat mental health problems have such potentially serious side effects.

One day when I was much sicker than I am now, I decided to take a walk to try to shake off some of my brain fog and depression.  I felt too weak to walk, but I set out anyway.  I threw my shoulders back like I owned the world, took long strides, and breathed deeply.  I’ll never forget how much better it made me feel.  So why don’t I do that everyday?  Okay, here come the excuses: the traffic on our road is dangerous and the diesel fumes make me choke, the only other place to walk is on the canal road which is nearly always drenched in herbicide and grows bumper crops of puncture weed which injure my dog’s feet, the neighbors dryer vents constantly spew forth a toxic cloud of “freshness”, and there are scary dogs.  Deep breath…  But I walked today anyway.  See? That’s how writing heals.  First you write something, then you have to do it or you’re a hypocrite.

But how does this fit?  Simplicity of Wellness is, after all, an article about how love heals.  How can exercise show love for the earth and its creatures?  Aren’t the benefits mostly personal?  No, because not only are walking and bike riding very good forms of exercise, they also happen to be great alternative forms of transportation, especially if you live in, or close to, a city.  Obviously, fewer cars on the road means less pollution.  Walking or biking instead of driving when possible is another win/win situation for both ourselves and the earth if we would only put it into practice.  It’s another way we can show love for earth and all its creatures, including ourselves and our fellow humans.

I would love to become fit enough to walk all the way into town and back.  It would help me to avoid having to drive so much, and it would do a world of good for my body.    I hope you will join me.  Lets move!

Photo by Natesh Ramasamy

Use Safer Products

(Continued from Simplicity of Wellness: Love for the Earth and its Creatures , Grow and Cook Your Own Food , and Eat Local)

tub time

As I sit here writing with raised eyebrows, I wonder what I can say about this.  Many of the people who know me well have already gotten an earful about the dangers of toxins.  So much so that I’m sure they would rather not hear any more.  And I get it, I do.  No one, including me, wants to focus on negative, scary things.  Nobody wants to feel overwhelmed.  Nobody wants to find out that their favorite products might not be so good for them.  I’d rather not have to write this, really.  But I just cannot leave it out, it’s too important.

Anytime we start talking about the avoidance of danger, the difficult subject of the nocebo effect comes up.  A nocebo is the opposite of a placebo.  Just as a placebo can cause a person to feel better, a nocebo can cause an adverse reaction.  For example, if you were told that the glass of orange juice you just drank contained arsenic, and it was then explained to you what arsenic does, there’s a good chance you would start to feel sick even if the juice was perfectly safe.  We certainly can think ourselves ill.

So why focus on toxins and pollution if it can have such a negative psychological effect?  I admit that I feel conflicted about that.  I would rather focus on positivity.  But what if the juice in the above illustration really did contain arsenic, but nobody would tell you?  What if the levels of arsenic were low enough not to kill you quickly, but just enough to make you feel vaguely ill?  What if you unknowingly continued drinking the arsenic laced juice for many years, damaging your body little by little, completely unaware of the reasons for your failing health?  Far from being mere nocebos, like the juice, some things really are toxic, and when people avoid them, they feel better.  I’ve seen it time and again.  The other reason is that many commonly used household products pollute the earth, and that right there is reason enough.

So before considering this admittedly difficult subject, it’s well to remember what wellness is all about.  It’s about love for God, self-love, love for others, and love for earth and all its creatures.  It’s about love, not fear.  So while it is necessary to understand some things about toxins so that we can protect ourselves and our families from undue harm, we must keep in mind that anxiety serves no purpose.  But action based on knowledge does.

serenity prayer

 So here’s the skinny: our world is inundated with toxic chemicals. You already know that, right? But something you may not know is this: the chemicals most likely to harm you are not “out there” somewhere. It’s true that industry pollution is a big problem. But for most of us, our biggest and most damaging exposures tend to be much closer to home. They come from places like the Round-Up container in the garage, the box of dryer sheets in the laundry room, and the myriad self-care products lining our bathroom counters and cabinets.

This is difficult for many people to wrap their heads around.  It certainly was for me at one time.  We’d like to believe that the products we use in and around our homes, and especially those we use on our own bodies, are safe, that government agencies have our collective backs.  They wouldn’t allow these things on store shelves if they were dangerous, right?  Wrong.

If you’d like a detailed explanation, it is in this document by the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production:  Presumption of Safety: Limits of Federal Policies on Toxic Substances in Consumer Products

From the document:

Despite the fact that most consumers believe that everyday products are thoroughly tested for dangerous chemicals and determined to be safe by government authorities, the reality is that existing regulatory systems leave significant gaps in their capacity to adequately protect consumers from chemical hazards in these products.

One of the reasons listed in the article for the failure of government agencies to protect us is the fact that many safety standards are actually voluntary, meaning that companies can opt out if they don’t want the bother of adhering to a higher standard.  For example, the fragrance industry is largely self-regulated.  It’s a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Another reason is that the capacity of certain government agencies is limited due to budget constraints.  Also, current laws do not actually require companies to test most products for safety hazards.  Weak laws and limited governmental capacity ensure that, inevitably, some unsafe products will  end up on store shelves.

You’ve heard the bad news.  Now here’s the good news.  Great news in fact.  There are more companies making safe, non-toxic products now than ever before.  In the past, we may have had to sacrifice quality and performance in the name of health, but not anymore.  Many of these products work, and work well.  Check out EWG’s Skin Deep Database , and Guide to Healthy Cleaning .

Also, an exciting new trend has emerged: DIY everything.  Because so many people are experimenting with making their own cosmetics and cleaning products, the internet is busting at the seams with well-tested recipes.  Non-toxic is now fun!  One of my favorite sources for great recipes is the Wellness Mama website.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to chemicals, we have to watch our own backs. Government and industry is not going to do it for us.  But we are not powerless.  Education and action can make all the difference.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity – A Mysterious Malady, Awake! 2000

Hidden Chemicals in Perfume and Cologne

Extreme Chemical Sensitivity Makes Sufferers Allergic to Life, Discover Magazine

Infographic by violet79

Photo by familymwr

Kinderstruck

huckleberries

I saw that word, kinderstruck, on urbandictionary.com.  I’m not even sure if it’s a real word, but even if it’s not, I love it.  There is no other single word that evokes that feeling you get when a sound or smell puts you back in time to your childhood, feeling the simple pleasures and impressions you had before you inherited the worries of adulthood.

Some of the things that make me kinderstruck:

Jonie Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, and other musicians from the 70’s that my mother used to listen to as she hummed and cleaned the house or cooked dinner.  Cooking my mom’s recipes while listening to those songs is a particularly potent path to kinderstrickeness.  Even modern bands that sound particularly 70’s-ish such as Fleet Foxes can do it.

The smell of freshly fallen snow.  Hmmmm…. it brings back the feelings I had on those days off from school when we would spend all day on the hill behind the house sledding until our hands and feet were painful from the cold and we would have to come into the warm house with red cheeks and runny noses to drink hot chocolate and eat homemade cinnamon rolls.

The smell of those trees that grow by rivers and lakes; that spicy, pungent, wild smell.  My grandfather used to love to take us out on the lakes with his boat.  I would sit in the front and pretend I was flying over the lake, the wind buffeting my face and whipping my hair, the yummy smell of birches and cottonwoods filling my nostrils.

The smell of freshly cut hay.  We used to have to go get hay for our horses, often driving our very old Chevy pickup out into the hayfield and throwing the fragrant bales into the truck bed.  I loved to sit and watch and listen as the horses munched and crunched on the good alfalfa, vacuuming the dusty ground with their velvet lips in search of the tender little leaves that would fall down from the stalks.

The taste of huckleberries.  I remember one camping trip in particular when we went hiking looking for the berries.  Although I was normally the most sluggish and tired child in my family, the clean mountain air and the prospect of those indescribably delicious berries gave me boundless energy.  I was first in line on the trail, often having to stop and turn back to wait for the others.  I would stand in the midst of the huckleberry patch, putting more of the sweet, tart berries in my mouth than in my bucket, staining my lips reddish purple.  Later, there would be pancakes with bursts of warm berry goodness all through them.

Wild onions.  I know, that sounds like a weird one.  I used to love to see how many things I could find to eat growing near our country home.  One year I found wild onions, and although I thought that I hated onions, the taste of those onions pulled out of the ground, an offering of nature free for the taking, was wonderful to me.  Sweet, pungent, delicately crisp.  I’ve never tasted any onion better than those little wild ones.

Ice skating.  My mother loves to skate, and she taught all of us kids.  I actually liked to watch mom do her little jumps and spins better than actually skating.  Once she took us out to a local lake that had frozen solid after many days of subzero weather.  There was no snow on the lake, so the whole thing had become a playground for brave skaters.  It was frightening at first, especially when we would hear those sounds like gunshot which meant that the lake was freezing deeper.  I never felt happier or freer than I did gliding across that big frozen lake.

Photo by hello-julie