Scenting my mental illness

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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