Had I known then what I know now, the depth and severity of the multiple chemical sensitivities/environmental illness that I developed would have been far less. I fit a common profile: female – with Chronic Fatigue, some thyroid inconsistencies, upper airway symptoms and a past history of adverse drug reactions. I had no significant discernible cause of my symptoms, and I lacked in the knowledge and resources for the help that I needed.
In 1992, Dr. William Rea documented that 13% of his patients suffering from environmental illness became ill after an acute chemical exposure, 24% of his patients could trace the onset of their illness to an overwhelming massive trauma, childbirth or surgery, and 60% percent of his patients had no significant discernible cause of illness. It is commonly estimated that 12 – 16% of the population reports being sensitive to chemicals with approximately 4 % of these being affected daily by exposure to chemicals.
Since his study, we have seen an increase in Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome subsequent to the Gulf War and the attack in 2001 on the World Trade Center. We have also seen an exponential proliferation of new petrochemical based chemicals and fragrances.
Acute and Chronic Exposure
One might say that the “lucky ones” are those experiencing an acute exposure. Acute exposures are noticeable: a shocking and severe wake up call, a change from one discernable state to another. This shock allows for a cry for help from within, as well as for recognition from others, that something is different, wrong, and deserving of attention. If the affected individual has previously been in good health and gets targeted proper treatment, there is great hope for recovery.
Many chemically sensitive people are not so fortunate. The changes in my body and health were gradual and difficult to distinguish. Without a clear change in my previous state of health, I did what many chemically sensitive individuals do – I adapted gradually to an increasingly restricted lifestyle. Since my early adolescence, I struggled with hormonal discomfort and irritable bowel syndrome. Prior to this I had several incidents of major trauma – I was run over by a car at age 6 which weakened my digestive system, and I experienced significant birth trauma which left me with an immature nervous system. In my early 20’s my health took a downward turn following an anesthesia reaction after surgery for a miscarriage. This final event, layered on top of the others, contributed to my beginning to notice the fragrances in the grocery store laundry aisles. I already had some food intolerances and one obvious allergy – cats.
Like many chemically sensitive individuals, my vulnerability to chemical injury was a combination of sensitivities resulting from genetic, developmental, trauma, nutritional, and environmental factors. Over time, I became increasingly sensitive to such common substances as perfumes and other fragranced products, fresh paint, tobacco and wood smoke, new carpets, formaldehyde, molds, and pesticides. My attempts to get help for my symptoms were unproductive. Most physicians didn’t have training, belief, or knowledge of environmentally based factors contributing to illness. Misdiagnosis was and continues to be commonplace. Depression, anxiety and other stress responses often accompany the physical issues. These stem from the chemical injury(ies), malnutrition, sleep disorders, isolation and multiple losses that accompany and result from the illness process. All of this was true for me.
Losses and Healing
I also suffered the losses that most people with severe environmental illness offer. I lost my job and my income, my standard of living and ultimately my home. I lost my sense of identity, certain significant relationships, and my ability to move freely in the world. I lost my sense of agency and autonomy, my ability to participate in social and cultural events, my hobbies and my pet.
The losses were tremendous, and devastating. It still hurts today, 20 years later, when I look back at the transitions I went through. Yet there were also important gifts from this process. I finally have been able to truly heal. I spent years spinning my wheels going downhill, afraid, misdiagnosed, and lacking information. With the proper diagnosis and tools, I was able to start rebuilding myself from the ground up on every level. Unparalleled spiritual and emotional healing has resulted from entering this completely uncharted territory. This healing has extended into my family and other relationships. I have found a new purpose in my life. I was always an environmental activist, and care deeply about the planet and people’s health. Now I have significant tools to share that help people become empowered.
Many of my chemically “sensible” friends credit me for the increased level of health they and their families experience through the information that I bring. Through my awareness of the impact of chemicals on health and the environment, I am able to make a difference in people’s lives, their indoor air quality, in the environment around me, and in raising awareness about these pollutants that also contribute to climate change. I would not trade the growth and learning that I have acquired over these years as difficult as it has been and continues to be.
About Susi: Susi Lippuner is a 59 year old woman who has transitioned from “normal” to being severely disabled with Environmental Sensitivities, and is now mindfully moving towards wellness.
- A compendium of recent articles about MCS: Special Issue on Ecopsychology and Environmental Sensitivities: Chemical, Electrical, and Beyond http://online.liebertpub.com/toc/eco/9/2
- Resource Site: http://www.mcsresearch.net/index.htm
- Planet Thrive: a networking and resource site about chronic illness http://planetthrive.com/
- Managing Illness Related Anxiety and Depression: http://limbicretraining.com/
- Two Well Written Patient Stories, one who recovered and one who didn’t: Intentional Healing, Sherwin, Jennie, Changemakers Books, 2012; and Allergic to Life, Treat, Kathryn, AuthorHouse LLC, 2013