Things You Only Know If You’ve Lost Your Sense Of Smell

Nell lost her smell after a car accident, but she gained loads of knowledge, and here she lays it all down...


by Nell Frizzell |
Published on

At the beginning of this year I managed to headbutt a New Zealand highway with such force that I not only split my scalp and ruined a perfectly good jumper with the ensuing blood – but I also lost my sense of smell. Like 15% of anosmics, a blow to the head left me with a sensory (and, in my case, emotional palette) about as sophisticated as a pebble. It turns out, if you slam the back of your head with enough force, your brain with ricochet off the front of your skull like a bowl full of wet cauliflower. And that, of course, causes untold damage to your olfactory bulb (that’s the bit at the front of your brain where the nasal receptors meet the rest of the mulchy, synapse-ridden brilliance).

Now, once the mists of vomit and thumping headaches had cleared, and I finally noticed that I couldn’t actually smell anything, I had some suspicions of how it would affect me. I was, in almost every case, wrong. But here’s what I learned…

You cannot live on brown rice and broccoli

OK. I mean, you can. You definitely could, if you wanted to. But you won’t. Even if the loss of smell means that food is about 70% less interesting than it was, you will not immediately become macrobiotic. You will not become Brett Anderson-slim. You will still be able to taste the difference between a carrot and a crisp. And you will probably still prefer the latter. Because, with your somewhat dampened sense of taste, salt and sugar will become your first, your last, your everything. A beautiful salad, fresh pasta and a sun-ripened sauce is still a treat. But afterwards you will hanker for a packet of Squares and a Freddo just to give your tongue a hit of something.

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Nobody actually tells you if you smell

And you will think you smell a lot. You see, the problem is that, unless you’re going out with Simon Cowell, your partner won’t tell you that you stink. Either they won’t care, won’t notice or won’t want to upset you. Your friends, also, are too kind, charming and polite to say to your face that your jumper honks like the roadkill carcass of a skunk. And your colleagues can’t tell you that you smell out of professional courtesy. It’s almost never acceptable to ask a stranger to sniff you and dogs can’t speak.

So, instead, you walk around with a low-level, thrumming panic that you stink. That you are repellent. That everyone is revolted. Because that’s the fun thing about anxiety – it feeds off anything that cannot be empirically analysed. You know that feeling when you’re on your way to the airport and become convinced that you left the door open, that you didn’t pack your passport and that you’ve forgotten to put on trousers? Well, it’s that. Except you can’t actually go home or look in your bag to check. Because, even if you do try a clandestine sniff of yourself, you have literally no idea either way.

Public toilets are fine

I mean, totally fine. As long as there’s not an actual faecal signature on the wall, you are blithely unaware of any unsavoury odours or suspicious smells. You’re happy to wee almost anywhere. Service stations, trains, late night cafes, even behind the odd bin. And this means that at festivals you really come into your own.

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Quite a lot of emotions are smell by another name

After losing your sense of smell, your emotional landscape becomes, basically, Dutch. Flat as a pancake and about as useful. In many ways this is great – you can walk into dark houses, jump into unknown rivers and talk to any old eccentric on the bus because, without smell, none of this is as scary as it used to be.

But, on the downside, you may also be a lot less emotionally involved with the people you love. Sex can become a naked workout, your house will no longer smell like home, new people will sometimes fail to imprint upon your heart and it is harder to form new memories. Your emotional recall of past dates, holidays and events will seem lacklustre and you will sometimes feel like you’re living your life behind a layer of clingfilm.

People talk about smell all the time

Seriously, until you can’t do it anymore, you don’t notice how often you are expected to comment on scent. But you are. All the time. People will suddenly halt in the street, cock their head to one side, breathe slowly, thoughtfully, then turn to you and ask, ‘Can you smell that? What is that?’

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**Friends will ask your opinion **

On perfume, people will ask what that odour is on a train, people will spend half an hour in an office talking about the smell coming from the canteen and as for the new babies – you will sit through literally hours of smell chat, too polite, out of your depth and more than slightly embarrassed until someone finally remembers, looks over at you with a head tilt of pity and mouth, ‘Shit. Sorry.’

A lot of what is gross about cleaning is the smell

You can scrub toilets, unblock drains, wash up day-old frying pans, bleach mould and empty near-radioactive fridges without so much as a nostril twitch. You can dig through cat shit-strewn gardens, carry leaking bin bags, skip merrily past urinals and probably dig a latrine if the situation arose. It would be a great occasion to retrain as a nurse or public health worker. Hell, you could probably be the person who has to empty the office sanitary towel bins and still whistle.

Fire is quite scary

And you will wonder if your kitchen is on fire a lot. Conversely, you will also burn a lot of food. Sitting at the kitchen table reading a book, it’s only once a thick black acrid smoke starts to actually obscure the pages that you’ll remember the pan of rice on the hob, merrily incinerating itself. Which means, yet again, a piece of toast for dinner. Followed by a packet of Squares and a Freddo.

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Washing powder is expensive

If you can’t smell your own clothes you can’t ever do the sniff test. You can’t judge if something’s got ‘one more wear’ in it. You can’t tell if your bed sheets still carry the fresh scent of washing powder. You can’t even be sure if you actually washed that jumper or just hung it on the line, damp. So you will wash everything. All the time. You will wash clean clothes because you can’t remember if they’re clean and you will go through towels, bedding, even coats like a woman possessed. Which is fine. Except washing power is now, apparently, more expensive than saffron. Than gold. Than cocaine.

It’s probably not as bad as being blind

But you will spend a lot of time comparing the loss of smell to the loss of other senses. People will want to talk to you about whether you think you can now hear better because your smell is reduced (of course it isn’t). Or if you’d rather be blind than have no sense of smell (impossible, not to mention offensive, to guess). Or if you consider it a disability (again, probably not really your place to say). People will want to compare it to all sorts of other, not-particularly-similar conditions. And you will probably, at some point at least, think about how lucky you are not to have lost any other senses. Yet.

And yet, it can be hard. It can be a little sad and disorientating to never smell your mother’s jumper again, to never get the rush of lust when you smell your partner’s perfume, to never be able to breathe in fresh grass or the damp peaty richness of a mountain stream. To never again know woodsmoke or your grandmother’s talc. To forget what roses smell like, to lose the smell of babies or wet dogs, to spend your life wondering if you put on deodorant and for every perfect season to smell the same. To smell of nothing. To smell of loss.

But, hey, at least you can clean toilets without gagging, eh?

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Follow Nell on Twitter @nellfrizzell

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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