Moises’s story again comes from my 1999 book, Casualties of Progress: Personal Histories from the Chemically Sensitive. It is interesting to compare how two people’s reaction to the same toxic chemical can differ significantly. Moises and Tomasita worked for a wealthy woman named Ruth who owned a pair of condos located just off Canyon Road in Santa Fe, which is a charming street lined with old adobe houses and art galleries and studios.
Ruth herself had developed MCS when she lived with her oilman husband very close to some oil fields in Texas, where she was sickened by the fumes from the gas flares that burned whenever surplus oil was produced. She moved to Santa Fe because she loved art and because she thought the air would be cleaner there. Her knowledge of MCS enabled her to help Moises and Tomasita find a physician who could understand what was happening to them.
Ruth invited me to use her guest condo that is key to this story while I was in Santa Fe to film various people for my first documentary about MCS. I was struck by the fact that the laundry room of that condo had way too many cans of pesticide sitting on the shelves.
When I was growing up, I had never heard of multiple chemical sensitivity, but as a teenager, I did have problems tolerating strong perfumes. Mentholatum bothered me a lot—my grandmother often used that—and I just did not tolerate rubbing alcohol. Lots of times we used gasoline as a solvent to clean parts, and when I did that I would get a headache or develop a rash and itch. It just didn’t set very well with me, so I tried to stay away from gasoline.
In 1993 I was employed as a caretaker. My employer had two condominiums; one was a guest house for family or friends when they came to visit. One day I went over to the guest house to pull the shower curtains so the housekeepers could come in and start laundering the curtains and cleaning up. I went into a bathroom off the master bedroom and reached up and started undoing the shower curtain. Suddenly I had the feeling of being gassed, and I felt like something was encompassing me. I got very shaky, almost frantic. My head was spinning, and I had this feeling of anxiety.
I went back next door to tell my employer. By that time I was burning from head to toe and was nauseated. I was salivating and just frantic, almost hysterical, not knowing what was going on. My employer had me sit down and gave me some water, but the salivation kept up and I became very irritable. I had never reacted to anything like that, and I didn’t know what I was exposed to. And along with the other symptoms, I felt like I had just taken a chug of perfume or something like that because my mouth tasted like perfume. I was salivating, I was nauseated, and my heart was racing, but that was probably the most awful part of it—I just tasted the perfume in my mouth. It was so intense it was frightening.
My employer dismissed me for the day, and I went on home. I live out of town, and I had to stop twice on the way home because I was sick to my stomach. I was disoriented and turned into the first entrance to the area where I live, not the second one, which was my usual route. I was ready to crawl out of my skin and I still had the taste of perfume in my mouth. I was irritable, ready to kill. I just could have slapped anybody that would have got in my way for anything. The salivation, nausea, the perfume taste were just horrible.
The next day I felt like I’d been hit by a train. My body just ached everywhere, and I couldn’t move. My brain was still in a cloud, wanting to work but not really catching the gears and doing what it’s supposed to. My short-term memory was just lost. For the next few days I was just a zombie. I would shower frequently because of the burning-type itch on my skin. That was the only thing that would sooth it and give me some relief.
Then a depression set in. I had such a horrible depression for months to come after that. We had company from out of town to visit, and I was just not social at all. I stayed in my room all the time they were here. The rest of the family entertained them and took them out and around. It was just a real bad depression; I was frightened, paranoid. I’ve never experienced depression like I had after the exposure at the condominium, since or before or now. In the late sixties I was in Vietnam as an infantryman in the Marine Corps and was in combat quite a bit. We used tear gas launchers, big packs we carried on our backs that had numerous little rockets in them. They generated tremendous heat when we fired them. But the experience I had with the exposure in the condo that day affected me more than being in that type of situation in Vietnam.
At least I feel that I rebounded from the exposure better than my sister Tomasita did. Prior to her exposure, she wore lipstick and perfumes and used cleaning products. She probably used insecticides on her gardens and in her home. Now she’s just way more affected long-term than I have been. I can see when she’s reacting. She’s much better, but she’s still has some very, very difficult times. Cigarette smoke bothers her tremendously, and she can’t tolerate certain buildings, while I can to a certain degree. I’ll go into a building and know something is getting me, but I’ll do my business and get out. With Tomasita, a small exposure like that sets her back. For years Tomasita worked as an EMT for the emergency medical services. She was around all kinds of people, chemicals, hospitals, clinics, that sort of thing. She also did domestic housework for many people here in town for years. She was able to handle cleaning products, cats, dogs, and peoples’ smoke and that sort of thing. But after this exposure in the condo, she just can’t tolerate those things anymore.
Throughout my experience with this exposure, I’ve had a great education, a forced education. I wish traditional medicine would recognize chemical sensitivity in some way and not turn their backs on you, saying it’s psychological, that it can’t happen, because I’ve seen it happen in this city and state. I’ve seen it happen to people from all over the country–children, adults, old people, poor people, rich people–and they’re all in the same boat. I just wish that traditional medicine would take a closer look at it and start accepting it as being there. It’s happening. There’s a lot of people becoming sensitive or are and don’t recognize it yet.