What it’s Like to Wear a Mask, Part II (9.2 years later)

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.

This type of photo is called a 'Melfy': picture one takes of self wearing a mask :)

This type of photo is called a ‘Melfie’: picture one takes of self wearing a mask :)

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.

Darth Vadar Dog

Don’t you dare laugh at me!

Click here to get Images &
Darth Vadar Dog PicturesPictures

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.

:)

It's a normal day, isn't it?

Nice dress, hey?

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.)

Michellina Van Loder is a Professional Writer, Journalist and Blogger. This is where she shares her tales about trail blazing her way out of the Labyrinth of Chemical Sensitivities and Mould. This is also where you will find the latest Research on related topics.

About Michellina van Loder

Comments

  1. Thanks Michellina, I can relate to much of what you said. My sensitivity isn’t that severe and I avoid exposure as much as I can bu there are times when I need some extra help. I have recently started a cleaning job and one of my clients uses a really noxious laundry detergent. I can stay away form the laundry as it’s a big house but I think she wants me to do the washing so wearing a mask would be the way to go and i can also use it if ever I take the bus or go to the cinema which end to be the main issues that I have. What masks do you find the most effective? I’ve seen some on the Eco Health website that look quite good but yours looks more substantial.

  2. Jon Laughlin says:

    Thankyou for sharing your story with me. Its no fun having people pick on you for your disability. But with the 2 photo’s I have seen of you your a beautiful looking woman even with your mask on.

  3. Perfect timing to read this as i just ordered my first organic cotton mask with replaceable carbon filter. Reactions are getting too bad with minimal exposures to not get over my pride and make my invisible illness visible. Hoping it will enable me to travel to visit family a few hours away by airplane.

    • Michellina van Loder says:

      Don’t worry, your illness will no longer be invisible, you can be assured of that. :) Hey, did you know that you can call the airline before hand and request to board the plane last (or first if you think that might help); that way you can avoid having to sit somewhere where people wearing sprays and fragrances are walking past you. And you can ask if you can sit at the back or something so as to minimise fragrance exposure. I love the ‘I Can Breathe’ type of mask. It looks lovely and it can be had in different colours so it can match your outfit (so I’ve read). Sadly :(, I can’t use it and have to go with the fugly old 3M carbon mask. I can dress it up with a scarf though.

  4. I read your post yesterday and went to comment but ended up writing a whole post on it. http://lifeinthecitywithafuture.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/3469/ I had many epiphanies as I wrote my post. Thank you for sharing this it helped me to share my experiences and face the reasons I don’t wear my mask. I’m getting less stubborn now about having to wear it. Mostly I now even wear to sort the mail. I know Sonda has MCS — fragrance free cards — I think this is a good idea for when someone asks — maybe they might actually read some of the stats and make the change.

  5. Oh, and since you brought up vaccines, anyone who is chemically “sensitive” might want to read the ingredients used for Canadian vaccines (probably very similar to what’s used in the rest of the world):

    http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/cig-gci/p01-14-eng.php

    I’m not opposed to the concept of vaccines, but I am very much against injecting some of those poisons into people, especially children.

  6. You need to develop evil eyes for whenever someone gives you grief! That “don’t you even think of messing with me” look can come in handy sometimes!

    Crazy that we live in a world where it’s ok for “them” to create so much pollution that we have to wear masks just to breathe!

    Air pollution is so bad in India and China now that many people there have to wear masks whenever they go out, so it’s not an unusual thing there.

    Clean air should be a right and polluting air should be against the law!

    Adults rarely if ever ask me why I’m wearing the mask, but kids will ask their parents, and if they are close enough, and I’m capable of talking, I’ll tell them “it’s because the chemicals in perfumed products make me sick”.

    A few months ago, I actually had a group of 4 teenage boys stop to ask me why I was wearing my mask as I stood outside a store waiting for some supplies to be brought out for me. They genuinely wanted to know, no attitude!!!

    So I see much more acceptance of masks, but I wish there was more outrage that so many people have to wear them now!

  7. Good post. Does it make want to write on your mask “I wear this mask to protect myself from the chemicals you are wearing”?

  8. “(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 feel for you, and others that choose to wear masks, the bullying you describe is horrible, which was why I was surprised by the above quoted comment you made at the end.

    I am chemically damaged also, am not a “hippie” but boy! do I respect their stance in an ignorant and bullying society, can’t be easy to live by a code of standards that are mocked by others, kind of like wearing a mask in public I guess.

    I have been damaged by multiple chemicals, including some found in medications, and after many years I hit a period of time a while back where my symptoms had eased to the point where I felt I had “recovered”. A free Flu shot at work (I will NEVER do it again) tipped me back into my chemical sensitivity hell and I have never recovered. I know it was the toxic chemicals and other biological hazards in the shot, but I won’t go into why I know here, I will NOT start a Vax debate it’s pointless, (a lot like trying to defend oneself against ignorance over MCS and wearing masks really)

    I understand and accept that many people choose immunization, I respect that, but people need to know there is another side and people who choose not to have very good reasons for doing so. Society and it’s media have conditioned people into believing that people who choose not to vaccinate are “freaks” and put their children at risk, this leads to severe bullying behaviour against them. People like us who suffer from bullying and value research and factual information should know better, even if we don’t agree with their decisions.

    I appreciate your posts and am not censuring you, I merely wanted to point out a few things. Please keep up the fight and the good work you do……The force is with you :)

  9. Fortunately my husband is willing to do most of the mall stuff for me and I’m able to tolerate the grocery store without the mask. I hate the mask. I feel so alien and cut off from everyone when I’m forced to wear it. I try to wear it as little as possible and hide it after I take it off. I know this is bad because there are times when I could have protected myself from a reaction and I did not because I hate the mask so much. But at this point I think I hate the stares and comments even more.

  10. GOOD INFORMATION– I REBLOGED THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!

  11. Thank you Miche. I am smiling from behind my mask. Can you see my smile? Of course not! Does the smile show in my eyes or any facial expression that isn’t covered by my mask? Probably not. This is one of the things that make me crazy about the mask. I smile and you can’t see it.

    I have had children at a store ask their mom, “Why is that lady wearing a mask?”. I have had children at my granddaughter’s preschool ask if I am a doctor. I usually just ask them if certain things make them sneeze. They usually reply yes. I tell them that everything makes me sneeze and that is why I wear the mask. It seems to satisfy them.

    I learned a long time ago that if I was going to get out in the world long enough to pick up something at the grocery store and my dear sweet husband wasn’t available to go, I had to get used to being in public with my mask.

    I applaud you for this post.

  12. Thank you Misha, I have taken some notes, as you put forward the feelings and info so clearly and well. I need your comments, to add to some of my own so as to educate, and try to move forward in my life.
    I have been laughed at and made fun of also by early teen boys, and sniggered at by girls all done up with tizzy make-ups and stinky respiratory products emanating from them. Mask tightly on my poor hot face. Not able to be myself, or express humanness. To them I/ just this ‘thing’ that walks by as they stare. Yes we have to learn to harden up, but underneath we have empathy for others we see with any impediment, and we see the world through different eyes, we also see a world where there lurks too many bullies and uncertain people. that is the one’s who make jokey remarks about our mask and appearance. Perhaps one day we will all “meet you on a field” and we may all have masks on, or by the grace of our G-ds, we may actually be able to educate and break through making everyone understand how toxic and dangerous chemical fragrances are.

Trackbacks

  1. […] to my face. I immediately stopped being the freak I’ve succumbed into feeling like: a result of being teased, commented on and/or laughed at while shopping (another reason—although minuscule compared to an illness caused by chemicals—to avoid […]

  2. […] read Michellina’s post about the bullying and harassment she has endured wearing her mask in public. If you’re new […]

What are your thoughts on this?

Information, products and views presented by guest bloggers @The Labyrinth are not necessarily the same as those held by this blog's author, Michellina van Loder. Reviews are my own personal opinions (unless stated otherwise); and satire is used throughout personal posts. Any health topics discussed are not to be taken as medical advice. Seek out medical attention if needed and do your own research; however, you're welcome to use mine as a start.
Translate »