What The Smell?


The sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures as sharp as photographs of scenes that had left the conscious mind. – Thalassa Cruso

Science is becoming convinced that the sense of smell is the most evocative of the senses. In an article on LiveScience.com, the author, Wendy Suzuki, of New York University, states: “Everyone has had that experience of catching a chance whiff of an odor that transports you back to a very specific time and place in your life.” For years, the smell of laundry vented outdoors by dryer vents would take me immediately back to my childhood, reminding me of the many times I would find my mother in the laundry room, ironing my father’s work shirts.

Unfortunately, I have had little to no sense of smell for the best part of 25 years. I attribute the loss of that sense to all the years I worked in printing. The loss was so gradual that I didn’t really notice my sense of smell slipping away. I later realized that my body reacted poorly to the omnipresent ink fumes that pervade a print shop. My sinuses finally got so pissed off they became permanently swollen and refused to function correctly.

After 10 years away from printing, my sense of smell is returning more and more frequently. People assume that when you lose your sense of smell, it’s a joyful thing when it returns. From the articles I’ve read, that seems to be the popular reaction. Listening to NPR one day while driving from one teaching gig to another, I heard them discussing anosmics; people with no sense of smell. I was naturally fascinated to hear how awful it is to live with no sense of smell, and how for those, “With No Sense Of Smell, The World Can Be A Grayer, Scarier Place.”

I was fascinated. I never realized my world was grayer or scarier; I just knew I couldn’t smell anything.

As the broadcast mentioned, there are some dangers to not being able to smell: I could never smell if food had gone bad, and I never knew when the gas on my stove was leaking. On the other hand, I also could not smell a dirty diaper or a dead skunk in the middle of the road.

In the last year or so, my sense of smell has been flirting with coming back. Each time it returns, it stays a little longer and I can smell a little more intensely. Most people would think that this return would be a joyous thing. For me though, it’s disorienting and overwhelming. Because it’s a new sensation, it’s a very intense experience. The analogy I came up with that explains it best is to look at how Doctor’s prepare a person who’s had surgery to recover their vision; they don’t just take the bandages off and expose the person to all the lights and colors at one time. They gradually introduce the patient to the world of sight.

When my sense of smell returns, it returns all at once. It feels like I am being bombarded with sensory alerts my body just isn’t used to filtering.  It’s not just the strong odors that hit me, it’s the everyday odors that most people aren’t even aware of that overwhelm me. Soaps, of almost every kind, have a really heavy scent. I realize that you can buy fragrance-free soaps, but when I couldn’t smell, the fragrance didn’t matter to me, so my home is full of soaps with warring scents.

My cats litter box is in my bedroom but it didn’t bother me since I couldn’t smell it. Now that my sense of smell has returned, her nightly deposits no longer go unnoticed. Unfortunately, my apartment is so small there’s really no other place I can put the litter box. The other cringe worthy odor I’ve noticed is that the cat also has gas occasionally. Really, really, smelly gas.

For years, I was also able to be oblivious of my own body odor. As a person who has spent much of the last 20 years working out multiple times every week, I have been able to ignore the inevitable stench that forms when sweat is exposed to bacteria. All I can say is that I now realize there are times when I don’t smell all that pretty. Who knew?

The good news is that I can actually smell my gas stove now, which is a relief. On more than one occasion a friend would come over, immediately smell gas and have me check my stove. The vast majority of the time they were right; the pilot light had gone out. Because of this, I kept my kitchen window, which is right next to the stove, cracked all year-round. Now, I can close the window because I can smell the gas if it starts to leak. My daughters no longer need to fear that their mother will suffocate in her sleep.

Surprisingly, contrary to all that is logical, I could always taste my food, it was just muted. Now that I have my sense of smell again, the flavors are more intense, which again, is an adjustment for me. For the last few years I have baked scones every week to have for breakfast. While I could taste the sweetness, I was unaware of how strong a flavor the berries in them have. I can even smell the berries while the scones are cooking!

I have noticed the elderly tend to eat a lot of sweets because that is one of the few foods they can still taste and enjoy as their senses wane. As more flavors return to my world, I am hoping that my returning sense of smell and taste will help me with my weakness for sweets. It would be wonderful if the more intense flavors would keep my need for flavor satiated without having to reach for the chocolate.

In the play, “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare wrote, “…that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet…” What I am finding is that a rose not only smells sweet, the smell is strong and lingers in the nose and in the memory. I am looking forward to all the new memories I will be able to store with a functioning nose.

What are your thoughts?