Moving to the Desert: Marian’s Quest

The following account appears in Chapter Two, “The Elusive Search for a Place to Live,” of my book titled Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity. In the near future I will post some blogs exploring the wisdom of relocation to the desert Southwest, which many chemically sensitive people are often advised to do.


A woman named Marian had developed such serious health problems related to her chemical sensitivity that she decided to move to the middle of the desert in southwestern New Mexico. For the first year or two she was there, her husband had to continue working elsewhere, although he eventually retired and joined her in the middle of the desert. In her story that she sent me in 1998, she described in poignant and haunting terms how difficult it was to leave her old life and house behind and the challenges she faced in moving to an isolated desert home. Unfortunately, she died in 2003.

I was very ill. We took the recommendation to avoid toxic chemicals to heart. We sold our comfortable bed, the couch I had selected with so much care, the chairs that complemented it. . . . The recliners we had relaxed in for years were given away.  Sewing, knitting, crochet projects were thrown out half finished. Much of our clothing went with them. The carpets were torn up, the gas pipes disconnected. Books, housewares, personal belongings, little things of no value and little things of great value, important parts of our lives were discarded with abandon in our zeal to clean up our house and improve our health.

An attractive and comfortable house in a pleasant setting is very important to me. I cannot easily shut out my surroundings. I get nourishment and comfort from what is around me. My body is gradually recovering as the toxic level that surrounds it has decreased, but the emotional cost of making the changes was enormous. The psychological effect of seeing the house I had so carefully furnished and decorated and made into a comfortable house turned into a bare and ugly barn was devastating, especially at a time when I was physically very, very debilitated and much in need of a comfortable and supportive environment.

.   .   .   .   .

I get lonely living by myself in the middle of the desert, so one day on a whim I tucked some snapshots around the light switch over my desk: My husband having breakfast outdoors wearing the slouchy hat I made for him, a bunch of wildflowers on the table in front of him. My older son, smiling at the camera as he squats beside a huge agave plant.  My younger son, a tiny figure perched on top of an enormous rock, spreading his arms wide to soak up the warmth and beauty of the world. My daughter in a moment of attentive repose, looking up to watch her children at play. 

Some days I talk to myself. I could talk to my husband, but he is presently living and working more than 200 miles away. I could visit our neighbors, but their home is full of chemicals. I could call a friend on the phone, but the phone is plastic. I could go hiking with some of the Mountain Club members, but they all use scented products. I could get together with a friend who also has chemical sensitivities, but the closest one is sixty miles away and that is a long drive in a smelly car on a smelly highway. I could talk to my dog and two cats (and sometimes do), but they don’t answer, at least, not in words.  But there are times when it gets too lonely if I don’t hear the sound of a live human voice, so some days I talk to myself.

I try not to dwell on how seldom I see my family, how seldom I get to hug them, to share a meal with them, to enjoy the feel of their company. I try not to notice how my grandchildren are growing up without my getting to know them very well, or their getting to know me and my husband very well. I try not to realize the great physical distance and separation my chemical sensitivities have put between me and my family. I try very hard not to think of these things, for there is a great empty, aching void inside me when I do.

One of the strongest motivating forces in helping me endure my present life of isolating avoidance is the hope, the dream, the expectation that some day my children and grandchildren and my husband and I can move more freely between our two worlds.