This is the sign on the door of one of the study rooms inside the library at St. Alban’s Victoria University (VU). It’s a fragrance free room, so in effect, it’s actually a fragrance free policy, yes? For me, the best thing about this room (besides that I can book it for two hours use at a time) is that it was set up for other people besides myself. Other people who also suffer adverse health effects from fragrance. So, I’m not alone in this world where it seems so many people ignorantly gas me with their body sprays, hair sprays, and fragrances, that adhere to my hair, my belongings, my lungs and my sinuses while making me ill for days.
This sign means that when I push the boundaries of this toxic world, I’m doing it for the next person who is struggling with the air that has been contaminated and polluted with personal care products that contain ingredients that are not only not listed on the bottle, but also lacking in proof that they are safe. Yet, here I am: Am I not proof enough that they are not safe?
I too, used to use these products. For the last nine years I haven’t though. The symptoms I receive from inhaling fragrance at close range are swollen eye-lids, burning, itching eyes and nasal passages, a rash on my face, sinus pain, which leads to inflammation that can build up and become progressively worse for days, and, in turn, makes it painful for me to breathe through my nose, therefore forcing me to wear the mask, and nasal filters–a lot. Once my sinuses are inflamed, and pounding out pain from behind my forehead, cheekbones and nose, it makes basic living skills, social interaction, and the most average tasks like cooking, and driving problematic because breathing in those fumes and aromas is horribly painful.
When I’m in a room where there are spray deodorants, and/or hairsprays, my thinking gets muddled; sometimes it’s like my mind is crippled and that, as a writer, is the most scary part for me. I can’t write, or my fingers forget where the keys are and I can’t connect my thoughts. This happens worse when I’m wearing a mask because they saturate the carbon on the outside of the mask until that’s what I’m breathing through: a mask impregnated with Rexonna and Lynx aromatic vapours. Once this happens, I can get an unbearable pain on either side of my lower back; when this arrives, I have to go home and miss out on my learning because it hurts as if I’ve been kicked with a pair of steel cap boots–a dull, hot pulsating pain spreads out across the back of my hips.
In 2012, this year, these exposures snowballed and compounded on top of one another, squashing more than just my health: my spirit took a pounding and I felt much more than just excluded from the world. My world. I had to leave 2 out 3 of my classes for the last half of the Semester. Amazingly, thanks to the teachers and staff at VU, I think I’ll still pass.
Sometimes I think that I’m an idiot or crazy for wanting to attend classes with the goal of eventually becoming a Professional Writer and, hopefully, earning an income. And I’ll look at the situation objectively and think: why would someone who gets this ill, want to continue? But you see, I deserve to give myself this chance. Being a writer is something I can do from home, and it’s something I know I can be good at. I just need that chance to succeed. The same chance that all the other students have. Even though I have this affliction, perhaps, there is something good about it that might help me see things differently? Maybe, I can develop more empathy, or be able to help others like myself? But then, there is the gravitational pull of my dreams, placing me on this trajectory where I’ve ended trampling in my literary idols space dust: Luke Davies, Christos Tsiolkas and Fiona McGregor. There is the momentum of this pull that I can’t describe, which keeps dragging me into writing in the genre of dirty realism.
But the bloody chemicals get in the way.If only the mask protected me; if only I could switch off from being chemically sensitive and tune into my writing, and nothing else. But no, the planning; the avoidance strategies; the fear; the anticipation; the vigilance; the monitoring of the air; all get in the way of why I come to school in the first place: to focus on my craft, to learn. You see, the problem with wearing this mask to school, to protect my upper respiratory tract from fragrance symptoms, is that it makes it difficult for me to instinctively smell exactly what’s there, or where it is so that I can leave that area. And by the time, I find out, it’s too late and I’m sick for days. And if I lift the mask or take it off for a bit so that I can test the air by smelling it, just that amount of breathing in such a cornucopia of other people’s personal care products, means that I experience some of the symptoms described above, and my class time is cut short. This year, the only option that has worked for me is to leave the mask on tight–for around four hours–throughout class, the break and the drive home (which restricts the amount of air I can breathe; and as there are no deep breaths, only shallow ones, or any fresh air to intake, this amounts to a headache) where I can get in the shower immediately and wash the fragrance, solvents and petrochemicals off me. I hang my clothes to air out in a separate area, ready for washing later, the next day, I can always tell what the concentration of fragrance chemicals was by how contaminated my clothes are.
If I’m lucky, it’ll only take me a day to recover, if not, it could be up to three days, to a week.