“Does this smell bad?”
“What about this?”
“Mom, I feel like I’m living with Helen Keller.”
Eight years ago I lost my sense of smell. I had had a very bad head cold and was flying back and forth from East Coast to West every couple of weeks. Every time there was a pressure change and my ears hurt, I plugged my nose and “blew out” the pressure. My doctor says we’ll never know what caused the loss of smell, but I think it was a combination of the severe head cold, the cabin pressure, and the blowouts.
At first, I assumed that as soon as the cold cleared up, I would be able to smell and taste. That didn’t happen. I was surprised at how the loss affected my enjoyment of life. Food didn’t taste the same; when people commented on smells–the seashore, Casa Blanca lilies, fresh bread–I couldn’t share their pleasure, no matter how deeply I inhaled. I had always liked having a keen sense of smell. I used to make my kids kiss me good night after they’d been out late. I was sure I could detect evidence of smoking and/or drinking (it turns out I was wrong, but that’s another story). It was depressing to lose what I came to realize was an important part of my life.
Eventually and to my great relief, some of my sense of smell returned and with it the ability to taste food. The weird thing is, many odors don’t smell the same. In their place, there is a “bad smell” that represents many stinky sources. Garbage, Tibetan toilets, cat boxes–they all smell the same: bad, but not a differentiated bad. Furthermore, the “bad smell” changes over time. Right now, it smells like a fishy sauce we once ate in Madagascar more than a year ago. I can’t describe what the previous bad smell was, but it applied to all things malodorous.
There’s no snappy way to end this. I do have a couple bits of advice, though: if you don’t have a good sense of smell, travel to countries that aren’t that fragrant; you’ll see a lot of exotic places many people would find unbearably smelly. And if your sense of smell is intact, don’t forget to appreciate it.
If you want to read about this important sense, here are two first-person books on the subject:
Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing–and Discovering–the Primal Sense by Bonnie Blodgett
Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum