I have been enjoying a series of busy and productive days and I am amazed to find myself coherent enough to spend time writing between other tasks, often into the evenings. Maybe mental clarity is normal for you and you are thinking, “Yeah, so?” but for me, it is unheard of. I will take advantage of this momentary cognizance and fill you in on why you haven’t heard from me in so long.
It has been more than five months since my last published blog post. Five months! Note, I said, “published”. That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried; I am actually on my keyboard daily, often working diligently for several hours on one topic or another, yet accomplishing nothing.
I have a myriad of articles that I started and never finished, some of which are nearly done, yet I cannot seem to manage the final clean-up required to develop a draft into an article. There are expositions in the back office of my website, rambles in Google docs, blurbs I emailed to myself, and undoubtedly an outline or two created in Word that I filed somewhere and will likely never find again.
Yet, I have not even managed to share a simple update with you.
So what’s up with that? I will give you the short answer lest something happens and I end up with yet another document in a dormant file. The past five months have been a challenge, to say the least. For the most part, I have been fighting my way through a dense fog and trying to understand what has been going on in my brain and my body.
Brain fog is not new to me; it has been my norm for more years than I care to acknowledge and over the years I have considered several possible causes:
- As a teenager: Too many responsibilities, excessive alcohol, limited sleep
- As the mother of young children: parental fatigue
- As a homeschooling mom: Passive ADHD
- When life slowed down: autism
- More recently: early-onset dementia
Throughout the years, my blood pressure and sugar levels were normal and the fog remained regardless of my sleep patterns. I accepted the reality of my life and learned to live it to the best of my ability, choosing to occupy my time and earn money with as much flexibility as possible.
Coping and Compensating
Living daily with any sort of handicap often leads us to compensate for our weaknesses. For me, self-medicating with caffeine, chocolate, and even brain pills has been a lifelong habit. Eating whole foods and a plant-based diet seemed to help considerably when it was my main focus but as soon as my life became busy, I fell back into my old patterns, albeit I was cautious about reintroducing processed foods.
In addition to what I eat, persistent brain fog controls how I manage all other areas of my life. For example, I learned to complete the most important task of the day in the morning, knowing that otherwise, it was not likely to get done. I have a tendency to occupy the rest of my time with tasks that don’t require brainpower such as cleaning or gardening. Over time, I became increasingly obsessed with tidiness in hopes that the external organization would alleviate some of my internal turmoil.
I have been preoccupied for most of my life wondering what was wrong and trying to compensate for my weaknesses, all the while wishing that I could be rewarded for effort rather than results. Mental pandemonium is my normal.
As if that isn’t enough, I got sick. Brainsick.
Three Days of Illness
There was no explanation for why I spent the better part of three days in bed, feeling lethargic and unable to focus on even the smallest of tasks. I felt as if I had been poisoned and wondered if it could have been something I ate. It was all I could do to drag myself into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and later, to the bathroom. Did I need to do one of those smoothie cleanses that have been so popular lately?
What the heck happened?
The answer came several days later in the form of a podcast. A friend sent me some links to a series of talks and when I clicked on one to hear a motivational message, I accidentally ended up listening to a doctor talk about liver disease. Although I am not blaming liver disease for my ailments, the doctor made a very good point:
The things we are exposed to on the outside affect us on the inside.
After tossing this idea around in my head for a few hours, I knew without a doubt what the source of my problem was! A few days earlier, I had been sprayed by an automatic air freshener as I entered a building to work. Without a change of clothes available, I wore the scent around all day. On the following day, I gave my freshly showered and heavily scented hubby a ride to pick up his newly repaired vehicle and then I worked in a facility that had used a freshly laundered tablecloth to cover a table that sat just outside my cleaning closet.
That’s when I noticed I wasn’t feeling quite right.
Figuring Things Out
After my three-day battle, and the realization that fragrances were the likely cause of my discomfort, I became very attuned to my body’s responses in various situations and I began “testing” my theory. Consequently, I started making connections between what was I was exposed to in my environment and how my body and brain were functioning.
I quickly realized that the sudden onset of fatigue I had been feeling at work was tied to air fresheners. Additionally, I became aware that my brain fog was more prevalent when I spent time with certain people or in specific places, likely due to personal care products or other fragranced items. Furthermore, my bouts of weepiness came after my husband wore a specific aftershave.
After a few weeks of observing these patterns, my doubts were gone and I knew I had a rather hard-to-believe sort of problem:
Exposure to fragrances, such as those in air-fresheners and laundry products have an unmistakable effect on my brain function.
Sadly, days like I describe here had become all too common:
A Day in the Life of a Cleaning Lady
One day recently, I was cleaning at one of my job sites and things were going very smoothly. My downstairs tasks had been completed and I had begun to tackle the upstairs when I came across a couple of items that needed to be recycled. Although I rarely use the back stairs, they lead to the door closest to my car so I hobbled down, dropped the items by the door, and step-stop-step-stopped my way back up.
By the time I got back to where I had left off, my brain was totally whacked out. Within minutes, I had cleaning tools in four different rooms and I was wandering around in circles searching for whatchamacallits while murmuring to myself I’m only tidying a couple of gently used classrooms. How hard can this be? Several minutes of confusion passed before I recognized this feeling as a reaction to some unknown chemical. A twenty-minute sprucing up session morphed into a grueling hour of attempting to put things in order while feeling sleepy and disoriented.
What could possibly have hit me?
Oh, yes! Oh, no! At the bottom of the enclosed stairway, there is a large plastic tub used for collecting food items and toiletries for a local organization that helps people in need. Someone had donated several jugs of laundry soap which sat in plastic grocery bags on the floor next to the bin. I walked past them, twice. That’s all it took to make me feel disoriented and it happened while I was wearing an allergy filtration mask that didn’t quite fit snuggly enough.
Awareness of the physical effects fragrances have on my body is helping to create a new and better self and I am making great strides. A new allergy mask with a chemical filter helps me to get through work safely and more efficiently. The mask also protects me from incidental exposures when I go for walks but still allows me to enjoy the fragrances of nature that I love so much.
Things that have challenged me in the past, like creating a shopping list and sticking to it or preparing meals, have become much easier to manage. I no longer have to arrange the tasks of my day according to the level of brainpower required. I am spending less time bumbling around at work and more time pecking away at my keyboard.
Much of my time recently has been devoted to researching Multiple Chemical Sensitivities and I am learning some pretty scary stuff about chemicals. Friends and strangers have approached me and described similar experiences, causing me to realize that chemical sensitivity is becoming an epidemic. The effects of chemicals on our children, including the unborn, is appalling!
Click here to read my review of the Base Camp Mask that enables me to function in a toxic environment.
There is so much more that I can say but already this “quick update” has been in the works for close to a week. Every time I look it over, I see a way to improve it and have to refrain from adding “just one more thing”. It has become apparent that brain fog is not my only issue when it comes to writing: I lack revising skills. I am thinking about changing the name of my blog to Theresa, Unedited.
For now, I am going to stop trying to perfect this update; it will never be good enough for the perfectionist in me and I have so much more to say.
My next update will be an article that is already in progress with the help of a newly adopted writing coach, so stay tuned for Multiple Chemical Sensitivities: Disability or Imagination?
To my online friends who have encouraged me and supported me throughout this ordeal:
I would love to hear about your experiences with reactions to chemicals and I’m sure your comments will be appreciated by my readers. It helps all of us to know that we are not alone.