My Thoughts on Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS)

Sitting on the bus today, it came to my attention that the neighbouring fellow was pressed up against my side in quite an intimate way. I don’t mean sexually, I mean intimately, so don’t go perverting things now! 

By “intimate”, I just mean the warm, solid comfort of this other human being was perfectly acceptable and quite soothing in its own way, even though I didn’t know this guy from Jack . . .

When I’d originally sat down on this end seat, the fellow’s butt was taking up some of my own area. I didn’t exactly shove him over, but I did squish right in next to him because he wasn’t super heavyset or obese, so he didn’t need to occupy two spots; and I really didn’t want to stand up for the entire ride. He shifted away to give me space, then gradually settled back into me after several moments.

It was only once we were on our way that I came to the sudden realization that here I was, nestled right into the unknown body of a complete stranger. Being a person who has worked in various capacities as a touch healer and bodyworker, I found myself connecting with the stranger’s energetic vibration and I sent love and acceptance to him, via the side of my body that was now enmeshed with his. 

Interestingly, as I reflect now, this sensation was not unlike being next to a child or a loved one. It was human energy; there was something very familiar, comforting and intimate about it.

Nearly halfway through the bus journey downtown, I felt his body palpably shift away again, as though his mind had just registered how comfortably settled into one another we were, and thus made the appropriate correction. However, it wasn’t too long before he relaxed into me again.

All of this brought me to reflect upon how many kajillions of people ride buses, trains and subways in vast metropolises far from here, jammed next to each other like sardines in a tin can. Billions of these folks do not live in privileged North America, where we have plenty of space. Too much space.

We have so much space that, often, we’re not even forced to think about touching someone else’s body, even on public transit. We can get our own seat, several yards away from anyone else’s foreign flesh.

Among other curiosities, this seemingly infinite amount of space owned by individuals in North America has resulted in people developing the belief that they don’t have to touch another human if they don’t want to. In fact, they shouldn’t even have to smell another human, if they don’t want to. They shouldn’t have to smell any of the chemicals, substances, residuals, disinfectants, body fluids or odorous waves produced by anything remotely human or human-made.

Yes . . . I’m talking about Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) – an idiopathic, psychosomatic condition wherein certain people develop a severe allergic reaction to the presence of either synthetic or organic compounds in their midst. In other words, they become allergic to the presence of other people.

This condition is closely related to that of BFE (Big Fat Ego) Syndrome, another affliction predominantly found in Canada and the US, where folks have untold amounts of space, money to spend, and time to think about, react, and think about how they react to everything and everyone around them.

Notably, neither MCS or BFE Syndrome are found in other parts of the world, for instance in some areas of China, where small children can end up working for the duration of their short lifetimes sorting through the toxic metals in garbage dumps; or in India, where children wear scarves over their mouths on the way to school to filter out the thick smog. 

No – in those countries, where folks are all but surviving and barely, somehow the prevalence of both BFE Syndrome and MCS is drastically reduced, perhaps overshadowed by the sheer will to live.

Only in North America, where every human being possesses their own three square metre zone to command – along with the cleanest air on the planet – do we have the dignified luxury of complaining that someone in the room has put on too much patchouli before coming to the party.

I mean, seriously, people. Could we get our heads stuck a little farther up our own butts?

There are numerous issues I have with MCS and other conditions associated with BFE Syndrome. I’m not saying it’s a fake thing; on the contrary, actually, and that’s my first problem. It’s a very real thing to those who suffer from it. Their eyes water, their noses run; they get headaches, migraines, chronic fatigue, hives, pruritis, you name it.

Every one of these symptoms is very real to a victim of MCS. So real that the sufferer focuses on these everywhere they go; they imbibe their genuine suffering like it’s an addictive drug. They wear it like a cloak. It becomes their whole identity and persona. You can’t get through a five-minute introduction without hearing about how problematic it is for them to be in the room with you, just because you rolled on some deodorant that morning to save the rest of the world from your sour armpits. 

And of course it bothers these folks, since they focus on it so much. But they will never look at their own thinking patterns as one of the main reasons for their suffering. I, too, hate the scent of eau de toilette and any other synthetic perfumes; if I think about that too much, I honestly do start to get a terrible headache when I’m around it. If I dwelled upon said headache, I would invariably develop a migraine. So, I take responsibility for my own thoughts and direct them elsewhere when I’m in the presence of synthetic perfumes. I do not buy products containing them, and I coach myself to remain resilient around those who wear them.

Which brings me to another issue I have with MCS – how it becomes mine, and everyone else’s, and the whole world’s problem. It’s up to everyone else to honour and respect the sufferer’s needs; so now, they and their condition have become the centre of everyone else’s existence, instead of just their own. 

“Don’t forget to buy the scent-free deodorant, toothpaste, laundry detergent, bathtub cleaner, hair gel, shampoo and conditioner, honey – we’re going to Kenny’s for dinner and we can’t smell like anything!”

Scent-free!? What in the bollocks does that even mean? Notwithstanding the fact that I dab on a little bit of pure lavender oil to quell my social anxiety (what about my needs?) – even so, I have a scent. I smell like the living, breathing, sweating, farting, garlic-eating, coconut-oil-slathering, bathing, washing, sleeping, freakin’ human being that I am. You can’t ask me to be scent-free in order to maintain your own sense of being honoured and respected. That’s like a mini-tyranny.

And that’s my final point about MCS. I believe it would be curable with cognitive awareness training and a dedication to other-centredness. Giving the condition a formal name merely cloaks an epidemic of egotistical self-centredness as a verified illness that deserves the same concern as Ebola. Sufferers of MCS would have the entire community ministering to their self-induced needs, in order to prove that we are nice, fair people who honour the comfort of others.

However, the truth is that these tyrannical individuals want to control everything and everyone around them, right down to the most inherent, basic bodily sense – that of smell. In reality, they are supremely fussy individuals who have taken their own preferences to the level of social repression. 

Instead of addressing their own self-obsessed thought patterns, practicing a little detachment, and honouring everyone else’s right to bear a scent, they adopt a dictatorial attitude toward all who come into their presence. If we don’t honour their need not to smell us, then we’re simply not welcome in their midst. This is a way of utterly refusing true intimacy and true community, both of which are fruits of true diversity. 

I believe the condition of MCS is, in essence, a fundamental rejection of what is different, what is outside, what is other – particularly because scent is the first, most acute indicator of otherness.

As I sat next to my snuggly, random neighbour on the bus today, thinking about BFE Syndrome and its derivative, MCS, it made me sad for those folks who are so affronted by the basic elements of humanity that they aren’t willing or able to tolerate the mere presence of strangers, whom they cannot control.

What is the social world coming to, when the individual’s right to be neurotic overrides the community’s right and imperative to be connected – on transit, in shops, in workshops, markets, classes, events or medical settings?

Reacting to scent, and clinging to such reactive thoughts, is an insidious yet convincing method of attempting to gain control over other people in their otherness. It’s sneaky because it demands that the vast majority of others “honour” the reaction as completely legitimate, or be labelled as insensitive. 

Frankly, I think it stinks.

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