The Sensitivity Spiral
This is probably one of the toughest posts to write. Why? Because it’s my story—the vulnerabilities I don’t share, the trials I don’t trumpet and the moments I almost lost myself. It has a hopeful conclusion, so open your heart and let me tell you about the sensitivity spiral.
When I was a little girl, I couldn’t walk through the detergent aisle in the grocery store without itching, sneezing and feeling suffocated. And every summer as an adolescent, I avoided cut grass like it was cut glass. Then, feeling bold and invincible (a.k.a. a teenager), I took a job baling hay on a friend’s farm. I wanted to prove I was as capable as any boy, was resilient and, well, just earn some cash for movies. I layered up in a flannel shirt, gloves and jeans, praying that the hay wouldn’t actually touch my skin. A few strands got in and made my arm look like it was scratched by a feral cat. But I was able to hide it and put on the, “I’m not having trouble breathing face,” as I walked calmly behind the barn and tried to recover. You see, my body is acutely sensitive.
It took lunch with a beautiful friend recently to remind me that we all struggle and many of us have some health challenge. For instance, I now know that I score five in skin tests for most allergens—grass, dust, cats, pollen, weeds, mites and (sadly) some dogs. By the way, the scale goes up to four. I like being an overachiever, but really?! In a quirky addition, they believe I lack sufficient enzymes to properly process pork, so having an “oops” with bacon on a salad is anything but a funsie.
But I only suspected these things when I moved to Arizona and, like most kids, I overlooked the side aches, dizziness, sniffles, wheezing and itching. I just thought you lived with it. I tried every over-the-counter allergy medication and even a few prescription ones that doctors assured me would, “take care of it in no time.” Nothing every really worked long or well. I managed through avoidance—running from cats, walking around lawns and never taking my shoes off, religiously replacing air filters and avoiding anything in bloom . . . despite a sincere love of flowers and trees.
However, in stubborn Sara fashion, I suddenly decided I wouldn’t live that way. I took a job with a florist, signed up for softball, decided to start hiking and went horseback riding. It wasn’t easy. There were many reactions. Still, I refused to live in fear and not experience life fully. For years, I thought I could get by.
Other unexplained events happened along the way that, now, I look back and realize were connected. I went numb and lightheaded in my first apartment because of the new carpet. I sprayed weeds for an afternoon and ended up sick to my stomach with a burning sensation in my limbs. I blacked out a few times after eating out or drinking an artificial drink. I would sit at a freshly cleaned desk and accidentally touch my face, resulting in a welt. I wore dry cleaned pants and my legs would itch fiercely. I ate chips (unaware of the MSG) and had to go home with a feeling of food poisoning. I fixed irrigation leaks in my yard and ended up with days of anxiety and nausea. I drank a holiday latte with spice and my throat felt like closing. The list goes on.
I pause here to say that this is not a woe-is-me post. I resist pity and have no use for special treatment. In fact, I wouldn’t even give myself special treatment . . . I kept living, kept ignoring it and kept making choices that were normal by social standards. I even went through a barrage of tests—everything from blood work to MRIs. Nothing explained the reactions beyond, “I’m just sensitive, I guess.”
It took nearly losing my life to awaken greater self-awareness and the power of choiceful living based on your body. You see, after 30+ years (who’s counting?), I went on a multi-day camping trip into remote Arizona. Offroading, trekking, crawling through brush to see animals and helping to scout. While I was there, I felt “off” and foggy as I popped antihistamines like candy. I started to sense my body was overstimulated. That evening, I bolted up in the middle of the night and felt like death was lingering near the bed. Unknown to me, I was in full systemic allergy overload.
By the time I got home, I was emotionally, physically and spiritually drained. I was having recurring panic attacks every few hours (something I only experienced once before when I lost my father), I was unable to keep food in my system, my heart was racing up to near arrest levels, I was experiencing intense fear and my entire body felt like it was on fire. It was an all-out attack on my well-being . . . and it lasted for weeks. Emergency rooms; tissue mineral analysis; more blood work; ultrasounds; so many doctor visits; and no relief from the cycle, no answers and no solid rest.
Yet, I had to function, to work and to hide the out-of-control spiral I was experiencing. I prayed fiercely, I cried often and I probably scared the $%#* out of the few friends in whom I confided. What do you do, after all, with a friend who can’t explain why she is feeling the darkness creeping in and her body shutting down? Some implied it was “all in my head” or “just stress.” Others supported as best they could, but I could hear the fear and helplessness in their voices. So, I pulled away from everyone.
After more than six months of symptoms off and on, I decided to try a vacation to Spain. I thought perhaps stress and my environment were causing it. Thanks to processed food the evening before departure and airline food enroute, I had one of my worst reactions in the garden patio of my friend’s home, as guests gathered downstairs for a feast to graciously welcome us to the country. I was lost. The me I had known was a shadow. I was up nearly 30 pounds, despite being unable to keep food down, felt like every nerve ending in my body was exploding and was facing unpredictable emotions that I couldn’t even fathom. I did my best to survive and not show my angst, but I knew I had to find an answer somehow.
Upon returning home, I dove into naturopathy, energy healing and weeks of research. There were small glimmers of hope, but nothing more than a day or two. Then, one of my best friends gave me a copy of The Clean Program and I figured, “Why not?” So, I prayed that night, and asked God to save me or take me.
When I woke up, I went shopping and followed every single food recommendation to the letter. Simultaneously, I got a chlorine shower filter, switched body products, changed to a coconut organic detergent and shifted to alkaline drinking water. After a couple of days, my body kept its first meal down. After a week, my heart started slowly coming down to one or two attacks a day instead of every few hours. By two weeks, the fear started to drift away, and I could feel my fingers and toes again. By the one-month mark, I was carrying a sense of hope that was true to my core. At the two-month mark, my weight was back down and my outlook was way up.
Through intense documentation (e.g., grids, three-day food challenges, cross-reaction lists), my world slowly became clearer. I thank God, Dr. Radha G. Rishi and Alicia Benjamin, among others. You see, my environmental allergies were pushed into a state of excessive activity. My body was so overwrought that it literally turned on itself. Any food I introduced with even a slight reactive quality became an enemy and was rejected. Any chemical I encountered, even at low levels, was a threat.
So, the only way to regain balance was to eliminate all of the offenders, until my body could build up antihistamines and purge toxins. I had to convince it that food was not the enemy and that I would safeguard it from unnecessary chemicals. If you look up “multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome” online, you will find a disparaging array of links talking about how it’s a psychiatric issue, unexplained and unsubstantiated, and nothing more than some people wanting special treatment. I cringe at this indictment and, until now, shrank away from sharing my experiences. I didn’t want to be viewed as freak, fragile, faulty or forsaken. I also didn’t want attention, as it’s hard enough to navigate life without having every spoonful, every sniffle and every choice examined by well-intentioned folks who wonder, “Will you be ok?” or “Are you sure you should have that?”
My view now: chemical sensitivity is real. How it manifests, the factors of hormones and stress, the genetic and environmental background of individuals, and the patterns of exposure all play a part. There is no pill to fix it; in fact, ironically, pills with binding agents, chemical fillers and preservatives are one of the issues. It was the moment I saw my dear nephew’s face go blotchy after eating his first birthday cake, which contained common food coloring, that I knew I had to be his voice too. I had to let people know that reactions are not imagined. I had to start to educate all of you on the many unknown chemicals we have come to accept in our food, water and lives as “normal.”
Riddle me this: if four people don’t react to an artificial substance and it gets released to the public, but a fifth person does, is that the fifth person’s fault? Maybe that fifth person is your canary. It’s hard to admit now but miners used to send canaries down mine shafts to test air quality. As long as a canary kept chirping, it was safe. If it stopped, the air was poisoned and the miners should avoid entering. What if I, and others like me, are merely your canaries? I’m chirping now, and I won’t be silenced.
Tips for surviving the sensitivity spiral:
- If possible, go organic for your food, body care and cleaning products
- If you can’t pronounce it, for heaven’s sake don’t eat it
- If something contains preservatives, additives, fillers, binders and undisclosed “natural flavors,” steer clear
- If you feel “off” or have recurring symptoms you can’t explain, try a food journal (remember that reactions can occur up to three days after you ingest something)
- If you repeatedly yearn for a food or substance, it may be an unhealthy addiction to the reaction (an unsettled system becomes like an addict, craving what actually harms it)
- If you have environmental allergies and want to build resistance, consider a small daily dose of local honey, immunotherapy shots and/or careful exposure to the offending substance over a gradual time (consult your doctor)
- If you need guidance, don’t hesitate to seek out an allergist, and never settle for a physician who doesn’t listen or take you seriously
Where am I today? Honestly, I relapsed to a degree. I let my busy lifestyle and excuses about my schedule derail me. I also slipped into a false sense of security because the symptoms were only “occasional” for a while. I’m paying for it with pounds and reactions. My choices are my own. I cannot ignore my body chemistry. The changing seasons, my increase in cortisol due to life transitions and my slip from proper eating are trying to pull me down the spiral. So, it’s time to shift back on course and nourish myself in hopeful, helpful, healthy ways. I am just starting to read, but already loving, The Beauty Detox Foods by Kimberly Snyder, C.N. I heart the Glowing Green Smoothie.
One final request: be sensitive to the sensitivities of others without making them feel broken. Allergies can shift with time and exposure. You never know what they, or you, may be presented with in life. We’re all unique. Let’s celebrate it and support it, not judge it.