The Pain of Pleasure and Perfume


Kate Apted


G’day APJ family. Really great to have you here!

I have been to a few perfume meet-ups now and I have been able to hear other like minded folk talk about perfumery and scent. It has been brilliant to learn how you all feel about, discuss and approach perfume. But what has become very obvious to me is how differently I process, not just my emotions regarding scent, but the pleasure, and pain, I get from smelling things.


The Pain of Pleasure and Perfume

In a way, I am incredibly fortunate that my senses are so far removed from what is typical, as understood by the medical field. I feel pain, but only when it gets to extreme, life threatening lengths, and then I tend to zone out from it; disassociate, if you will. So, my pain tolerance is extensive and wide reaching. I smell things and I find soooo many more things almost neutral-pleasant than most people. I have a tiny hate list and a tiny love list of smells, but I have a huge tolerance for a wide variety of things.

What this means is that my perfume collection is as big as it is because I find 96% of scents quite ok. I like an ecclectic variety of scents, even sweet ones now. The problem comes with the other 4% of perfumes. For me, pleasure is painful. I find eye-rolling-swooning-fan-me-down pleasure (for the majority of people) downright horrid. It elicits the EXACT same biological, psychological, physiological responses  to what is commonly understood to be pain.

It has taken me 45 years to understand this, you know?! I have never had the words to express why I have always shied away from pleasurable experiences and things, but now I know. I feel too intensely and it causes intense pain. Instead of me having the linear progression of pain here and pleasure over there on the line, mine tends to be a circle, whereby most of the circle is habitable, but that small section where the pain and pleasure of your line have met up to form a circle, I CANNOT cope with that part of myself. I do anything to avoid extreme pain and intense pleasure. I am more comfortable existing in a flat line sort of world. Boring as anything for those around me, but oh so safe for me.

As I sit and listen and watch at these meet-ups, I learn that people have stronger likes, dislikes and loves than I do. Scents they love tend to get inhaled with ferocious reverence, and scents they hate get recoiled from. I have a few loved scents that make me speechless, but that causes me to feel so strongly my body and mind cannot cope. It becomes overwhelming and I have to go inward in response. People mistake my reaction and I then have to leave my inner safety and try to find the words to clarify what is happening to me. Sometimes, I cannot.

Smelling a really pleasant mainstream perfume that I really like is often enough for me. I need to plan when I can smell my treasured scents that send me spiralling to that upper limit of pleasure. I don’t want to be around people, for fear of being mistaken or judged for my responses.

I find rainbows, padi fields, windy days, tropical storms, flowering gum nuts and many other things so excruciatingly beautiful. If I am driving and see a rainbow, I have to put my visor down to block it out of view. If I am at work and a dry wind hits, I have to stop and let myself enjoy it for 30 seconds. Any more and I will become mentally ‘lost’. These things cause me to to try to escape the intense pleasure they bring. It is so much it hurts.

I admit to hardly wearing my true love scents. A small sniff from the bottle is all the closeness to my soul as I can handle. I have mentioned before my pica issues and I become afraid of what too much pleasure can cause me to do.

Upon seeing the Andy Warhol exhibition in Melbourne two years ago, I hyperventilated and became dizzy and nauseous through the unbridled joy of seeing some of his works. I had to take constant breaks to calm down enough to breathe! I was scared about having to take the train home. I felt the pleasure would swallow me up and I’d cease to exist.

I am trying to learn how to gently push my boundaries, for I know I am missing out on a lot of life through keeping pleasure and pain at arm’s length.

Please share with me, and each other, how you react to your soul singing perfume. Let me know what you do when your senses are pained, and what causes you to feel so intensely.

Til next time,

Kate xx

82 thoughts on “The Pain of Pleasure and Perfume

  1. I have very few soul singing perfumes. Like you, I am neutral and in the like camp with the majority I sample and rarely come across a scrubber. Those that would probably speak to me would be from my distant past and I guess would make me nostalgic and sad.

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  2. As a highly sensitive person, I can grasp what you are expressing here, although I don’t experience things in the same way. But I get easily overstimulated and can become manic or overwrought if it gets to be too much, then I have to close up and go hide for a while.

    My favourite perfumes make me feel in tune with my true self and bring intense quiet joy. There are some from the past that I can no longer wear due to the memories attached.

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  3. I don’t have many perfumes that make me swoon. I have lots of likes and many loves but not too many “stop in my tracks”. As a musician I have the same reaction to music – lots of beauty but not often into the sublime. When I find something really special I like to lay on the floor with my eyes closed to listen while my heart literally aches.

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    • Ah, ok, MMKinPA. It is that exact heart ache I CANNOT physically take. It is like nails over a chalkboard, powder texture on my skin. That skin crawling, get me outta here, gonna vomit type feeling. How magnificent you can exist within it!!

      What is the ultimate stop-in-your-tracks scent? 😉


  4. It can’t be easy to live with the ability to perceive beauty so deeply. I’m not a stranger to losing myself in a song or a film myself but I usually enjoy it to the fullest, never experiencing anything close to the Stendhal syndrome. I do own and wear quite a few perfumes that I truly love (and I try to get rid of those I just sort of like) but to be honest, a perfume alone hardly can alter my mood, unlike a good song or a film, or a book. (And yet I think about perfumes every day, even on the days I wear nothing fragrant!)

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    • Yes, perfume isn’t really that engrossing for many. I guess it is a sensory issue. And that is what is very different for most autistic folk. I totally get perfume being an abstract art form; I think that is where it gets its adoration.


      • Thank you for sharing this, Kate. It does help a lot to know that beauty can be literally excruciating for some people. I don’t want to be that person who thinks: “oh, they’re just being so melodramatic!” especially since I’ve been accused of exactly that. I hope you’ll be able to lessen the distance between you and your favourite things without feeling hurt.

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  5. so which are the perfumes you love. Does it pain you you cannot wear the perfumes you love often or you like it the way things are, i.e. sniffing them from time to time…

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    • H Fazal. I don’t really know any different. It is only when I compare myself to others I find it problematic. I am quite happy sniffing them from the bottle. Egoiste, vintage Jardins de Bagatelle, Bas de Soie and Antarctica (TRNP) are the main ones. Oh, and Carillon Pour Un Ange.


      • Thank you for sharing this! But oh, those favourites are so different one from the other. Bas de Soie seemed so good, but uncomplicated, when I tried it, while Carillon pour un Ange is so complex. I’m still thinking about buying both, but last time I looked, Carillon pour un Ange was unavailable.

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  6. It is so wonderful you now understand yourself so well. It has taken me a long time to figure myself out, and now in my 5th decade of life, I am honoring my uniqueness and needs. I am easily overwhelmed, and therefore very much control my exposure to much in the world. When my senses are pained, I withdraw and spend time alone reading and listening to music, while wearing/sampling fragrance, and walking or cuddling with my dog(s). This is very grounding for me. Pleasurable scent and fragrance is very much a comfort for me. My soul singing perfumes bring me to a very peaceful and happy place. They feel like me.

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  7. I love the ache of intensely beautiful moments, mostly felt for me in Nature, music and film. Perfume is another level of feeling, rarely does it make me swoon with joy but I love the memories it invokes. These intense moments are rare and cherished so I cannot begin to imagine how these moments for you Kate cause such a mixed bag of emotion. one of my fave songs by Kate Bush, Moments of pleasure is so beautiful, when she sings “Just being alive, it can really hurt, these moments given are a gift from time”. Gets me every time.

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  8. Hi Kate,
    I am a ridiculously sensitive person and end up either crying or laughing at the most inopportune times. When I feel overwhelmed I need my personal space and good music fitting my mood. Perfume is a love of mine and does provide comfort at times. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
    Sandra xoxo

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  9. Kate, thank you for your very eloquent exploration of sensation and experience. Whenever you post something like this, I have to go away for a day and mull over it. It seems that we are familiar with the idea that pain crosses into pleasure, but I can see that the other way around could be a source of anguish. Having to hold back from feeling pleasure so deeply because it hurts? It seems so unfair.

    It’s given me that heart-rush of euphoria and amazement a few times, but perfume has never made me cry–laugh, yes. Smile, often. Even the odd rush of goosebumps, that ripple of physical response. I do get caught unawares, sometimes, by over-intense responses to beauty. Sometimes I just need to sit down and be in it a while until I come back down to earth. More than once I’ve found myself with tears pouring down my face in front of a piece of art, in a place I’ve dreamed about, or surrounded by music. I can be very enthusiastic about something, deeply engaged with it, but it’s an abstract intellectual response–even if it makes me happy–this is a different thing.

    (I was going through hormonal storms that meant that crying was my default response to pretty much everything, and that was mortifying. I can just about deal with the awkwardness of weeping as a physical response to emotions I can’t quite contain, but, god, I was crying over late trains, kittens, and sentimental adverts. Hurrah for chemistry that reset my default to cynical bitch.)

    (p.s. Oh, hello! Look at your lovely face!)

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    • crikey, I am so glad (in a weird way) to read that last paragraph. Just the tonic I needed.

      I genuinely did not know I was anything but what I am. It never occured to me to feel things as being unfair, internally, that is. It isn’t until others point out how different I am, and how they find my natural state painful in comparison, that I even know I might be in pain/confusion etc. I am ok with it, to be honest. I will never know how it is to be not autistic, and I have only recently given up the quest.

      You are all such marvellous souls. I am fortunate that perfume brings us here, but humanity binds us.


      • Re-reading what I wrote… I just realised that the “unfair” could be seen as suggesting that there was something wrong/broken/to be pitied in your wiring. That was absolutely not my intent. We can only ever truly understand the view from inside our own heads, and filtered through our own experiences, I guess, which is why that may have come out so wrong. Apologies (even if you took no offence.) x

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  10. Dear Kate, thanks for sharing. I wanted to tell you I think you write so beautifully and honestly. I hope writing as you do gives you some peace and comfort.
    I’m happy to admit to getting emotional in the Art Gallery, admiring French Masterpieces I never thought I would see in the real, and I definitely remember getting misty eyed the first time I was in the Sistine Chapel. I’d read so much about it, actually being there was so intense. I didn’t feel sick, yet over whelmed. I do wonder, as we age or situations or experiences happen to us, that different things affect us. I pretty much cry most times I watch a travel show, or history show about Italy. It’s a cross between being so, so happy I’ve been there and so, so sad I might not ever make it back. Pain, maybe not but sometimes, in that moment I feel my heart ache just a smidge.
    My soul singing perfume would have to be L’Artisian Al Oudh – every time I sniff it, or wear it I’m so happy. It lifts me and I’m so blessed to have found it to wear and enjoy xx

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    • Oh, Melanie, that melange of emotions regarding Italy…! Wow. I can feel it over the internet. Intense indeed. Thank you so much for sharing that. Just beautiful. Soul achingly so.

      I must get my nose on Al Oudh. Reviews just glow over it.

      Blessed. Yes, it is a sublime word in itself. Xx


  11. I think it’s incredibly sad that you can’t truly enjoy the very thing you find beautiful, something that resonates with you so strongly that it can reduce you to tears and pain. Of course, scent is a big memory trigger for a lot of people, myself included, sometimes that little gut punch can momentarily stop you in your tracks, but it’s fleeting.

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  12. Kate, your posts are really remarkable. I just cannot answer immediately, first I have to digest what you wrote and then have an honest talk with myself. And although I perceive the world emotionally in the first place, I have never experienced pain when my emotions run wild. I can feel happy as a child, cry a river when I’m very happy or sad, but I never feel pain. I enjoy those extreme moments to the point that I never want them to end. I don’t need drugs because I can be ecstatic and emotional for hours and feed on it. It’s kind of a fuel for life to me. Be it happiness or sadness, extreme emotions make me feel alive and I need them often.
    As Diana already said, as much as I love perfume, it’s the books and movies and most of all real life stories that make my soul sing. Special perfumes are always connected with important people and places in my mind.
    I’m happy to know your face now. You look so natural and beautiful 🙂

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  13. What an interesting post. I have pondered it for a couple,of days and have no clue what to say. I have had experiences on acid that would fit into the such beauty making me cry, and where I have had to turn away because the experience was too intense. But that was the drug opening the door. Nothing like this. Love the interaction here between everyone.
    (I went to a massive Warhol Exhibition in Paris at the Pompidou, in 1990 I think. It did totally blow my mind.) Thanks Kate. ❤️

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      • Sedate? Absolutely not. It’s pretty hardcore. Full of downhillers, crazy bikers, loud music in the workshop, kids watching my bike guru husband build bikes …… my kitchen is kind of in the zone though, quieter, as it is separate. I can watch the action from out of the window. Safer than my old life maybe.
        I’m gonna do a post with pictures ….. my old one got swallowed in the APJ meltdown.

        Yeah, there are a whole lot of new studies being done with micro-dosing, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind is an interesting read. 💞

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  14. Hi Kate, intellectually I understand what you are saying but I find it hard to imagine what it means for you. Not daring to fully enjoy the things you treasure in life….. it must be really difficult. My biggest pleasures in live usually have to do with situations with my family and friends. I assume that applies to most people. But how can you avoid it or won’t you ? If I am intruding on your privacy, my apologies.

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    • I fill the gap, perfume wise, with the hundreds of scents I really like and can work with. In life situations, I live in my imagination/mind a lot. I have full control there. Hence, I am what is known as loner.


  15. Kate,

    The fact that the kitchen of our brains shares its space with all of our rememberings’ lends itself immensely to the topic of discussion you’ve presented. Olfactionists or otherwise, every last one of us will have biases associated with what we’ve already smelled at a given point in time and space in our respective lives. I was repulsed by the smell (or was it taste…? ) of caramel for the longest time, much like I was averse to the pungency of amber-orange accord in the original M7 by YSL – thanks to one former over-spraying work colleague. Nowadays I love both of the aforementioned, and of course for different reasons. I find the original M7 is a fragrance I would associate with the word erotic (at least to this shnoz!). I wonder how much deeper it could go if it was recreated using natural oud (perhaps of the Sri Lankan variety) and even deer musk. On my skin, M7 comes off deep, sensual, dark, warm, and I’ve wondered whether the animal-ic side to it possibly has any influence with an association of orange and rosemary used with roasted meat. I certainly don’t smell roast lamb when I wear M7, OR smell like a Sunday roast myself.. at least no one has expressed this to me, yet. On the contrary, some of the most positive reactions that I’ve received from others have come when I’ve worn this fragrance. It remains my ‘naughty’ fragrance, and as such I’m mindful of the occasion I reach for it.

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