I am an HSI

A “Highly Sensitive Individual” isn’t sensitive to everything. I am sensitive to high frequency noise. I have tracked and hunted mosquitoes in a room by following their sound. Those high frequency pulse boxes that are supposed to repel rodents really bother me. And in fact, I have a very powerful sense of smell. I can tell when my friend has spiced the brewing coffee on the other side of the house. In restaurants, I know when someone has put a packet of Splenda in their tea. I can smell the Splenda in the air. But some things I don’t smell at all, and I’m not sure what those are, or if I never smell them, or just don’t smell them sometimes.

I worked in IT for a chemical company. Our department was in the basement, our offices had no windows, and there were labs upstairs. That meant there were drain pipes inside the suspended ceiling that ran above our cube farm. About once a month some particularly odiferous experiment, or maybe just a cleaning operation, would release fumes from above, which floated down and made their way to me, sitting at my desk. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The gases were invisible of course, but I could smell them. The “Safety Team” would investigate if I called. Which I did, frequently.

The “Safety Team” never smelled anything! I finally realized that as part of their profession they had sniffed so many solvents and chemical reactions and putrid gases, that their senses of smell were tired, their noses were burned out, and although they didn’t realize it, useless—at least for identifying a chemical spill or leak. Because I called so often, my colleagues implied I was paranoid, “crying wolf”, or just making trouble, instead of being a good corporate citizen, continuing to work, and not complaining as they all did. But eventually the Safety Team purchased a chemical sniffer—a little walkie-talkie-like-box with a round antenna, that looked like something from the Jetsons—and it frequently verified the leaking intrusion of noxious gases. Not reassuringly, the Safety Team reassured me that there was “…only two parts per billion of XXXXX chemical, and that’s totally in an acceptable range. I’m surprised you can even smell it!”

It surprises me now that I tolerated this toxic chemical exposure risk for years, until I adopted the personal policy of using the smell as a signal to leave the office, go to Starbucks, and carry on there, in a much more productive, creative, and human friendly environment, where the WiFi worked, the Internet was accessible, and my cell phone had signal. It’s amazing how we adapt. And how we don’t see the inevitable. There were parts of that job that were interesting and fun. And then there was the rest… It was so much better to be at Starbucks than to be at the office!

 —Christo

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