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When You See This Picture of Me Wearing My Medical Mask

If you were to see me out at the grocery store, or at the bank or the library, this is what I would look like. I have to wear this mask if I go out into public because I have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), and the chemicals and fragrances that everyone else takes for granted threaten my health.

What you might not know, though, is that the mask really doesn’t help that much. See, even though the mask is three layers, scent still gets through. And most fragrances and chemicals (insecticides, cleaners, exhaust fumes) are petroleum based, so that means that they stick to everything – including my mask. So the very thing that should be protecting me, after a while, becomes the thing that holds the scent near my nose and mouth. Since the scent and chemical molecules are “sticky,” they also attach to my clothes, hair, skin and even get into my eyes. All that to say, the mask does help cut the worst of it down, but it doesn’t keep me safe.

woman wearing white mask.

You also might not know that it can be really hard to breathe in that mask. I have found that I cannot walk and talk with it on. It just takes too much oxygen to do both. Sometimes even just being able to talk is too much and I have to decide between taking the mask off and not talking.

My natural reaction to smelling strong perfumes is to breathe as little as possible, taking shallow breaths, and I have had to learn how to fight that instinct of self-preservation at times to be able to talk.

It is also rather hot in the mask, and humid too. So there are times when I get home and take the mask off and it is damp from my sweat and breath, which makes it even more difficult to breathe.

You can’t see a good portion of my face, so you may not be able to tell what my expression is either. I try to smile so that when you see my eyes, you are not quite as startled. I guess I want to put on my “brave face” when I am out. But inside I am feeling heartbreak at the looks that people give me, and fear because I am never quite sure just how exposed I am going to get and how sick it will make me. I also feel anger and frustration that this is my life now, and that going out into public puts my health so at risk. It shouldn’t be this way.

In a way, I am also kind of glad for the mask. It tends to keep people from getting too close to me, whether from fear of some kind of contagion, or kindness because most people think that I have immune issues. It also is a visible sign of my “invisible illness” and so, in an odd sort of way, it gives some credence to my ailment.

It can also sometimes be a source of amusement to me, like the time a little girl asked her mommy if I was going to give her a shot. Or it can cause feelings of gratitude when I hear a parent explain compassionately to a child about why they think I need to wear it – and I applaud all the parents that are open with their children’s questions rather than feeling embarrassed.

In truth, though you probably won’t see me out at the grocery store or at the bank or the library, I don’t go outside of my home much any longer. It is just too dangerous for me. I haven’t been grocery shopping in almost two years now. In the last year I have left my apartment around 15 times. When you look at this picture, you should know that it was taken in my home, where I feel trapped most of the time. You should know that I wish it weren’t this way, and that I desperately want to connect with the world again.

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Thinkstock Image By: wabeno