There are some people who need to wear a mask over their face to help them try to avoid symptoms bought on by breathing in allergens they are allergic to. There are other people who do the same because they have become sensitised to some/or all of the chemical ingredients in fragrances. And, more controversially so, there are people who wear one because they have become chemically injured in someway, and need to do this when they are around nearly every chemical and allergen known to humankind: these people lead lives so isolated from the rest of us, most of us could barely imagine what that could be like. I fall somewhere in the middle of those categories, and need to wear a mask most places I go.
At this point in time, I can handle low-level exposures for short periods of time. This could mean sitting, sans mask, in a room with people who are fragrance free but are still emitting fragrance chemicals from their washing powder, soap and shampoo type products. For me, low level means that there are no aerosol type products emitting chemicals, leeching out into the common airspace, knocking my health for six.
As opposed to a low-level exposure, a high-level exposure would mean going into an area where there are vast amounts of chemical based products for sale, where people are milling about wearing fragrance chemicals that they spritzed on before going out. (An area where people are ‘testing’ saleable fragrance products would be an absolute no go area. Ever. I don’t care what they are selling, I don’t want it!) It’s the solvents used to ‘carry and disperse’ the chemicals that make me so ill. I’ve been medically tested, know this for a fact, and have documentation to prove it. In these high-level situations (which I try to avoid, using said documentation), I wear a mask; and I get in and out, quickly. However, this has lead to finding myself is some questionable situations. Let me explain:
First though, in an article I wrote for AESSRA’s Sensitivity Matters, nearly a decade ago, I wrote about how wearing a mask empowered me to partake in life, to get things done. I urged other people who were finding their access blocked to try it, also. We all need to be able access buildings and services. Just to get out sometimes. Do the shopping. Visit a child’s school. And, I encouraged people not to be so damn shy about it. It’s just a mask, for goodness sake! An item that can be worn so that ‘disability’ can turn into ‘ability’.
10 years on, this is what it’s like now…
But before we get to that, I’m going to share with you some of the experiences I’ve had while wearing this mask out in public:
Once I had a man/child of around 18, or so, yell out: “Hey lady? Do you have SARS?” In the middle of a shopping mall, of all places?! I’m sure the question was rhetorical because he didn’t wait for an answer, just walked off, raucously laughing along with the rest of his pack, dressed in the grey attire of the local Rosebud Secondary College’s uniform; leaving me embarrassed, and my nine year old asking, “Mum, what’s SARS?” Her eyes widening in that bizarre-frog-like way, alerting me to the fact that she was freaking out and about to lose her shit. “MUM! Have you got SARS?” This was way back when, in the early days of running errands while wearing a mask, I was mortifyingly shy about the whole thing. Seriously, it felt as though everyone was looking at me.
Three years after that incident, once I became blasé about the whole I-wear-this-3M-mask-over-my-face-to-protect-my-upper-respiratory-system-from-aromatic-solvents-and-petrochemicals-that-you-other-shoppers-have-spritzed-on-before-leaving-the-house-and-it’s-just-an-everyday-occurrence-for-me cautiousness, that is my life, I received this (while in the same shopping centre, from a different man/child, wearing the exact same school’s grey uniform): “May the force be with you,” he said while, proudly, crossing his fisted forearm across his chest. (For those who don’t know this fact, it’s a reference to the Star Wars movie characters, one of which, was the evil Darth Vader, whose whole face just happened to be a mask. (I didn’t know this, it had to be explained to me.)) Still, I had to laugh! Which made him just crack up laughing; and in turn, I cracked up some more. My daughter, by then thirteen—at that age of being on Permanent Parental Mortification Alert—laughed too. It was a shared joke. Sure, I was the arse end; yet, for some reason, it became the highlight of that week’s Thursday evening shopping trip! It’s been a favourite family story, often shared with friends who also wear masks—albeit more shyly than me—and here, in the telling of it we laugh even more. It’s a relief to be able to take something that weighs uncomfortable and heavy like only an impediment that embarrasses you can, and make it as light and joyous as laughter between friends.
Other comments I’ve received during the early years: “Pollen’s bad today, isn’t it?” Not such a bad thing to hear a stranger say. I’ll often hear that inside the Greengrocers from an elderly person, whereby I reply that it’s actually fragrances and deodorants that are dispersed out of spray-cans and bottles that are bad today. (And if they back away real quick, I know they are wearing it; and I’ll be grateful because less of the fragrance’s aromatic-solvent-hydrocarbon dispersed molecules will adhere to my hair, skin and clothes.) So, yes, “Pollen’s bad today!” is not such an awful thing to hear at all. That is, until I go to answer and realise the person (usually in a group with others) who said this is actually being sarcastic. It’s obvious because the comment is often followed up with a pretend sneeze, and cursory juvenile giggles. And then, stupidly, I realise, that once again, behind my mask, I’m just a point of ridicule.
Then there is the group of people who bond by all starting to cough loudly; they then bond further by laughing even louder. I understand what they are doing, and possibly why (they think I have the flu?), but I still don’t get it…
Now, as I’ve discussed with friends, I know that shopping is a social activity for some, and obviously their mothers didn’t teach them not to yell out inane (I’m-just-joking) rhetorical questions to complete strangers; but still, it can be difficult to accept this kind of behaviour. This non-acceptance has led me to do some shameful things. Like this one time when I had PMT, and I was riding up an escalator, along with my own, by then, 14 year-old daughter. In front of us, two teenage girls, turned around, looking back at us, and while one clasped her arm around her stomach collapsing into it in a fit of giggles, the other pronounced in an obnoxiously loud tone, “Oh, my god. You’re right, look at her—she is wearing a mask!” Followed by, “Oh my God, I can’t believe someone would actually go out like that.”
By expressing their teenage mortification, it became contagious in the way that only teenage mortification can: My daughter looked down at her runners as crimson shades crept up her cheeks. (We’d planned to get in, get out. Inconspicuous. Change our fragrance-contaminated clothes in the car. The usual routine.) But it’s what happened next that really freaked us both out:
Now, hear me out. Please—I’m not to be held responsible for what happened next. Really! It just wasn’t my day. Or, perhaps, my usual calm-I-couldn’t-give-a-cat’s-toss-on-a-Sunday-afternoon/just-let-me-get-on-with-my-shopping demeanour had been hijacked by the PMT dire wolves. Without evaluating my decision, I took off up the escalator after them, stopping on the last step right behind them. Suspended in the tension of the moment. We all froze. I took another step, and balanced right on the edge of the same tiny step they were on; holding onto the bannister for support, I teetered. They took one more step. Perhaps, they thought I wanted to get past them, but when I too, took that same step, leaning in closer to them, just breathing hard through the mask, they looked frightened. Perhaps, my face had gone red, or purple even; perhaps my veins were bulging out on the sides of my forehead (It certainly gets hot behind that damn mask; and then there’s the lack of oxygen to contend with, too.), but however I looked, standing there, my mask-clad face two inches from theirs, I just stood there, staring my enragement at them. Well, they took off, running at a fast speed through the mall, and I was left feeling quite silly—a little crazy too—yet also, oddly, vilified…
But then my daughter’s voice entered into this weird vortex: “Mum, what are you doing?” And listening to myself explaining that I’ve just had enough of people making fun of me, do you know how I felt? I felt like a bully. And I felt embarrassed. (More embarrassed than wearing a mask out in public has ever made me feel.) There I was, a woman of 38, the mother of a child, for whom I wanted to set the best example for. A woman who usually had her wits about her, was literally standing over two girls, who yes, should’ve known better than to make fun of a, unbeknownst to them, legally disabled person, but didn’t, and now had to bear the brunt of a silent, angry, masked stranger deliberately trying to scare them.
Now, I know this does not help bring about positive awareness of our condition for people like us (Don’t worry, this wasn’t during Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Awareness Week.), but it sure made me feel better in a way that only bullying back, after being bullied can. And that is something to be ashamed of. Worse though, going into big shopping complexes changed for me after that: always feeling on the defence, waiting, expecting people to say stupid things. Always ready to be made fun of, teased, ridiculed or used for entertainment purposes. (*No payment necessary, thanks for the offer though*.)
However, I refuse to be ashamed of wearing a mask. Because it’s either that, or stay home. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that I’d like to put some make-up on my face. There’s no point, it would just get smeared on the inside of the mask, which is funny when you think about it. Well, there’s always the obsession with penciling my eyebrows; but, hey, that’s a whole other post…) And just because I’m wearing a mask doesn’t mean I won’t get sick; there’s always risks involved: Like the time Target parked a display trolly of Linx deodorant right next to the women’s change rooms. After someone tested an awful lot of it, I was ill for days afterwards (Luckily, my daughter alerted me and we were able to get out, but not quick enough: it was all over me.). So, no, it’s not a sure way to protect my immune system; but without it, that sickness that lasts for days, incapacitating me, would happen every single time I go out. The mask is a good thing; and I’m thankful for it.
Besides, being ashamed of wearing a mask to protect my health is just plain silly. And I’d just like to get on with my life, please. Because, actually, sometimes I’d rather scream from the feeling of forced imprisonment. Right there in the middle of the shopping centre! For, not only has breathing become uncomfortable, in that my chest feels tight, but with each new onslaught of airborne fragrance chemicals, my sinuses ache, and inhaling air through my nose feels like two chopsticks poking a headache up through my nostrils and pounding it into the spot behind my eyes. And not only do I feel unable to express my facial expressions (The reverse of not being able to read them: some people with Autism have this!), I also feel this weird kind of separateness, cut off from other humans, in a way. However, it’s not the physical pain nor the lack of being able to make facial expressions that makes me want to wail in public. No, it’s the person pointing and laughing at me, over near the newsagents, or the women standing in line at the butchers. Or the one pushing her trolley who comments loudly to the man with her, “Oh [insert man’s name], look at that poor/bloody/sick/freakish woman”, while pointing right at me, unaware that her choice to wear chemical-based perfume is the reason I’m wearing the mask in the first place. (You may think that I’m being classist to say this: I’ve found some suburbs are worse for being teased in than others; and the bigger the shopping complex, the more likely I am to be made fun of. Suburbs populated with Asians, much less so. Groups of middle class caucasion-kids? Loud couples? Groups of man-children? Oh, don’t get me started. (Must I go in? Please, can’t I put it off until tomorrow instead?))
Kudos to the child in the checkout line who says loudly: “Lady, why are you wearing that?” To which I say: “Perfumes make me very sick, so I wear it so I get to come in and do my shopping.” To this, the child always nods. (They get it.) Or the littler ones who just stare. And stare. Always, I put my hands over my face/mask and do the peek-a-boo thing. They love it! And then there are the ones a tad older, still innocent enough not to tease an adult, who say: “Mummy? Why is that woman wearing that?” The mother tries to quiet them; they are embarrassed; it’s easy to empathise with them. I speak up and say: “It’s okay, I just wear it because I have severe allergies to fragrances.” Everyone is happy with this.
But for the rest? Near on a decade, I’ve had to put up with this blind ignorance. It’s to the point that when I see a group of teenagers coming towards us, I brace myself ready for the onslaught of ridicule.
The Darth Vador incident that was so funny years ago, seems like it happened to someone else, far away from me—in another galaxy, perhaps?
Sometimes, it feels as if the anxiety level inside me is buzzing out of control; yet most times as I go on with the reasons for coming to the shops, I don’t even notice. It’s like I can set my vision on the direction I’m going, and exactly what it is I want, and that, thankfully, is all I see. (Losing your temper on a public escalator can do that to you. It’s like cement in your coffee: it causes you to harden the fuck up!)
Then there was the time I was shopping with my teenage daughter at one of those Westfield complexes that sell just about everything. We’d just come out of the Australian Geographic store, after purchasing binoculars for her up-and-coming school camp (hot and flustered under my mask) there were still two more shops to visit before we could get out of the building. A group of around nine people or so, early twenties maybe younger, stood talking loudly. One well-dressed male adult took hold of a younger punk-ish looking boy by the shoulders, and as he pushed him into my path, he said, “Go and kiss this freak instead! Stay away from my girl.” The young boy looked at me, then down at the ground. Colour stained his cheeks. As, I’m sure it did mine, too. This time I didn’t need to explain it to my daughter: she was in secondary college and understood all about bullying.
But do you know what the final thing was that has made wearing a mask out in public a nightmare? The day we went into the same shopping centre and came across a group of people we knew quite well, for years, way before I even developed this immune disorder. Out of common decency and respect, I won’t go into many details, except to say, one person actually held their hand up so they could hide their face behind it. That’s what did it for me. The anxiety of going into a massive shopping complex, where all the ‘cool’ people dressed in ‘high fashion’ wearing ‘Armani’ hang out and judge other people who they feel are less than them is something I avoid, totally.
Embarrassment can be catchy like that.
So, in answer to ‘What it’s like to wear a mask (9.2 years later)’: it’s different. Some people in Australia need to wizen up. It’s just not cool to do this to us. And yelling out of the car window when you see me behind the wheel? That’s got to stop, too. I know for a fact this also happens to overweight people, especially women (I was surprised when I read this); people who have physical impediments; and, we all know it still happens in a racial context, also. Not everyone can be Lara Bingle, have a thigh gap, a bikini bridge, nor can they fit impossible one-size-fits-all physical standards. Yet, it doesn’t need to be like this. So yeh, most times, wearing a mask kinda sucks. But here’s the thing: Today it was like this: I walked into a greengrocers in Ocean Grove, and the man working there said, “Nice dress.” And I said, “Thanks.” And then I realised that I was also wearing a mask over my face. (Thank you, kind stranger.) I felt on top of the world, mask and all.
If you wear a mask when going out (or there’s something else that makes some people feel like they have the complete and utter right to say and do dumb shit, shit they should be embarrassed about), May the Force Be With You!
(A FYI: I may have been chemically injured (I had an accident with swimming pool chlorine); however, it’s not clear what, and why this happened. I’ve been tested by doctors—immunologists and allergists—and have had allergic-like reactions to many chemicals; and I’ve definitely become sensitised—to multiple ingredients in fragrances. My specialist says they act as irritants to my airways. Until the age of 33, I used perfumes, obsessively: I loved them: their heavenly scents; their beautiful aromas and the way they made me feel, pretty; I loved their classy designer names; their lovely glass bottles; but most of all, I loved the beauty associated with wearing them. It’s been nine years since I’ve had to wear a mask around some chemicals, and all fragrances. I’m lucky though, there are many natural scents, I’m okay with, and, gratefully, I don’t have to live my life in complete utter isolation.)
(Another FYI, I’m not a hippie, when doctors recommend that I vaccinate myself and my children, I let them (oh, our animals get vaccinated too), I’d like to use chemicals, and sometimes I’m able to: I want to colour my hair, and sometimes do. I want to paint my toenails but the symptoms bought on by solvents have persuaded me not to. There are some serious chemicals, I’d seriously like to use; but alas, serious avoidance of chemicals that I’m seriously sensitive to is the key to avoiding serious sickness.)