Scenting my mental illness


05th December, 2016

Content Warning: this article refers to self-harm.

Every now and again, in what might be referred to as a “lifestyle” magazine, I run across the following article: “A Scent For Every Occasion”. The title varies, but the content does not. The reader is given a run-down of important occasions, and which perfume they might wear as they mark it. And so, we are told, a scent for a job interview must project confidence, but not be overpowering. Wedding guests must be ever mindful of not upstaging the bride, and should thus stick to soft, romantic florals. A Christmas party calls for something warm and spicy.

These are all fragrances for the life you lead on Facebook. Fragrances as Kodak moments - a single frame of a life where no one is ever sad, no one is ever lonely, where no one experiences pain or disillusionment or anger. It is unlikely that any magazine will ever advise you on what fragrance you might wear on the day your divorce papers arrive in the post or what to choose when you finally land in your doctor’s surgery because you can’t stop crying and you don’t know why. Presumably, you have more important things on your mind than how you smell. In the grand scheme of things, perfume is a mere indulgence, on a par with skiing holidays and organic vegetable boxes. Aspirational, but not essential.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the summer of 2014. This was not a surprise. The average gap between the appearance of first symptoms and the eventual diagnosis is 17 years. I was 17 when my symptoms began and 35 when they were diagnosed. In the words of Dr. Hannibal Lector, this makes me a “garden-variety manic depressive”. During the worst of my depressive episodes, I felt completely flat, like a hasty charcoal sketch of a person. Think of Back To The Future, when Marty McFly watches himself disappearing limb by limb in a family photograph. I watched myself slowly disintegrate and blow away, as weightless and inconsequential as ashes on a breeze.

The magazines had no advice for me. Despite how far we’ve come in our attitudes, mental illness is still difficult to talk about when it’s YOUR mental illness. When a colleague was suffering with a serious heart condition, we were given sympathetic updates about the state of his health, when his operations were and when we might expect him back. No one mentioned that I’d finally been prescribed a mood stabiliser, or that I was starting CBT on Friday. I wouldn’t have wanted them to. Your mental illness is a medical condition and must be treated as such. Mine is a moral failing and I’m deeply embarrassed every time it raises its head.

While I waited for the pills to kick in, for therapy to become available, for the occupational health report to come back, my perfumes gave me a piece of myself back. They fleshed me out with colour when I had faded to grey. They weighed me to the surface of the earth when I wanted to let go and drift away. This is how I scented my mental illness.

On the first day of my bipolar workshop: Vanille by Mona di Orio. Vanilla perfumes always smell childish and needy to me, but this is vanilla with a heart and a backbone. The inspiration was supposedly an 18th century cargo ship, sailing back to Europe laden with exotic spices, rum and oranges, oils and unguents. I was apprehensive about what and who I would find in the meeting room of a community mental health centre at the wrong end of Streatham. Vanille made me think of a buxom, seafaring wench, swigging a glass of rum and cackling as cigar smoke swirled around her head. She clasped me to her ample bosom and told me everything would be okay. And if anyone gave me shit - they’d have to deal with her.

On the day the noise in my head got too loud and I finally reached for a razor: Hellstone by Lush. Self-harm was never part of my repertoire until two years ago when the medication stopped working and a series of life events knocked the wind out of me. Hellstone has a cumin and melted beeswax note that makes it searingly hot and almost painful to wear. It also vaguely reminds me of TCP, which amused me later when I tended to my wounds. It was the olfactory equivalent of cracking through my skull and releasing the demons into the sky above me, like doves. My own symbol of momentary peace.

On the day that I swore would be good: Rossy de Palma Eau de Protection by Etat Libre d’Orange. I have never had a bad day in this perfume. My idol Luca Turin describes it as “edgily uncomfortable, as if asked to sit on a bar stool while wearing a very short skirt.” I longed to be that girl on a raucous night out with her friends, two inches away from flashing her knickers to the entire bar, but only one gin and tonic away from not caring. Rossy isn’t the prettiest rose rose around. She’s sharp with geranium, tart with lime and prickly with ginger. She’s the girl with the funny nose and the slightly wonky teeth that boys nonetheless flock to like a moth to a flame. She likes herself, and so does everyone else. “I can do that,” I thought. “Today, I can do that."

On the days when I couldn’t bear to be touched: Bulgari Black. When they found out, well- meaning acquaintances always said the same thing. “I’m here if you ever need to talk.” I truly appreciated their compassion, but on the days when I needed it most, I was too terrified to speak. I could not look strangers in the eye, lest they asked me how my weekend went. Black is like no other perfume in the world. It is hot tar and burning tyres. If you can get past that, it actually has a wonderfully soft underbelly of vanilla and musk. But on the days when I cringed away from human kindness, Black was a bitchy resting face in a bottle.

I wrote this in the past tense, as though this chapter in my life is done and dusted. Back in our magazine, I have taken up yoga and adopted a chocolate Labrador, who I take to visit elderly residents of nursing homes. I have learned to manage my mental illness through meditation as well as medication.

But this story doesn’t have a happy ending. It doesn’t have an ending at all, and I’m scared that it never will. I’m scared that my days will always be divided and punctuated by my medication schedule. I’m scared that even on sunny days, I’ll always be scanning the horizon for signs of an approaching storm. I’m scared that I’ll always be the girl who cries in the loos at work. The one who never quite got back in the saddle after her divorce.

Most of all, I am scared that I don’t know who I am without this. Mental illness has been my constant companion for thirty years. It rides in the seat next to me and demands to be introduced to my friends. It kicks me when I’m down, but it also lifts me up and turns my face towards a blazing sun. It doesn’t speak for me, though. My perfume can, and it always says the same thing: “I’m here. I am still here."

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      • Kaern | 5th December 2016 17:17

        Basically, Aromatherapy

        If it works for you, that's a good thing

      • Keatm49 | 5th December 2016 17:22

        I also have mental illness the same thing Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys has "love and mercy" the movie shows what it's like, and I also get comfort in the colognes I wear each day. Each days a new day live and love life.

      • thediamondsea | 5th December 2016 17:48

        This is a great article and a fantastic read. Also, I love every one of these perfumes. Bravo!

      • epapsiou | 5th December 2016 17:59

        Interesting read. Mental illness (unlike say cancer) is one of those things that you never care about until it hits you or someone you love.

      • MrsDalloway | 5th December 2016 18:19

        Great article - wishing you all the best. And I love Black and this makes me really want to try Vanille...

      • hednic | 5th December 2016 19:13

        Very interesting article.

      • Anastasia Beaverhausen | 5th December 2016 19:27

        I like her refreshing take on the 'scent for every occasion' thing, her honesty is as admirable as her taste in fragrances.

      • Ken_Russell | 5th December 2016 22:41

        Thanks so much for the link- a inspirationally honest article, bringing a truly new perspective on fragrances

      • Dorje123 | 5th December 2016 23:59

        I think there's something to aromatherapy... and meditation, cognitive therapy, etc... When you change your beliefs it changes your physical brain chemistry and neural pathways eventually... i.e. the habit gets "ingrained", you gain "muscle memory" learning sports or crafts. It's possible to ingrain positive and constructive beliefs that will replace ones that are negative or unhelpful.

      • Paintedlily | 6th December 2016 00:50

        All I can say is that your article has helped me more than I feel like openly disclosing at this moment. Thanks for the honesty.

      • the_good_life | 6th December 2016 03:11

        Smell being our most affective sense what would make more sense than making them a conscious part of our feelscape! I hope meditation and mindfulness are helping you accept that mental illness is a part of you, but not you. It is hard to swim when you fear drowning, but at some point comes the realization in soul, heart and mind that you cannot sink, you cannot drown, because you are the lake.

      • Chetopa | 6th December 2016 03:57

        While we don't seem to discuss much the therapeutic aspect of our particular hobby I'm sure many of us use fragrances partially for that reason or at least have been pleasantly surprised to find they help. Whether it be manic-depression, anxiety, struggles with sobriety, etc. there appears to be more to this then just wanting to smell nice. I've even found myself sharing samples of particular scents with loved ones who struggle with most of the above mentioned in the hopes that it will help them on days where there seems to be no light. Thank you for a great article. All the best to you.

      • Lellabelle | 6th December 2016 05:53

        Wonderful article. Thank you for your honesty, courage and strength to share.

        Scent has a remarkable ability to transform, comfort, armour, and envelop us; it can lift us when we're down, soothe when we're unsettled, help us reflect in times of chaos, speak up when we're withdrawn, or fight when we feel fragile. It is an anchor in the storm. A link to past and present. A language when we don't have words.

        Knowing what lifts or makes you greater is a result of knowing yourself. Sharing with the intent to help others is a gift.

      • ClaireV | 6th December 2016 10:27

        What a wonderful, brave article - thanks so much for having the courage to share your story with us. Your taste in fragrance is impeccable, by the way!

      • Nukapai | 6th December 2016 10:42

        A beautifully-written and important piece. Thank you.

      • gandhajala | 6th December 2016 11:06

        I'm confused by this:

        [quote] Mental illness has been my constant companion for thirty years.[/quote]

        If you're 37 now (diagnosed in 2014 at 35) and believe your symptoms began at 17, wouldn't that make it twenty years?

        A typo or am I mis-reading?

      • edshepp | 6th December 2016 11:11

        Very interesting article. Well done.

      • mumsy | 6th December 2016 11:52

        I saw a completely wonderful quote just this morning that brings it all into perspective....

        2006: Doctor Who:

        “What’s life? Nothing. A quirk of matter. Nature’s way of keeping meat fresh.”*

      • teardrop | 6th December 2016 13:04

        Laurin, thank you for an honest, courageous & moving piece of writing. l think many of us can relate to the way you use perfume to comfort or strengthen you. May your good days be many & your bad days be few.

      • cytherian | 6th December 2016 14:18

        Laurin, great article - thanks for the candid details of what you've been facing.

        It is said that olfactory senses are "hard wired" into the brain, meaning that there's no pre-processing that goes on as with visual and auditory, and that they've got a more sophisticated connection than touch. They can evoke memories and feelings. I like to think of it as working like the needles of acupuncture. Fragrances CAN affect us, directly and promptly. "Aromatherapy" is appropriate in a general sense, but I feel most people look at this as just a "feel good" effect, rather than doing something more profound.

        Scents can aid in memory retention. Thought provocation. Mental stimulation. Even physical effects, such as enhanced circulation (brought on by deeper breathing). And they "tickle" the mind. The complexities and variations possible with fragrances most likely challenge the brain in a good way. They say "something new" is always good for the mind. Some people try to diminish the onset of Alzheimer's by doing daily crossword puzzles in their elderly lifetimes. I have to wonder if exposure to a wide variety of scents helps sharpen the mind in some beneficial way.

      • boisdebois | 6th December 2016 14:27

        Dear Laurin, thank you so much for your honesty and courage to share. I was diagnosed with BD in the summer of 2013, at age 35, having suffered for decades before (sounds familiar, doesn't it?) I can barely remember anything perfume-related during my severe depression episodes (there were days when a shower was considered heroism). But I can absolutely relate to my perfumes giving me a piece of myself back. My perfume wardrobe is full of melancholic irises - Hiris, Iris Silver Mist, Iris 39 Le Labo, 28 La Pausa, Mythique DelRae etc. - it's like feeling sad without the actual danger to fall into depression.

        And suddenly I'm not scared that I don’t know who I am without my mental illness anymore. It's like your arm or foot. You just live with it.

        Many hugs.

      • freewheelingvagabond | 6th December 2016 20:39

        One of the best articles I've read - thank you so much for sharing this. I'd only repeat what others have said - you have impeccable taste.

      • Maria guest | 6th December 2016 22:17

        What a wonderful article...Dear Laurin, don't scan the horizon waiting for the storm to come. You are a beautiful and delicate person, and through your words I see that you are also a strong one. These things are a part of our personality, our soul. We just have to learn to live with them, to surf these waves. There is a crack in everything, this is how light gets in (c)

      • Persolaise | 7th December 2016 12:04

        Thanks so much for this piece, Laurin. A moving, thought-provoking read.

      • Kagey | 7th December 2016 14:32

        Beautiful, evocative piece. Thanks, Laurin.

        Plus, three of your four are favorites of mine also. I need to try Hellstone.

      • HayleyComments | 7th December 2016 16:43

        All I can say is thank you; thank you for writing this and sharing it. I relate so closely to so much of what you have written, just...thank you

      • LukeTaylor | 8th December 2016 09:55

        Well done on a courageous and eloquently written article, some very interesting comments added also. The fragrance industry is geared towards lifestyle aspirations (and understandably so), but not everyone always has the time to reflect on how fragrances can help people through challenging times, even if only for short periods. I develop 'aromatherapeutic' fragrances and believe that if a fragrance uplifts someones mood (perhaps only momentarily), then that is aromatherapy working at the most basic level - something I have to remind myself of all to often.

      • cazaubon | 9th December 2016 00:52

        Thank you for this honest, brave article, I really enjoyed reading it. Perfume has helped me through many a dark day myself, so I can relate to your scent journey. Be strong, try not to let the fear be in control - that's what I tell myself when things seem bad. Big hugs to you.

      • ShellyS | 10th December 2016 00:44

        A wonderfully very brave article - I completely amazed, thank you for having having the courage to share!

      • luca turin | 10th December 2016 17:05

        Great piece, thank you Laurin for your candor and bravery!

      • Diamondflame | 11th December 2016 15:30

        Thank you for such a heartfelt piece of writing. I was once in a relationship with a woman with such a disorder. I remember feeling helpless whenever the illness kept her captive within its claws. Now I wonder if a fragrance could be used as an olfactory cue to keep one centered in the face of emotional upheavals.

      • Francolino | 11th December 2016 16:37

        wishing you all the best!

        One Love!

      • sands1974, amsterdam | 16th December 2016 16:55

        Oh my goodness. This is the first time I have ever read an article like this. It's absolutely perfect. I was diagnosed as bipolar in 2003 after a six month psychiatric evaluatory hospitalization, although I had been ill for much longer than that as well. The ONLY thing that brought me out of my deepest, suicidal depression was the experience of fragrance. One of my best friends brought me to Annick Goutal's "Eau de Charlotte" in 2004 and that literally saved me--the innocent wonder of that perfume with chocolate, rose, and cassis, and started a perfume collection that now equals just over 400 bottles. All representing a mood, a personality, a moment, a decision, a dream. I am an artist and I consider my collection an artwork with title "Monument to Depression". Medicine, therapy, and mindfulness work with perfume to keep me going, in addition to my work as an artist (there is an artist book, "Art In Everyday Life" by artist Linda Montano which is worth searching out...another which really helped me is "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron -- it includes practical exercises that really helped me Thank you 1000 times for writing such a beautiful piece. This is the brightest side of the internet: SHARING / WE ARE NOT ALONE.

        All warmest best wishes to you for December and the year to come. And just for fun, here is my Fragrantica profile:

        THANK YOU

      • Janjanjan | 24th December 2016 03:50

        Thank you, thank you, thank you Laurin! Fellow fragrance lover who also has bipolar (never said that on the boards but I will now). The last time I was an inpatient we weren't allowed to have perfume, but I still remember what a comfort my scented soaps were when I was in there. I packed a sage bar and a tee tree patchouli bar into a backpack in the middle of the night, afraid to go to the hospital but even more afraid not to. All that week I would linger in the shower to be with those scents. In the days after, when I was home but still not back to work, I wrote a (moderately bizarre) perfume concept paper and sent it to one of my favorite Indie perfumers. I knew it was kind of ridiculous, but it helped pass the time and challenged my jumpy mind to stay on a discrete task. The magnanimous fellow responded!

        That was just over a year ago, and I use scent all the time in my mood management. Making sure I get enough sleep is important to avoid manic upturns and volatile mood, so I get myself ready for bed with Japanese incense (shout out to Shoyeido, Nippon Kodo, and Cinnamon Projects). It's a good ritual that envelopes my bedroom with delicate fragrance and calms my brain. Similarly, frankincense perfumes help me stay sane and feature heavily in my collection: Messe de Minuit (Etro), LAVS (Unum), Calling All Angels (April Aromatics), Fire from Heaven (CB I Hate Perfume), Cilice (Euphorium Brooklyn), Reve d'Ossian (Oriza LeGrand), Encens Chembur (Byredo) ... you see my point, tons of incense!

        Those are the notes and products that I think most directly relate to my mental health, but I am also a big fan of herbs/greens/aromatics, resins, and spicy/sweaty fragrances just from personal taste.

        It makes me really happy to hear you speaking honestly about scent in your life, difficult parts included. I hear you sister. <3 <3

      • queen cupcake | 24th December 2016 13:51

        Thank you for writing this piece. I happened to find it today, just when I needed it most.

        Peace and love to you, from someone who cries every day.

      • jujy54 | 5th January 2017 17:38

        I'd say, art therapy.

      • jujy54 | 5th January 2017 17:51

        Dear Laurin,

        your words and story took my breath away, and I have a tear welling up. Bravissima. I have an adult child with schizoaffective disorder, with symptoms extending back to childhood, and have mused from time to time that there's no Make-A-Wish Foundation for mental illness. Sharing his illness has to be done with more care than with physical illness, alas. As he has grown, my son has become more forthcoming about his illness, as he does not wish to hide part of himself. There are days when he accepts it as part of his identity, and days where he wished he was "normal." He enjoys attending an organization in our area that is modeled after Fountain House in NYC, where persons with mental illness can go on a daily basis, participate in meaningful work, sit on the board of directors, and have fellowship. He says he is actually happier aroundothers with mental illness, perhaps because he doesn't have to "pass" or to translate.

        From time to time I offer him fragrance. He likes the pick-me-up of 4711, and the calm of Donna Karan Essence Jasmine.

        postscript_about "normal". My son met a girl, broke up, got back together, and broke up again, sadder but wiser. One day he asked me, "mom, why can't I stop thinking about her?" to which I whispered, "_______, I have to tell you something: you're normal!" And it is normal. He's a guy in his 20s, with all the recklessness, bumps, bruises, small victories, and aspirations that go with young manhood—his margin for error is smaller, and he is more vulnerable than average, that's all.

        Thank you again for your generosity and eloquence. I wish you every good thing. Besos. XXXOOO

      • whisper-of-cranberry | 3rd February 2017 13:37

        Thank you for your article and sincerity. You are a strong woman, and I wish you good luck and more good days.

      • gandhajala | 3rd February 2017 14:05

        I certainly recognise human suffering, but I question whether 'illness' is an appropriate metaphor when it comes to the mind.

        Aware that I'm possibly kicking a hornet's nest here, I'll just suggest that anyone interested in the topic might read Thomas Szasz's seminal work: "The Myth of Mental Illness. Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct" (1961). It's a powerful critique of psychiatry that is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.

      • cytherian | 3rd February 2017 17:40

        ^ The word "illness" has been long associated with a physical dysfunction (the inability to fight off an attack by a virus, bacteria, or biological imbalance). It's only in more recent times that it has been applied to the psychological.

        My own personal and completely non-professional perspective is that it would probably be better to have a different word for it. I'm not sure what. "Neurosis" comes to mind. It's a neural issue, essentially. But clinically speaking, there are other connotations that might not be appropriate. Besides, there are 2 nuances to mental illness -- a) purely psychological, and b) physiological. With the purely psychological, there is no biological influence. It's basically a case of a person managing to create their own mental thought construct that happens to be detrimental to themselves (like a persistently negative view of the world). By physiological, there is an imbalance of sorts in the body that ends up affecting the level of hormones directly involved with mental function, like dopamine. For instance, a physical issue that triggers the psychological effect of depression.

        So I understand the resistance to perceive mental issues as an "illness"... but until a more appropriate word is found, I think it's suitable as long as people are aware of what it truly means.

      • the_good_life | 3rd February 2017 18:29

        As always it is, to my mind, a matter of the attitude brought to the term, so it would be relevant to hear from the author rather than talking about her or her choice of terminology in the abstract. I would never refer to the depression I suffered from as an illness, it was a condition that resulted from my natural response to a mentally abusive environment (of a depressive and emotionally locked-down father) and I was able to grow out of by virtue of activating inner resources and accepting outward support. I find condition a more empowering term and illness to imply a passivity and helplessness that precidely defines the depressive self-perception and may reenforce it. On the other hand it's important to emphasize that there is no guilt or blame in depression and illness may signify that it's not something I can just turn off at will or snap out of.

        When it comes to a severe psychosis and the like I would certainly speak of an illness. But again, the author should be given a voice here or we should just leave it at that.

      • purecaramel | 4th February 2017 10:22

        This strikes a chord with me!

        Thank-you the_good_life!

        Jasmine Indoles, are what draw me back from the Disassociation and give me the nudge to alter the Meds.

      • cytherian | 4th February 2017 16:14

        I'd never thought of it before... but I think you're right. "Condition" is very apt.

        Another thing I wanted to say is that I find the behavior of the pharmaceutical industry to be reprehensible. While they do fill a need and they will help people (I've known people who have benefited from taking anti-depressants), the whole attitude is "you have an illness, and we have a drug that will alleviate the symptoms." And that's it. They LOVE the fact that they have chronic patients taking their drugs, for the foreseeable future. No end in sight. As opposed to drugs being used as a stop-gap measure, while efforts would be taken to help empower the patient to find a way towards ending the affliction. And of course, the physicians and psychologists are complicit... so many don't see anything wrong with just accepting that a person is going to be chronically ill for the rest of their lives, rather than focusing on helping to break that cycle.

      • purecaramel | 4th February 2017 22:10

        I, as a "conditioned" person would say that I view myself as such.

        I am grateful for the Loxapine that brought me back from possible psychosis.

        I continue to be grateful for the therapists, medications and research that is put froward by those interested in the subject of Mental Condition.

        Now, if only they could slip a little Loxapine into the White House coffee every morning, huh?

      • Suspended | 4th February 2017 22:56

        Wow, for some weird reason I missed this article when it was published.

        What a wonderful piece. One of the best reads, ever, on Basenotes.

        Thank you. x

      • Zephyr1973 | 16th March 2017 02:07

        As a licensed clinical psychotherapist I found this article highly refreshing and genius. My best friend suffers from Bipolar 1 and another good friend has Bipolar II. I think the difficulty many lay people have with the diagnosis of bipolar is that we don't do it (well, most of us) until the person is at least 17 years old. Why? Because even if they have been experiencing symptoms a good part of their life, we must be careful to account for hormone changes as well as personality development, as well as development of the frontal lobe (judgment center).

        The brain is an AMAZING organ, yet we still treat our brains as though they are a foreign body - and we are frightened of what it can and cannot do. So many thoughts in my brain, but really, I am just excited that not only did Laurin publish this brave piece, but she won such a prestigious award! BRAVO!

      • Sillage6 | 18th March 2017 19:58

        Congratulations on winning a Jasmine Award!!! Yay!