Over the years I've become increasingly more sensitive to chemicals, fragrances, and any kind of scented products, be they cat litter, candles, or cosmetics. If a product has a petroleum base and a name that is clearly made up--such as Ocean Breeze or Home Made Apple Pie--I need to stay as far away from it as possible. I first discovered this over twenty years ago when a woman walked into the office where I worked and offered to sell me knock-off versions of expensive perfumes and proceeded to spritz them all over the place. She left without a sale as I instantly developed a massive headache that lasted the rest of the afternoon.
My list of substances to avoid grew from there. Wood smoke, treated lumber, paraffin candles, any kind of scented candles or room deodorizers, home cleaning products, paints and stains, body lotions, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, and eventually, even the real brands of premium perfume. I now can't go to the mall, pet store, electronics store, furniture store, home improvement store or beauty shop without taking a Benadryl. I need to stay out of the cleaning products, pet supplies, paint, tire, shoe, furniture, and home accents aisles in discount and department stores.
As for seasonal items like the Christmas aisle with its scented pine cones and stuff? Forget it. Neither can I visit used book stores anymore, without succumbing to the smell of mold and must.
Recently, we uncovered water damage to a house we bought three months ago and have yet to move into. My husband wants to strip the wallpaper, re-paint and re-carpet the house, then air it out before I move in. The last house I moved into eight years ago was new. I moved in early February and by mid-April was so sick I collapsed. It took another two months to recover, once I discovered problem: off gasses from the building materials such as my carpet, vinyl, and laminate flooring (didn't help that this was winter and my floors are heated), paint, kitchen counters and cabinetry. I thought I was just getting older. I did a lot of the move myself, moving one mile down the road from my previous house, one carload at a time. Eventually I was sleeping all the time, but unable to get any rest. My mind became so foggy I couldn't get much of anything right. I recall my boss asking, "Liana, what is wrong with you?"
A recovering perfectionist, I rarely made mistakes, and suddenly I was making them all the time. I was sitting at my desk, staring dumbly at no doubt my latest mistake on the computer screen, and I remember telling her, speaking very slowly because it was hard to form the words in my mind, "I...don't...know...all I want...to do...is sleep." I called the builder to ask if there could be a reason I was so tired and fuzzy-minded all the time, and he suggested it was because I had no curtains and was getting too much light in the house. Turned out all I needed to do was open the windows. My super energy efficient house was trapping all these off-gasses inside with me, and I was breathing them over and over and over again. Within a week the house was cleared out, and I was on the road to recovery.
But yesterday I took a trip down memory lane. Due to the water damage in our new home, my husband and I had to go door shopping. We also had an appointment to speak with a kitchen designer for a remodeling project. To price doors, we stopped at another builders supply store on the way. The salesman was wearing such strong cologne I had to stand at least 15 feet away from him while he spoke with my husband. As we left, I told my husband I suddenly had the urge to eat anything and everything in sight, which is something that happens when I get hormonal prior to my period. The thing was, we had just eaten breakfast before leaving for the builders supply store, so I knew I wasn't hungry.
It was a combination of the man's cologne and the smell of new building materials making me feel like I was starving.
We got to the second builders supply store, where we had the appointment. Halfway through, my husband said, "Your face and neck are turning bright red." The store was filled with carpet and flooring samples, tiles, and kitchen and bathroom cabinetry. My husband left to get me a diet soda, which for some reason I have yet to discern, always cuts my reaction to various substances. When he returned, I took a Benadryl, which also helped to ease my symptoms somewhat. But by the time we had been in the store an hour and a half, even with taking the Benadryl and drinking the diet soda--it has to be diet for this to work for me--my fingers started swelling and tingling. By the time we left, my wrists were tingling. It usually moves up my arm and into my shoulders if I don't take a Benadryl and/or remove myself from the situation. But once it starts tingling, I know it will get painful very soon, as my insides will swell up and press on the meridian nerves in my arms. I had this constantly when I was pregnant, so much so that nightly I would sit in my rocking chair with my big belly and cry from the sheer pain of it.
(Pop quiz. What happens when you are pregnant? You are an estrogen factory.)
So we wrapped up that appointment and headed for the paint store, to get sample cards of the color we had chosen for the kitchen. I was not in the store three minutes before I noticed I was firmly massaging my arms, something I do when my body gets stressed from chemical exposure and starts to hurt. I didn't smell a thing, but then I don't need to smell anything before my body reacts. I discovered this one night when leading a faith sharing group at a friend's house. She knew I couldn't be around burning candles, but the moment I walked into her house, the words "Something's wrong" blurted out of my mouth. No one heard me, and I took my regular seat on the floor in front of the couch, as due to back problems I cannot sit on soft furniture. I saw no candles in the room, but as the meeting progressed, my head started to spin and pound and first my hands, then arms, then whole body began to ache until the pain felt like it was deep in my bones and all I wanted to do was curl up in a fetal position and cry.
If I hadn't been leading the meeting, I would have left. Finally, I asked my hostess, "Are you sure you didn't burn any candles in here before we came tonight?" and she swore she hadn't. I said, "Well something's wrong with me and I can't figure it out." Did you do any special cleaning for the meeting? "No," she said, "all I did was spray the couch with Febreeze."
The same couch I had been sitting on the floor leaning up against all night.
My intuition knew something was wrong the moment I entered the room. My mouth even blurted it out. I didn't smell a thing, but my body reacted instantly and painfully. To this day I cannot be anywhere near Febreeze. I wince just watching the commercials, people spraying it all over their homes, laundry, and cars.
But back to our shopping trip. After the kitchen design appointment, my husband stopped at two more building materials stores to check prices. I did not go inside. I was feeling a bit battered by then. After he came out of the first store, instead of turning the car around and leaving, he made a circle by driving thorough the warehouse, where contractors pick up loads of lumber. I groaned inside as the fan system in our air conditioned car pulled in the scent of all that treated lumber. After we visited the second store, and then the paint store, I announced, "We're going to get something to eat. Right now." We went to a sub shop, and I wolfed that baby down so fast you would think I hadn't eaten in three days. Thank God it wasn't our first date or my husband would have wondered about this woman who eats like a Doberman.
As soon as I finished my sub, my husband says..."There she is. My wife is back again." During the appointment and shopping stops, I had become listless and withdrawn, my energy sapped. I could barely focus on the choices they wanted me to make. I just wanted to get out of there. I had chosen that store because the woman and I had worked together before twice. We hadn't seen each other in nine years though, and since then, I'd entered perimenopause. She was tall and thin and stylishly dressed, while I was feeling fat and puffy, dim-witted and inadequate. Afterward, I determined (in my building-materials-chemical buzzed mind) that I was a failure in life and wouldn't return to that store ever again because the differences between us threw into stark relief her success and my failures.
Hello? I'm now descending into a full-blown case of PMDD. My insecurities are rising, and my mind is starting to go irrational. By now every word my husband speaks is starting to irritate me, so I withdraw even further into myself and look out the window and keep my mouth shut, because I know if I open it, I will explode with anger and resentment and he will get this shell shocked look on his face.
We get home, and all I want to do is go to my computer, where behind the veil of the internet, I can answer questions about PMDD and help people to understand the disorder and feel like I am making a difference in someone's life. I need this feeling in this moment to feel any sense of self-worth.
This is how badly these building materials chemicals have distorted my thinking processes.
Instead, I ask my husband if he wants to go for a walk. Maybe the fresh air will clear my head and make me feel better, because by now I ache all over and just want to go to bed and curl up under the covers and cry.
Instead, we pass a few lawns freshly treated with pesticide, and I come home feeling worse than ever.
The evening is a loss. The only option for me is to take another Benadryl and go to bed.
Where it turns out I cannot sleep, my mind is so agitated and upset. I can't stop thinking about how insecure and inadequate I felt during my kitchen design appointment. How overwhelmed I was by the whole process. That is not me. I have designed and built two houses and remodeled two others. I can do this stuff in my sleep. But inundated by the scent of building materials, I lost my self-confidence and sense of self-worth, and in essence brought on an episode of PMDD.
If I hadn't turned red and my husband hadn't noticed it, I would never have known what happened.
If this had happened years ago (and maybe it did, I've simply forgotten), I would never have known what happened. Instead, I would have spent a few hours looking at building materials, chosen the cabinets, tile, flooring and paint for what promises to be a beautiful kitchen, and come home feeling overwhelmed, worthless, insecure, sad, angry, frustrated, combative, weepy, and ravenous, and never understood why. That, in turn would have made me wonder if I was crazy. Here I am, getting everything I want, and yet all I want to do is snap my husband's head off. I want to lash out at him so badly I hurt from containing all my rage inside.
Or so I think. In reality, my body is being chemically disrupted by what are called xenoestrogens, and they are playing havoc with my hormones, and that is f*****g with my brain.
So the next time you're out shopping and come home feeling any of the above, or visit a friend's house who uses petroleum-based cleaning products, candles and/or air fresheners and come home feeling weird and moody--know that it is not you. It is the chemicals in the air around you messing with your mood and mind. They may also be making you feel physically miserable, which brings on that endless loop of negative thoughts we're all so familiar with, which in turn makes us feel sad and/or angry.
Look around you. Look in your home. Do you use these sorts of petroleum-based products? Are you unknowingly making yourself sick? Some women report that they feel like they are in the PMDD zone all of the time. Sometimes this is due to perimenopause, but it could also be due to what you touch and breathe in all day. Do you work in an auto parts store? A furniture store where most of the items are made of particleboard? At the mall? A lumber yard? A kitchen and bath store? An electronics store? Do you clean houses for a living? Are you a flight attendant? Did you just move your office into a new building or remodel your home? Are you a cashier and handle thermal paper receipts all day?
There are any number of options for how and where you can be exposed to these xenoestrogens that wreak havoc on your hormones. Awareness is the key.
But most of all, when you start acting all funky and not like yourself at all...look around you for a possible reason. Did you just buy tires and sit in the waiting room while they were put on? THINK about this. Think about where you go and what you do.
I bet that suddenly a few things will start to make a lot more sense.