Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Limitations of Learning from Experience

I'm currently in the middle of a rather frustrating experience with my bank related to a fraudulent purchase made on my debit card. Unfortunately, the charge was to a virus software company, which has led bank employees I've spoken with to insist that the charge is a renewal fee. I've been told that the company charges renewal fees that people forget they've authorized "all the time."

I'm sure it's true that many people do forget they've authorized renewals and get surprised when charges appear on their bank statements. I'm brainfogged often enough that I can also imagine finding myself in a similar situation at some point. However, that pattern doesn't fit this circumstance. I didn't place the order (which was not for virus protection renewal), but someone else using my card number did. Fortunately, the software company agrees with me, even if the bank is still unconvinced. Because bank employees have learned a likely scenario from previous experiences, they've evidently concluded that no other option is possible. Sometimes learning from experience is not an entirely positive thing.

It occurs to me that the same dynamic often plays out in the world of chemical sensitivities. It's often difficult for those of us with MCS to convince others that our reactions are real because our experiences differ so greatly from their own. People who've never had conscious negative reactions to dryer sheets, for example, may easily conclude that "Dryer sheets can't hurt people" rather than, "Fortunately, my detoxification system is currently strong enough to keep me from having immediate symptoms from this." 

It's certainly natural to learn from personal experience and to be vaguely suspicious of accounts of experiences that don't match our own history and reality. Even those of us with MCS can fall into that mindset at times. Let's say, for example, that I'm seriously reactive to Substance A, but can handle, to a certain extent, Substance B. If I hear fellow MCS sufferers express big problems with Substance B, I sometimes find myself thinking thoughts like "Maybe they could handle it if they would _________ ." (Fill in the blank with whatever applies: use more ventilation, wear a mask, try a different brand, etc.)  Fortunately, I generally catch these thoughts early and discard them. The fact that I have them at all, however, helps me understand why healthy people so often negate the reality of chemical sensitivity and make some of the dismissive remarks they do.

The truth is that people can experience the same sensory environment in entirely different ways. A tall adult will view a parade differently than the small child standing behind him. A blind person at the same parade will experience it differently than someone who is deaf.

The Biblical book of 2 Kings shares a story of two people who had differing experiences of the same situation. One morning the prophet Elisha and his servant awakened to find their city surrounded by hostile forces. The servant saw only the enemy, but Elisha saw the forces God had sent to fight for them. Elisha prayed that his servant's eyes would be opened and that they would both see the same reality.

Those of us with chemical sensitivities often pray a similar prayer. We beg for eyes to be opened and for the MCS world to be seen and understood. We know our condition seems strange and that our physical reactions to chemicals are hard to believe. We know our account of how we experience the world around us seems foreign and bizarre.

None of that, however, changes the fact that our experiences and reactions are very real. Please believe us. We have no reason to lie and it hurts when we're told that we're deluded, exaggerating, excessively fearful or just lack faith. Trust us, listen to us, and let us serve as a warning about the toxic nature of products that are used every day. Please don't just learn from your own experiences. Learn from ours, too.


Joanna K. Harris said...

Thank you for this post Martha! Very wise words. You've expressed all of our thoughts so well. I hope this post will encourage many people.
God bless,

Martha McLaughlin said...

Thanks so much. I wrestle with how to express what I think needs to be said without it sounding like condemnation or accusation. I'm not very confrontational by nature, but I'm getting braver.

Joanna K. Harris said...

I totally understand. I've often felt the same way. But I think you did an excellent job! I mentioned this post on my blog. I hope many people will read it and be blessed.

Christa Upton said...

I agree you did an excellent job, Martha!! You do NOT sound condemning or accusing at all. Thank you for the encouragement!!

Martha McLaughlin said...

Thanks, Christa.