Strong woman, single mother, dedicated student, survivor.
Every day we wear things with scents. You and I often don’t pay much attention to the chemicals we are spraying all over our bodies. These are products which we consider necessities in our society like deodorant, perfume, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, dish soap, etc. We often take for granted that these compounds may not cause a reaction for the average person, but for those who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, they can be extremely toxic and dangerous.
Over 700,000 people suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Meet Antonia Butler. She is one them.
When I first met Antonia, she was hunched over in class with her mask on and her air filter sitting on the table. Despite our differences, we instantly became friends and continue to maintain a very close friendship.
I sat down with Antonia to gain a little more perspective on her life.
This is her story:
“I was born and raised in Ottawa. Ottawa was very much a government town. My father was a civil servant, and also he was part of the Governor General’s reserve. Both positions gave him a lot of access to interesting things to do,” she said.
Culture and travelling were large parts of Antonia’s formative years. She fondly remembers her childhood as one of many adventures and strange places. Her family moved multiple times throughout her youth, between Ottawa and England. “I was aged nine or ten and I went to school in Hampstead (UK). It was a four-storey building with a boy’s entrance and a girl’s entrance. This was a public school or grammar school,” she said.
“We stayed there for 2 and a half years, and while we were there, my parents bought a boat, and we travelled around Europe. So I spent six months living on a 38 ft, 12-tonne catch (sailboat). I spent a lot of time in France and Holland,” she said.
After spending time in England, she returned home to Ottawa. Her high school years passed uneventfully. She travelled back to England for two years and returning to Ottawa just before graduation.
When it came time for her to decide on a career path, she tried many different things before finding the right place for her. First, she tried her hand at business ownership for a year, opening a small cafe in Ottawa. However, that wasn’t the right fit for her. “I didn’t realize that taking care of your own business was so boring,” she told me with a chuckle.
Next, she moved to Toronto to help out with her sister’s business. “She was in a big party decorating business, just using balloons. It sounds ridiculous, but it was way fun. One of the first jobs I remember with her, we did the opening of the Skydome. So when you saw people walking around with huge bunches of balloons, that was one of us underneath it. And I stayed in that business for 20 years because I loved it,” she shared.
Her next big move came in 1997 when she decided to join the film industry. She packed up her things and travelled to Vancouver to start her job as a Personal Assistant. Antonia stayed in Vancouver for 4 years.
“I stayed in Vancouver, working my way up in the system. It’s an apprenticeship system. You move up hopefully by merit, not just nepotism. I was able to move up to Assistant Locations Manager,” she said.
Antonia ended up moving back in Toronto and continued working in film. This time she held a reoccurring position as a Locations Manager and department head for several TV series. “I really crafted my years. I had three good years in here, my favourite years. So I would always do TV shows in the summer because that’s typically when production would be up. And then in the fall, I would work at the International Festival of Authors Coordinating transportation for them, and essentially just hanging out with really smart people and loving it. TV would support me to go and do this and then by November I would go to back start decorating events with my sister,” she said.
All was going well for Antonia. She had crafted the perfect life of work and leisure. The sort of life we all aspire to. Then, out of nowhere everything changed one fateful day in 2004. She began experiencing strange inexplicable symptoms.
She vividly recounts the day she first got sick. “I was in the CBC building, and my assistant came in and I said to him ‘What did you wear on you last night? You’re making me violently ill’. It turns out he had been out clubbing and all he had on was a shirt he had worn the night before,” she said.
It was at this point that Antonia’s life came to an abrupt halt; everything in her life got turned upside down. In order to combat the oppressive symptoms she experienced on a daily basis, she had to radically alter her life.
“I changed my world. I stopped working at the International Festival of Authors because I couldn’t hang around people who wore perfume. I also couldn’t take transit anymore because I would have a severe reaction every time,” she said.
She also had to leave the film industry. If she stayed, she would be placing people’s lives in danger.
“When you’re working the show you are the responsible primary person. You’re the one who says to everybody, ‘okay we’re good to go, this is safe’ and then a car would come winding down the road doing stunts, and you have forty people you’re coordinating. You’re in the heart of the hardest, most stressful, evil thing that can happen,” she said.
“So now imagine if someone comes along right behind me with a deodorant that makes me sick, while I’m trying to take on this very serious thing, safety role. Then all of the sudden I lose my mind because one of my symptoms is that I start to lose my cognitive abilities. So I had to leave. Because that was my primary function, the safety of the crew,” she said.
For many years after, Antonia struggled to find a suitable way to live. First, she tried to find work that didn’t trigger her symptoms. She was pushed out of many jobs because her colleagues would not be respectful of her needs.
She tried to fight for her right to be accommodated at work to no avail. She lambasted the difficulties she experienced when trying to fight for her rights. “I couldn’t find an agency that could walk me to the Human Rights Tribunal. That could bridge the gap between what was happening to me and how to get the Human Rights Tribunal to listen. After that, I stopped working for about 3 or 4 years. I had to ask for the ODSP that I was refused when I first got really sick,” she stated.
It was at this point, that she realized that she needed a change. It was at this time that she learned about Humber. “Somebody had to start fighting for us. And at that point, I decided I would be it. Rather than sitting around waiting for people to fix things, I realized that someone had to actually go in and learn how to fight for people with the illness. And once I got into the paralegal course I discovered that’s where I should have been this whole time,” she said.
In spite of all the challenges she continues to face in her life, she is always a genuinely happy person every time I see her. She has been able to achieve her positive attitude by, “coming to peace with my illness, in the sense that I can’t fight it all the time. I can’t be bitter about it anymore. I’ve had to let go of the sadnesses of seeing my life now versus what it used to be,” she said.
When addressing those facing hardship, she calls upon everyone to, “realize, one of the most valuable things you can remember is that this too shall pass, as cliche as it sounds. The other side is coming. It’s just how you get to the other side that is the important part.” In regards to barriers specifically, she says, “as long as you can say what it is that’s your barrier there’s a solution. Somebody knows how to fix that. You’re not the first one. People are far kinder than you might expect.”
Antonia is currently in her second year of the four-year paralegal degree program. After graduation, she plans to work fighting for employment and housing rights for people with MCS.
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