For about 10 years I worked in the same office as a large and blunt woman about my own age, whom I grew to admire and who reeked of fragranced laundry products. I’ll call her Betty. After I had been at that job for several years, during which a fellow who worked for me bad-mouthed Betty repeatedly behind her back, she asked me to talk to him about other aspects of his bullying, to try to get him to stop. I did talk to him, and he did stop, and the drama around that conversation brought me and Betty together in an odd way.
Later on a beautiful day we ran into each other in a park near our office, and we ended up spending that lunch hour plus another hour sitting together on a bench while she told me her family history. I was sorry to hear that she had been sexually assaulted as a child by a member of her family and that she had terrible trouble sleeping. She had been in therapy for a long time and her therapist told her that she slept badly because the sexual assault made her feel unsafe and unable to relinquish watchful consciousness. The therapist recommended cognitive behavior therapy, which has at its root the patient’s own deliberate and conscious changing of behaviors and attitudes in order to effect their own cure.
This article about Kim Cattrall’s insomnia reminded me of my friend Betty’s insomnia because both Betty and Kim tried cognitive behavior therapy as a cure, without success. I had a similar approach recommended to me when I visited a neurologist after I became very ill from a chemical exposure at my job. My symptoms were all neurological and were clearly triggered by my job, but as I explained to the neurologist, I couldn’t smell the toxin and the symptoms were delayed so I was unable to identify the exact source of exposure. This neurologist nevertheless recommended a version of cognitive behavior therapy, in which I was to take note of the triggering smell, then take charge of my own response to it and therefore control my own symptoms. How was I supposed to control my response to an unidentified chemical in my workspace if I couldn’t even smell it? His advice was so deeply bullshit that it made me view my friend Betty’s insomnia, and also Kim Cattrall’s, in a new light.
On more than one occasion when Betty was a young teen, her father came into her bedroom when she was asleep and sexually assaulted her. He did the same thing to at least one of her sisters. That kind of abuse and betrayal would of course change many aspects of how you felt in the world, but this no-nonsense woman at age 50 had a long and stable marriage to a kindhearted man, and a college-age daughter whom she loved deeply. She was financially secure, had been at the same job and in the same home for a long time, and was happy in her own skin. To attribute chronic and structural insomnia to such an ancient trauma doesn’t make sense to me.
I know that when I was so very ill my own neurology had been damaged by exposure to toxins and that my own bad sleep was the primary symptom of the neurological disruption. I also know that even minor exposures to fragranced laundry products have triggered terrible insomnia for me. I now think that my friend’s bad sleep was because her neurology was compromised by the toxic cloud of neuro-disrupting fragrance that permeated her clothing day and night. She was a large woman and her clothing was voluminous, so there was a lot of fabric around her that was emanating these “fresh-smelling” scents. Probably her home was infused with this smell as well as other smells such as air freshener and fragranced cleaning products.
Here is my take on Kim Cattrall’s insomnia. Over time during her busy life of travel and highly chemicalized environments such as airplanes, hotels, modern office buildings, and other highly manufactured environments, Kim’s nervous system became somewhat sensitive to the chemicals around her. Then there was a trigger, such as perhaps a new personal care product or some furniture that was made with formaldehyde infused foams and glues, and her neurological distress became more acute and made her unable to sleep.
All three of these stories relate to women around the age of fifty and likely in the throes of hormonal changes, which I know from personal experience can exacerbate the effects of chemical exposures. So gender and hormones may be contributing factors.
I feel sure that in some future enlightened time, folks will recognize that applying the prescription of cognitive behavior therapy to physical damage from chemical exposure, will rightly be seen as outrageous and unhelpful pseudo-science, a thinly disguised abrogation of reality in order to shift responsibility for a cure onto the patient and away from the clueless medical profession.
We need to see these products and fragrances clearly and recognize the distinct probability that they are causing us both subtle and also more pronounced neurological symptoms. If we want to be healthy and sleep well, we must avoid these substances.