(This post is quite detailed, but know this: There is the long version and the short version. If you’d like to get to the short of ‘How to have a Fragrance Free Birthday Party’ then scroll down to the bullet points, and the bold tips throughout the post; otherwise, read on… )
My beloved daughter is turning eighteen. Ever since she was a monkey of a seven-year-old, running around chasing cats at the speed of light—and yanking their tails just as fast, we knew she had issues with certain foods: apart from flavours 621, and 623 (a type of msg found in flavoured chips, crackers and most junk food, so obviously effecting her, as if to literally plug her into 1000 volts of electricity) and artificial colours, which were also a huge red flag; but it was a long journey working out that gluten and dairy were also the hidden monsters in her long list of food intolerances. As soon as those were under control—in my eyes—she became an angel. (Dealing with her food intolerances taught me a lot, and it’s made it a hell of a lot easier now that I have my own food fandango to manoeuvre around. You know, that’s exactly ten years of living with hers, until mine reared their burping-with-indigestion-ugly heads! Actually, I think it’s some weird cosmic parental/child poetic justice for her to see me struggling with something she’s had to cope with for ages!)
So the first thing we needed to organise for this celebration is a gluten free/dairy free/artificial flavour and colour free cake! Every year we get a specially made chocolate mud cake from Wooden Spoon Cakes. Their cakes are amazing, for not only are they made with ingredients to suit their customer’s needs, they’re actual edible works of art that taste amazing! This time it’s going to be a mud cake with a drum it on the top—for my little (err… big) drummer.
The invitations have been sent out; included on these are the requirements guests need to meet to be fragrance free; because, after all, this is a fragrance free event!
We have the venue booked. I googled: “Japanese Restaurant fresh air outdoor dining” and came up with this one: Miyako Japanese Cuisine. I read a review written by an asthmatic, who just raved about the air quality there. So, two months back, in the height of the, ball-clenching, anxiety of attempting to organise this event, I called, made a reservation, and along with my family, went there for dinner, and to test the air quality. Of course, our waitress was wearing fragrance (Don’t most people? Arn’t they just doing what they think is expected of them?), as usual, I had my mask with me, hanging around my neck, popping it on an off my face, throughout the evening. We asked to be seated in the far corner of the outdoor balcony, away from other customers, and I explained why. After we ate, and everyone agreed that the food was great, and they liked the venue, we spoke to the manager and organised for a booking for around 30 people, out on the balcony, for a Sunday afternoon (we figured this would be a quieter time in the city). I told him that it was a fragrance free event; and explained to him that I have sensitivities to chemicals, particularly fragrances, and spray deodorants, and asked if we could please have a waitress on the day, who would not be wearing any. I also asked for the big double doors, leading from the restaurant out to the balcony, be kept closed due to the Teppanyaki cooking going on inside. And, he agreed.
You need to take care of these things:
- Food intolerances taken care of, and planned for in advance.
- A place to hold the event. Preferably, not your place (see further down as to why it’s not a good idea. Learn from my mistakes. Please), and preferably, somewhere outdoors, and undercover. You could cater yourself (if you have family/and or friends to help), or you could go pro like I have this year. Research: restaurants in fresh air, and read the reviews. There are so many people, not just chemically sensitive people, who really do care about being in fresh air, and thanks to the internet we can read all about it!
- Clear communication and expectations set out with the manager or caterer of your event.
- Invitations stating it’s a fragrance free event, suggesting products that can be used rather than the fragrance based ones. You need an RSVP date so you tick of those people coming that you will need to remind (nag) a couple of days leading up to, and again one day before the event, asking them: Please, please remember to come free of fragrance and free from spray type chemical personal care products.
This event is going to be just perfect. I just know it! I know this, because it’s how I really, really want it to be. Perfect…
But the desire for perfection is a dangerous thing because, often, somewhere along the quest of attaining it, we end up highlighting our very failures. And in the future scenario of my daughter’s eighteenth birthday party, and with me barely being able to go out into the world, due to fragrance and chemical sensitivity, there is a lot of room for this ‘failure’ I speak of, for many reasons that I will share with you: Recovery from chemical sensitivities is not always a good thing (It’s an excellent thing! But in it’s own Zen like way, there is another side to it!), because when I recovered, resuming a normal lifestyle, friends and family forgot about the fragrance issue; and it was my fault, because I was feeling better you see. And when around them, and their personal care products, I let the boundaries slip. I wanted to do that; and I revelled in it.
(If you’re not chemically sensitive, imagine trying to control the very air you breathe; imagine, attempting to control who walks into your air space, wearing what; imagine trying to control what products they wear… Imagine that for a moment… Now do you see why people sensitive to fragrances and other chemicals often live in isolation? (Controlling people whom you have no control over is a futile exercise in Anthropology. The result being: it is only the empathetic humans who will help you. The rest will only care if you can get good ol’ ‘group mentality’ otherwise known as ‘primal pack mentality’ on your side; and then, only then, will they follow.) Now, imagine the freedom in not having to do that anymore? To just ‘be’ with them?)
Of course I let the boundaries slip away like an old, perfumed stained, polyester scarf in the fresh ocean breeze. Why keep the boundaries up any longer? However, back then, the only concern I had about this, and I did express this to a few close friends, was: now that I’m better, won’t people think I’m weird for, previously, having made such a fuss about who wore what, who could come into my home and who couldn’t, where I could and couldn’t go, and why I had to wear a mask all the time? I worried that, perhaps, some people thought that I was faking it? (Or that I was nutty, which I actually am, but what if they thought I was like, experiencing this on an imaginary level?) I did say I had an allergy. (Some people find chemical sensitivities hard to understand; it’s much easier to say it’s an ‘allergy’.) And now that ‘allergy’ had mysteriously disappeared. But, I was too busy to stop and process that, I’ve never been one to worry too much about what people think. Then, after fluttering my wings as social butterflies do, and exposing myself to chemicals as most ‘normal’ people do, my health suffered as it does for chemically sensitive people. And it all snowballed right back to a wear-a-mask-everywhere-I-go/avoid-chemicals-at-all-costs/live-a-lonely-housebound-existence life of warped dimensions (obsessing about either moving out of this house, or ‘renovating’ it with foil). And now, I’ve had to reset the boundaries once again…
This is what I’ve noticed this time around: I’m better at it. I’m like a soldier: I know when to go into battle, and I know when to retreat. I’m less tolerant of people I love, passing over my needs. And I’ve noticed: most people who saw me so ill last time, are now, after seeing me even sicker this time, more understanding–even if they don’t understand, exactly, what is going on. (Like I do, hey?) (And then there are the few, who I think will never understand. But this post is not about that.) Mostly though, in this era of reasserting my needs, the boundaries seem to have some in-built muscle memory because they just seem to have ‘clicked’ in easier… (Practice makes perfect maybe? I suppose it does, in it’s own anxiety driven way!)
Now, that’s a lucky thing because: The last two birthday parties for my daughter have been an absolute disaster. (Keep in mind that my health was better than it is now; I was on a downhill slide to this point.)
Disaster (1): My fault; I wasn’t assertive enough: the party was held outside, and a group of relatives arrived, and just came in and sat down in the kitchen for a pow-wow and a catch-up together. I didn’t want them in there, but I wanted to be with my daughter and her friends outside; and I didn’t want to be rude, or difficult. So I left them to it. Hairspray, fragrance and all. Boy did I pay the price for that one! (For weeks via my health (Fragrance in my house!). And the chairs had to stay out in the sun for ages.) Also, at the same party, another relative gave her a bottle of Britney Spears Innocence perfume as a present… This was returned a week later, along with the standard letter from my treating immunologist–usually saved for more bureaucratic situations–stating that it is imperative for my health’s sake to avoid exposures to fragrances. (Thankfully, I think this relative has the message now.) And, yes, I’ve invited her along to this one…
Birthday Party Disaster (2): The next party, the 17th, was also held at home. This time we moved all the chairs out of the house, that way people could not sit down and make themselves at home (unless they’d sat on the floor—but these were not those sorts of people (what I mean by ‘those sorts’ is: some of us, at different times suffering with varying degrees of chemical sensitivities (or homelessness, or both), have had to live without chairs for a while; ‘normal’ people (including my relatives) could barely even imagine doing that.)). So, along with the chair caper, we told everyone that it was a fragrance free event and pleaded with them to please only wear roll-on deodorants or preferably unscented products. This was a great success—until one of my daughter’s friends arrived chaperoned by her grandmother who was wearing a plane load of spray on ‘monkey-knows-what designer brand perfume’, which stung my eyes, nose and inflamed my airways within one minute of being near her—and for the next four hours after evading her company. Not wanting to ruin things, I stayed inside on the couch watching TV, nursing a broken heart. While everyone stayed outside, feasting on the meals and deserts that I had, lovingly, prepared (thank you to my dear fragrance free, unscented friend (Debbie) who served it up to them xx). Near the end, I doned my mask and went outside to light the candles on the cake and sing happy birthday. Sure, I had that mask; sure, I felt stupid, and sick with symptoms and I felt powerless in my own home and I felt like a coward. And, retrospectively, I truly am sorry to myself for not standing up for my health, but it was my daughter’s birthday and, unlike most social activities where I complain about this and that making me ill, and I try to use my manners and charm to persuade others to make a change, I chose not to stand my ground.
This year it’s going to be different.
I’m standing my ground like I’ve never done before, not to this extent anyway… I’ve worked hard to make this a success: a restaurant booked: it’s on the edge of a river (albeit a polluted one); and it’s in the city (or course a polluted one), but it’s outside in the fresh-ish air, and three floors high. And, this time I’ve sent out invitations stating that it’s a fragrance free event. And, just in case people forget, I’ll check the weather report and make sure I sit upwind, with the wind blowing away from me, towards everyone else (a trick I learnt from a another woman, who was like a chemically sensitive Fairy Godmother to me back in the early days of me getting ill from chemicals). And two of my advocates, and myself have been ringing and reminding everyone on our list. Now, there is a good chance the majority of guests will be fragrance free, but I know a couple may forget, or won’t think about their spray on Rexonna being a toxic fragrance (even though, my daughter and I, and a few other advocates have explained it to them—many times) and I know there are a couple who just don’t care, because of their ‘no-one-is-going-to-tell-me-what-to-do’ attitudes. There are thirty-three people who were invited and thirty have RSVP’d, so come what may. But know this: it’s a fragrance free event of this magnitude: this shit is going to Biblical (look I’ve always wanted to say that, but what I really mean is: this has been Huge Burden on me to get it right; and I feel so anxious about it, I feel like chucking up. It’s the biggest thing in my life right now). There has not been one large social event that I’ve attended throughout the whole of 2012. I’ve been so sick lately, that yes, I need to accept that I’ll probably get sick on the day, and yes, as someone (dear lovely) suggested, I may just have to sleep it off for a few days afterwards. But this here is my dilemma:
Do I send people home who arrive wearing fragrance?
Well, these are my options (and yours if you are going to hold a FF birthday bash):
I can leave as soon as I smell/taste of feel symptoms from fragrance chemicals.
I can stay, pretend everything is okay, acting normal, until I can do it no longer, and end up brain fogged-slumped in my chair anyway, with people asking me: “Are you okay?” And then having to leave early, ending up with hurt feelings and resentment towards that person.
Stay, while wearing my mask; don’t eat or drink anything, so as to not breathe air contaminated by fragrances, solvents or whatever else is airborne and floating in a cloud of fragrance chemicals around the person wearing whatever product they sprayed on before leaving home. And, at the same time, pray that it’s not the type that saturates my carbon mask, and makes me even sicker because of the chemicals held at close range to my face, and the lack of oxygen I miss out on, making me vague and giving me a headache.
Or, last but not least, ask the one, or two (or three even (I seriously hope not!) that are wearing fragrance, to: “Please Go Home.”
Number (4) on the list has just occurred to me in the last few days. You see, as recently advised by a close friend (who is not chemically sensitive), now is the time to protect myself. I’ve been too sick, lately. If it takes a few days, sometimes a few weeks to recover (which is new to me), then I need to be more assertive with people. He said this: “There must come a time when enough has to be enough, and getting too sick is just too sick to get. People know it will effect you; you ask them not to wear it, and if they can’t do that for you… There has to come a time where you turn them away; and this event is as good a time as any.”
(I was surprised to hear that. Do you know how many family functions I’ve been to in the last nine years where I’ve had to sit outside? Even in the cold? Or go home after being polite, and toughing it out while getting sick from spray deodorants, hairspray and/or fragrance? Well, none lately (I wouldn’t cope physically with it), but over the years there’s been plenty. Even as I’ve just shared with you: my own functions! Someone slap me with a cupcake… Please. ))
Those are the words I needed to hear. It’s worth more than gold to have someone back me 100% while encouraging me to stand up for myself.
How does a sick person tackle a large social group of people and their personal habits?
How does a sick person tackle a large social group of people and their personal habits? Well, I’m here to tell you: It takes support. And I’m here to say to you: Watch me. Watch how I do this! That’s why there is ‘part one’ and ‘part two’ of this post. The before and the after. Here are the before facts for your education/inspiration/enjoyment (Schadenfreuden anyone?): You see, I’m just too sensitive to chemicals right now. I had to take a half a semester off Uni, and I’ve only just recovered. From going to classes. If I’ve asked people not to wear fragrance chemicals, and if one (or two) wear fragrance—accidentally or deliberately or ignorantly—to our celebration, then I have to ask them to leave. It’s that simple… In theory.
In practice though, it’s a gut-wrenching, hang-wringing task: I don’t want to be mean; I don’t want to be difficult; I don’t want to ruin relationships; I don’t want to embarrass anyone, or myself; and I don’t want to be the ‘one who ruined it’ of my daughter’s party. However, I can’t sit back and let myself get sick from breathing other people’s fragrance products anymore. Sick from people who know me; sick from people who know I get sick from these chemicals called fragrance. I could also say: I don’t want to pay $20 a head for a party at a restaurant, and have one of those ‘head’s’ make me ill while I pay for them to eat dinner, but that makes me feel all wrong; because it’s not about the money.
How about I say, I don’t want to sit back and be polite and pretend that it’s okay that someone forgot to not spray ‘something’ on? Cause that’s the truth. They know. I know. If I get sick and say nothing, everyone knows. And most of us will discuss it later. Isn’t that stupid? Isn’t that weak? Why be a bystander, witnessing the execution of my own health?
How to Say it:
How about this: [Major polite and respectful voice] “I’m so sorry, but I have to ask you to leave because, as you already know, this is a fragrance free event; and if you don’t leave then I have to, and as this is my daughter’s 18th, I really don’t want to be the one to do that. So if you could please go, and be so kind as to remember next time you are going to see us, to not to wear fragrance products… ” [Miche tries not to vomit on her own shoes]
Another friend, who I’ve discussed this with, just yesterday, pointed out that if I want to take a stand, that’s fine; however, I should have forewarned people via the invitations: “This is a fragrance free event. Please don’t wear any fragrance, perfume, aftershave, spray deodorant or hairspray. If you can’t do this, then don’t bother coming!”
(Now I’m sure this could be worded in a more diplomatic way, but even then, it just reads horrible. To me, anyway.) But I do think she has a point. But at the same time, my point is just as valid: I’m so tired and sick of pleading with people to help me breathe comfortably so that I don’t get tired and sick. And besides, the invitations have been sent out already. It is a FF event. And, it’s my daughter’s 18th, and I have a right to be there.
Any tips on diplomacy will be greatly appreciated?
Have you held a fragrance free birthday party? How did it turn out?
Oh, and aren’t family relations difficult enough already without all this?
How to Hold a Fragrance Free Birthday Party (Part II)