My wife Buffy loved essential oils. They were a big part of her life before she passed on, and I never really understood how big until she was gone. I think that was my fault. But in parsing her things after she passed, I learned something about my wife I didn’t know, and my skepticism of the efficacy of essential oils changed as a result.
I played adult soccer for many years. It’s a violent sport, with a lot of collisions and physical play, especially in the league I chose. As soccer players grow old, their coordination goes down and their weight goes up, but their instincts are still to try the things they could do when they were eighteen. Additionally, adult contact sports lend themselves to the players venting their “adulting” frustrations, personally or professionally, on their opponents. Which leads to injuries.
I got my first sports concussion and blew my ACL out in the same game, versus a team of Uruguayans. Uruguayans are tough. Even prior to that, the injuries were weekly, and persistent. I tell people when they turn forty that their warranties on their bodies expire. I noticed right around forty that a week simply wasn’t enough time to heal the dings, strains, and bruises from the prior week’s game. And they would add up. Buffy made me a little glass container with an essential oil blend in it for my pain, with a rolling applicator. She called a “roller.”
I didn’t use it.
I told her very politely that that wasn’t the sort of thing I was going to use. In my mind at the time, I thought they were just “perfume placebos,” although I never told her that directly. I told her I was skeptical that they did anything, but they didn’t seem to be hurting anything, so I told her to go for it.
She went for it.
By the time we were forty, she’d amassed quite an apothecary station, and was always mixing things for herself and for our kids. Our rule was anything that went on a kid was voluntary — if they didn’t want it they didn’t have to have it. Sometimes they wanted it. Rollers and dabbers and other thingies, I didn’t pay too much attention. I had my hobbies then too, soccer, music, nerdier stuff. I wasn’t writing again yet. When she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer I bailed on almost all my hobbies, to take care of her and the family, but she kept doing the essential oil thing. For her it was a creative outlet.
As best as I understand it, the essential oil hobbyist world has certain levels of involvement. Some people just have an oil or two they like, or that they read does something positive. Some people buy blends of oils. Some people mix their own blends of oils based on recipes. And some people make their own recipes, with one part research, one part experimentation, and one part intuition. Buffy was this last level, and she was meticulous. I didn’t realize to what extent until after she died.
As I was cleaning the house, organizing, boxing, and distributing her belongings, I discovered over a hundred vials, each labeled. Oils. Blends. Salts. And several of her closest friends, whom I didn’t know were into the same hobby, asked me for her recipes. Her notes. Eventually I found them. I don’t know whether these recipes are copied from another source, or they were her creations. I suspect many are the latter. I do know that some of her friends coveted them.
I discovered from talking to her social circle, she would make special recipes for her essential oil pals to help them with their troubles at the time, like the one she made for me. Rollers, bath salts, and other such creations. They were an expression of her love, and part of her outreach. Did they “work?” These creations certainly enriched their lives. Some part of me worries that my skepticism kept me from sharing this with her, or prevented her from sharing this with me. It feels like an opportunity lost.
Much has been said in the pop media about the power of positive thinking. Much has been said about the power of prayer. Mind over matter. Deep mental connections between our attitudes and our physiology. There are raging arguments about the efficacy of such things, and I think the discussions around essential oils land in the same space. All of these things in my opinion are connected by belief, and by hope.
But what drives me crazy in the discussion, is the medical community already knows the answer to the efficacy of hope. They have studies. It’s called the placebo effect, and everyone’s heard of it, they just don’t think about it in the way that they should. The highly vague and fictionalized version goes like this. In the early days of medical research, scientists would give a trial drug, see a benefit, and presume it worked. Then let’s say one day they give the wrong drug, or a bum set of pills that has no medicine in it, and they still see a benefit. The benefit, the story goes, came from the patient’s belief that there was a drug, and the hope that the drug would work. Belief and hope.
And now, all the best drug trials are placebo trials, where permissible. We give one group the real drug, and the other group a fake, and the fake becomes the benchmark against which we measure how good the real drug actually is. The actual measure of drug efficacy isn’t how good the results are, it’s how much better they are than belief and hope alone.
How much of an effect is this? Quite a bit, actually, and in the United States it’s growing over time, for antidepressants, antipsychotics, and now even pain killers. In 1996, approved pain killers relieved pain 27% more than placebos, but in 2013, the gap shrunk to 9%. Not because the drugs got worse, but because somehow the placebos are getting better. Are we more hopeful the drugs will work? Do we have more faith in them?
I wrote before about our cancer journey, and how the project in part revolved around giving Buffy hope. And only after she passed on did the parallels between that and essential oils come to me. Essential oils may have some medical benefit and they may not, but even if they don’t, they’re still the world’s most perfect placebo.
To get that deep into the essential oils world, you have to believe that they work. And choosing oils, or blends, or especially mixing you own, gives you a creative agency in the process that isn’t available in any other placebo. The hope generated by that must be powerful. So maybe they work and maybe they don’t, but even if they don’t “work,” they still work.
And there’s a curious kind of rationalist magic to that, that I only now see. I wish I’d seen it then.
I wish we’d shared that more.