How To Survive Hallucinating A Smell By Leaning On Family And Using Coping Skills

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

ooh-ooh that smell. Can't you smell that smell?

I mean, I did. 100%. I swear-it-on-my-Grandpas-grave that I smelled it. It was room filling and potent. It's thickness and sickly sweet qualities made my stomach lurch in a way I couldn't describe. It was an entirely foreign odor, and It was everywhere.

So, yes, I absolutely smelled that smell, What frightened me was that... no one else could.

There is always something weird going on in the bathroom, so when I remember, I check. Even if it's just to make sure the toilet is still in it's usual spot.

When I realized no one else could smell that smell is when the shit hit the fan. Only it didn't smell like shit to me, it was more of a high end smell. Like a clov--STOP! OK stop. I'll explain that in just a minute. First, we need to go back and tell the whole story, so jokes like that hit a little harder. I'm really shooting myself in the foot here.

The Beginning

I was at home doing the usual stay-at-home-dad stuff. Which means I had been avoiding washing the dishes all-damned-day long. My wife and I have two amazing, beautiful, healthy little kids. They are complete opposites as far as I can tell, so far, I think it's worth offering some insight into their personalities for the sake of the story:

  1. Benjamin, is 3 and my oldest. He is a demon spawn sent straight from the depths of eternity who's only goal is to crush the souls of adults and feast on them; it's how he gets his energy.

  2. Then we have Josephine. She is adorable (obviously), but she is also already patient and kind and as independent as a 1 year old can be. Unfortunately, I think Ben has a plan to fool her into believing that, "yesssssssss... I am your Brother. You can trust me. Come eat this sucker, and we'll go for a walk.", and then BOOM! Our Angel will fall.

Parenting is weird is what I'm getting at here.

Still The Beginning...

The beginning of the smell was a really sudden thing. I was about to start jamming to some music, and get those dishes done, baby! Coming down the hall, I stopped to take a peek into the bathroom. There is always something weird going on in the bathroom, so when I remember, I check. Even if it's just to make sure the toilet is still in it's usual spot.

When I opened the door a wall of smell smacked me right in the face. It was terrible and overwhelming; hard-to-breath-through, even. I immediately slammed the door shut and simply thought, "I'll take care of whatever that is, later.".

I didn't let myself succumb to the panic. Instead I went through a list of things that could ground me to reality

I was rocking through the dishes and the smell that I smelled in the bathroom started coming from the kitchen sink. Or was it the dish rags? The bottles? The counters? The disposal!

I remembered that the day before, Ben, had clogged the bathroom sink with Kleenex, and I was too busy (read: lazy) to take care of it at the time. I figured that somehow the clog in the bathroom had created this awful odor, it had traveled through the pipes, and was escaping through the garbage disposal? I have no idea how household plumbing works.

The Hallucination

By the time I had finished the dishes and cleaned the counters, I realized that I was smelling this thing everywhere, and subsequently started feeling the familiar sense of panic begin to wash over me. I couldn't find the source and I was afraid I was losing it.

I wasn't quite sure what to panic about, yet. I had never encountered this smell before. It was totally new; a high-end smell with undertones of rust and clovers. It coated everything in sight. Was it the meds? Was it neurological? Was I hallucinating?

This is where the coping skills I have learned over these past 16 years started to kick-in. I didn't let myself succumb to the panic. Instead I went through a list of things that could ground me to reality:

  1. I called my Wife and asked her to hurry home and smell the house (not the most ridiculous thing she's been asked by me, I'm sure)

  2. I called my Psychiatrist and reported the symptoms. I had, after-all, started a new sleep med just a few days prior.

  3. I checked in on my surroundings: sight, sound, feel.

  4. Contacted a Nurse Practitioner friend, who went through my experience with me. That way, any actions I took were based on real world knowledge, and not my panicked, unfocused mind.

Taking these steps helped me regain composure while I waited for my Wife to get home.


My wife got home, and my sister showed up, too. Neither of them smelled it. Even with everything I've learned I couldn't hold it together any longer. The panic took over and I was rushed to the emergency room, sure I was having a stroke.

We had thought a stroke was a possibility due not only to the smell, but the intense panic attack had added confusing signs that could also be attributed to a stroke. The doctors ruled that out pretty quickly so they shot me up with a ton of Ativan to calm me down, but beyond that offered little advice or instruction on what was happening to me.

I felt brushed off by the doctors in the emergency room; as if they thought the smell wasn't real just because I had told them I was Bipolar. It felt like they were done digging when the CT results came back. It's hard to convey the feeling of helplessness when something you are experiencing isn't considered real.

Dealing With It

I've spent the past week recovering, and learning to get my anxiety back under control; this was a set-back. I'm so lucky to have the family and friends that I have. They went out of their way to be with me, and also to try and research what could have happened. They BELIEVE me. I can't stress enough how important it is to appreciate your support system, whatever that looks like.

Thank you, Bri, Brooke, Aly, Christine, Dad, Luke, and Austin for being there on this one. Oh, and I can't forget my motivators Ben and Jo.

My super Family (not pictured: Joey)

Several options are on the table for what the smell was:

  1. Bipolar people can hallucinate smells (news to me)

  2. Lithium Toxicity

  3. I was experiencing a side effect to the new sleeping medicine that is unlisted

  4. A few different medical issues

So, who knows I suppose. I may never have an answer for the smell. It's gone. That's a huge plus, but sometimes there aren't answers with Mental Health, and that's one thing we not only have to learn to cope with right now, but something to work on (looking at you smart people).

The doctors at the emergency room were amazing at getting me into a CT scan STAT! However, they weren't good at dealing with me when those results were negative and had no protocol to offer assistance if I was indeed hallucinating. That HAS to change. Mental health IS health.

Mike Graham is a mental health advocate, podcaster, producer, husband and stay-at-home dad. He co-hosts the mental health podcast, Pop Psych 101 | Mental Health in Pop Culture

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#mentalhealth #bipolar #hallucinations #panicattack #copingskills

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