Written by Florence Neville
Firstly, apologies for the title. It gets better from here I promise…
I am writing this with the windows and doors thrown open to keep my house cool and breezy, I love a gentle breeze. But it also means that I am distracted from writing, or doing anything really, by the taste of fabric conditioner from next-door’s washing, hanging on a line about 25 metres away. I’m otherwise pretty relaxed right now or that cloying stench and chemical taste would be making my stress hormones rise. It’s not just an irritation thing, it can cause sensory overwhelm and trigger my fight or flight response. Other people’s fabric conditioner really shouldn’t smell so strong as to trigger fight or flight responses.
And it’s not just laundry smells, it’s the whole gamut of air fresheners, bathroom cleaners, plug-ins and scented candles. I don’t understand why people feel the need to use them. Does a house need to smell clean to be clean?
I worry that my own house smells to other people. I check with the rare guests we have. (At least not the guests I have previously offended by asking them to wear less perfume when they come round, or have scared off with my wheezing when that damp-washing smell hits my lungs and I run around opening windows.) Apparently what people notice is the smell of cooking spices and coffee. I don’t think there’s any shame in that.
My scentsory (sorry again) aversions may be rooted in the asthma that wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my forties and my severe intolerance of mould. I can tell if a building is mouldy as I step over the threshold (maybe I could hire myself out?) and certain smells cause me extreme pain and breathlessness. Some perfumes cause me dizziness, to the extent that I once had to leave a stage mid-concert when another musician had doused herself too liberally, and I have to hold my breath walking through the perfume aisles of deparment stores or the cleaning aisles of supermarkets.
I can smell someone’s bad breath from across a room and, when I was pregnant my own body smell made me nauseous. I can discern fear or excitement more easily from the smell of someone than from their body language. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners can tell a great deal about a patient’s health status by their smell. With practice I think I could learn this too but I prefer to talk to my health clients via video conferencing.
So, what’s the strategy here? I can’t control other people’s use of cleaning and deoderising chemicals, or whether they have damp in their homes. Telling someone that their armpit or breath smell is really distracting is not something I am able to do with any degree of tact. When I’m out and about, my toolkit contains essential oils that I hold to my nose, and headphones that help distract me from odours that make me feel ill, particularly if I’m on a crowded bus. But at home, neighbours not withstanding, I have far more control and I choose to create a haven from toxic or unpleasant smells.
My household cleaning products, laundry products and washing up liquid are either homemade from white vinegar and/or sodium bicarbonate or sourced from unscented brands. My candles are only ever perfume-free beeswax or organic soy. I open the windows frequently and always when I cook. I have a small HEPA air filter on most of the day. I request that my teenagers open their window and close their door if they are applying nail polish. I have a lot of houseplants. Our dog and cat eat raw because they smell better than when they eat commercial food.
And although these measures might seem over-the-top to some, they allow me to spend most of my day/night without too much scentsory (last time!) discomfort. They limit the time that I become dizzy from holding my breath, and the effort of trying to ignore pain in my lungs. And it means that I really do get to appreciate the smell of fresh coffee in the mornings, of the spices I use in my cooking, of the rosemary in my garden, the essential oils I use in the shower and the delicate scent of sunshine when I bury my face in my cat’s fur.