One ordinary day, more than a decade ago, I briefly crossed over into a parallel reality. I was in the aisles of an ordinary suburban party-supply store, gathering birthday decorations, when I felt a sudden trouble deep inside in my airways—a harsh dusty feeling, as if someone had shaken out a vacuum cleaner bag down there. The longer I stayed among the factory-fresh cheap plastic trinkets and glossy cardstock and powdery latex, the thicker the invisible dust got, until I was fighting back wave after wave of short spasmodic coughs. As soon as I went outside it was over; it happened only one more time, when I had to return to that particular store for something else.
I hadn’t thought about the incident until I was reading Oliver Broudy’s The Sensitives. The book is written as a travelogue among the people who have crossed over into that world and stayed there—people whose lives have fallen apart, who have become hermits or permanent fugitives, as they try to escape from a constant sense of harm brought on by a world pervaded with dangerous chemicals and energies and assorted other toxins. The “sensitives” referred to in the book’s title suffer from what Broudy settles on calling Environmental Illness, or E.I., a hazily defined, sporadic set of afflictions including pain, fatigue, and mental fuzziness, which defies the efforts of medical science to pin it down.