Posted in Did you know?, Physical Health, Stigma Talks

My 2 cents on sense of scents (haibun)

I have chosen to post this under Stop the Stigma because it is related to a health issue that is misunderstood, sometimes stigmatized as persons being obstinate. Not so at all!

Why am writing about this?  I was exposed, yet again, to a sense of fear and frustration to offensive scents today on my way to work.  The bus was quite full ; my legs felt like they were made out of lead;  I sure didn’t want to stand the 20 minute ride in town.   I find a seat at the front of the bus;  It’s a 3 seater and one woman is on my left…then another young woman sits on my right.  And then I start coughing.

“Hmm,” I think to myself “What’s this about? I wasn’t out of breath walking here. I don’t want to use my puffer needlessly.”  Then I remove my hand from my mouth and I smell the scent of the offender. “Ah geez!”  I try to take small breaths and inhale into my scarf…the bus starts moving;  I start to cough again, then I feel the heat and the scent intensifies; I feel it cut in my throat, my sinuses weigh and I know I won’t be able to sit here much longer. The puffer won’t help if I am still exposed to the offensive musky irritant and up I go far enough to ensure I don’t have to change spot again. Standing in the centre of the bus…it’s a double bus connected with an accordion and I stand at that circle. I am lost in thought and relieved I can breath freely again.

2014/03/04 RTL Bus - clr
2014/03/04 RTL Bus – clr

I’ve always been sensitive to the scents of perfumes and cologne;  usually they would give me a headache. Since I was a little girl, I would walk through department stores in the cosmetic section and hurry through so I would not have to be exposed too long to the fragrances and get a headache.  As I get older and yes, I am much older {grins} I just cover my mouth and nose with my hand or scarf as I walk to avoid discomfort especially that sometimes it can lead to a migraine.

But something has changed in the past five years. Why five? I used to work in another city in a no scent environment, so I had not realized that I my exposure to fragrances may have changed.    I had applied to our Montreal satellite office to be closer to my family; the office was small  (up until last year) and I noticed that certain fragrances were bothering me. I had mentioned it to one colleague because she is a friend and she understood but to mention this to anyone else was too embarrassing for me.  Yes, I was ashamed of MY problem, my allergic reaction to some scents.  I know, I know, it’s a lot of nonsense to have this sense of shame. {Reminds me of my resistance to talk about my chronic pain…it doesn’t show, I don’t limp, body looks fine, so there is supposed to be no problem, right?}

The reaction was often a smirk, roll of the eyes or they appeared offended that I dared mention their chosen bouquet of the day was not so aromatic for me.  How humbling this was for me!  The shoe was now on the other foot.  Allow me to explain.

I remember when I started working for this agency in 2000 and I was wearing Fuzzy Peach by Body Shop (the only fragrance I could tolerate) and a colleague came up to me and said my cologne was giving her a headache. I was a bit taken aback since it is such a mild fruity scent but I never wore a fragrance thereafter. I wanted to respect my colleagues.   Later I joined the Health and Safety Committee and realized there were more and more people who were also affected by scents and suffered far more than I ever did. It affected  their lungs and some of these persons had inhalers so imagine having respiratory problems to start with and than add another allergen to trigger an asthma attack!  So we would regularly send out emails to remind staff to be mindful of their peers who may be affected by various scents and to please refrain from applying any creams, lotions, cologne, hairspray and perfumes to come to work.

I had friends who worked in hospitals and clinics and they had “scent free” policies and I was thinking that it  would not be a bad idea.  Rather than the persons affected having to disclose they were impacted by the scents of various fragrances, and causing embarrassment and sometimes being shunned or distanced by some of their peers, wouldn’t it make sense to have a scent-free workplace?  I would get emails from some colleagues complaining about this problem and the office at that time would ask the Health and Safety committee to continue sending friendly reminders. But was this enough?  I never found out as I left in 2009.

In 2013 we moved into a much bigger office so you would think that any offensive scents would no longer be a problem, right? Wrong again!

Last June for a few days a colleague had a strong fragrance that literally had me choking, gasping for air. The effect was worsening alright. It felt like my esophagus was closing up.  Within a few hours I had to use my inhaler three times and the maximum for an entire day is 4 times!  Okay, this was going to be a problem. And, it was scaring me.

So what happens now?  Well, there were other scents that proved to offend my nostrils and respiratory tract but it was summertime. I could go out for my breaks and get some fresh air…not too bad.   I could always try to find a workstation that was further from someone who may make me uncomfortable or worse, clog up my throat…not a pleasant experience.  It does sound a little dramatic, doesn’t it?  Let me tell you,  it is a humbling experience to finally understand my former colleagues who would complain about how it impacted on their health;  I never realized at what extreme it could cause discomfort.  Now I got it!

I have mentioned offhandedly a few times about sitting next to someone with a strong perfume on my way to work on the bus and I would get various reactions: a blank stare, a comment that I was the one with the problem and pretty soon I would have to just stay home, a snicker, a smirk .  Oh boy, I can see that I could  easily pass for the little old bitch whining or that I was some hypochondriac. And that is the humbling part for I have heard comments in the past and never have I felt so chastised for not quite understanding. Ah, sure I tried to be sympathetic and stood up for those who had problems with this when I was on Health & Safety but now the shoe was on the other foot and I actually experienced the fear when my throat would feel obstructed.   Good Lord, this was a huge lesson for me!

Does this mean that no one will understand until they experience feelings of suffocation?   I sure hope not!  I don’t wish this on anyone!

That reminds me about 10 years ago, I was suffering more and more with insomnia. I would go to bed at night and start thinking of my adult children and wondered if they were driving safely, if they were well, if they were struggling with life and I realized I was becoming my mother…worrying!!!  Later that year, I was visiting my mother when she was still living in her home and well. I apologized to her.  She looked at me questioningly. “I’m sorry for finding you annoying when you would ask me if I was okay, if I drove safely and that you would go to sleep at night worrying and praying for me. NOW I get it!  I understand that a mother always worries and when children are adults and move away, we worry all the same.”  She smiled at me and seemed pleased that I did finally understand.

I have learned by experiencing various situations in life, it  is that you have to be open…to be at a place to embrace change in your mindset…the timing has to be right. A bit like the person who can’t understand why mothers worry about their kids…UNTIL they became parents.

The sense of the scent nonsense is another example that many people will never ‘get it’ until they or someone close to them experiences the same frailty.

So that’s my two cents worth of the nonsensical battle with those who don’t have the good sense to not wear scents.  Amen.

Aunt Judy’s Attic


My two cents on scents

walking a mile in their shoes

Common sense approach.

© Cheryl-Lynn, 2014/03/05



A little bit about moi: I am a mom, a nana, a sister, a woman, a friend, a human being…a youth counsellor, Family Life Educator. I have been working in the helping profession for over 25 years and volunteered in various capacities from youths to seniors. Tournesol is my nom de plume for haiku and other Japanese form poetry here at Tournesoldansunjardin I hope you enjoy reading through my daily waka. I also have another blog "Stop the Stigma" where I may stand on my soapbox now and then and hope it will become a place to drop in and share or comment on issues important to you. In that vein this could be a great way to learn from each other. Namaste!

5 thoughts on “My 2 cents on sense of scents (haibun)

  1. Cheryl, I totally relate to this post. I too have the exact problem if exposed to scents. But I wonder if this is pretty common, since where I live most places/meetings/ etc ask that scents not be worn due to “sensitivities.” (Believe me, I love that!) I’m so thankful, too, since my family has always felt I was being melodramatic when I had to move away from them when they wore a touch of perfume. And when they would go back home, I’d have to open up the house– Just like cigarette smoke, even pretty scents linger. I too love many of these scents, but sometimes feel like i can’t breathe when exposed. This is a really important post, Cheryl-Lynn. Thank you! You’re the kind of “pain-in-the-butt” [no you’re not!] that got some things changed around here.–yay for speaking up 🙂


    1. Thanks so much, Mandy! I do wish meetings, board meetings etc. would have that stipulation for I have had to stay away from some due to that as well. It’s nice to know, I’m not such a pain in the butt:) your comments are always so encouraging. I’ll stay on my soapbox for a while then 😉


  2. This is a very interesting post to read and it made me think: how many times have I caused something like this to others? My sister once said my favourite fragrance is so strong she could hang an axe on it ;).

    I also remember that about 17 years ago I couldn’t stand the smell of milk and cottage cheese, but that story is not to be published before midnight :).


    1. Thanks for reading. There are many scents I like but slowly many don’t like me:( Years ago I preferred men’s cologne) All I have to say is, it sure is a humbling experience…I’m becoming a pain in the butt now. 😉


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