Someone holds something out to you, in the general direction of your face. Sometimes, they don’t say anything. A silent offering. But usually, generally speaking, they say something like, “Smell it.”
And I almost always smile awkwardly, give a little shrug, and say, “I don’t have a sense of smell.”
At which point they inexorably give me a puzzled, guarded expression, and ask me this: “You don’t have a sense of smell? You can’t smell anything?”
Next, they tend to look around at their surroundings, and pick a random element. “You can’t smell [insert random element]?”
I shake my head gently, full of fortitude. “Nope. I can’t smell anything. You see, I don’t have a sense of smell.”
I’m six years old, my mother holds the stained diaper inches from my face. She’s pinching her nostrils with her other hand. “You can’t smell that? Really?” Baffled, her voice a little nasal. She moves the diaper closer.
The situation has escalated.
Five minutes earlier, my parents were opening windows in the apartment, walking briskly, using newspapers as fans. Something had gone terribly wrong in my infant sister’s stomach, resulting in remarkable amounts of explosive diarrhea.
“So bizarre, all that coming from such a tiny baby,” my mother said, incredulous.
“Oh man,” my dad said, covering his nose and mouth with his hand. “This is…foul.”
“Doesn’t bother me!” precious little me announced proudly.
My dad turned and gave me that puzzled, guarded expression. “What do you mean?”
Which leads, inevitably, to the moment we visited before, that younger version of me, cute as a button, with a poop-filled diaper coming closer and closer to his face.
“Wait…you really can’t smell that?” my mother says, kind of smiling and concerned at the same time.
I remember being aware that this was a delightfully absurd situation, but also completely unable to smile back.
After all, there was something wrong with me.
Approximately five percent of the population of Earth currently suffers from a lack of functioning olfaction[i], but it is nevertheless a disorder rarely addressed by the popular media, and thus continues to perplex. At first, I theorized that some people might have difficulty grasping the concept of an absent sense of smell because it is one of the five main senses, and an intrinsic part of their lives.
Smell is important to us because it was designed that way: For other animals, odors often play an even bigger role, and sensing them can decide between life and death.
Your ancestor running tirelessly through the mud and the snow, sniffing, tracking, smelling the woolly mammoth’s wet, shaggy coat.
But in these volatile postmodern times, the sense of smell has been relegated further and further down the list. Has the milk gone bad? Choosing a deodorant. Let’s be honest, if you had to sacrifice one Main Sense, you’d choose smell. An easy call, really. It’s the least necessary one. An accessory.
Personally, I would classify it as a luxury.
And like all true luxury, your nose is a streamlined, beautifully designed construct, hiding layers upon layers of spinning cogs and insane complexity beneath the surface.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, which just so happens to be the world’s largest medical library, “Your ability to smell comes from specialized sensory cells, called olfactory sensory neurons, which are found in a small patch of tissue high inside the nose. These cells connect directly to the brain.”[ii]
That’s just the beginning of it, the tip of the iceberg. We’re talking 6 million olfactory receptors, supporting cells, basal cells, brush cells, and olfactory glands.
There are people who use all of these resources to have long, very lucrative careers smelling things. That’s literally their job. Just smelling things. Perfumers, layering just the right notes of citrusy lemon and ocean salt to remind you of that trip you took to the Amalfi Coast. Sommeliers, taking a a long sniff, chin raised, saying things like “A hint of oak.” That gentleman who smells things for a living for NASA[iii]. Noses that are incredibly sensitive, detecting even the tiniest fluctuation in microscopic molecules.
In my case, all those millions of cells and receptors, that whole intricate system, is completely broken. Nothing works. Nothing moves. Nada. Zilch. It’s the DMV and the last class before summer and entropy all rolled into one.
An even more depressing notion, which has occurred to me on those long, dark nights of the soul, is that the brave cells in my nose are actually functioning perfectly, but the connection to the brain itself is somehow compromised.
“Is there anybody out there? Hello? Can anybody hear me?”
Like a World War II pilot stranded on a deserted island, sending pointless radio signals into the ether while his hair grows longer, his beard unruly.
“Hmmm,” the grizzled and gray doctor says thoughtfully, chewing on the mouthpiece of his pipe. Seeing as how this is taking place in a health clinic, the pipe is of course empty.
It’s still the 80s, a few days after the diaper incident. My mother explains the situation in detail, then sits on a chair in the corner, intently watching the experiments unfold.
The doctor sticks a needle in me, draws some blood, pokes and prods. Asks me about headaches, makes me smell all kinds of different olfactory samples.
Maybe there were certain smells on the spectrum that I could sense after all? I sniff the samples furiously, desperately, until I get dizzy, the bright fluorescent lights blurred, foggy. No. Nothing.
The doctor hems and haws, takes the pipe out of his mouth, looks at it like he is seeing it for the first time. “This could be…well, I would assume this is anosmia. It…it is rare.”[iv]
My mother stirs, tense, crosses her arms. “Anosmia?”
The doctor puts the pipe back, resumes his chewing. “Anosmia is to smell as blindness is to sight, or deafness is to hearing. Anosmics, as we refer to the afflicted, the anosmics have lost the ability to detect scents of any kind. But I have to mention…we still don’t know if your sense of smell is completely gone, young man. There’s a special machine in the North. It can measure your sense of smell with perfect precision. But you can only use it after you reach puberty.”
A machine in the North. It sounds like a worthy quest, doesn’t it? A thrilling adventure, a dystopian young adult novel. But I am not the chosen one, and I never embarked on that journey. Maybe the Machine is still there, chrome and steel glistening in the dark, waiting.
Why didn’t I go? It’s a good question. Perhaps acceptance is involved, or resignation. Usually, when I’m telling this story and people ask me, I nonchalantly end it with “Because I had to reach puberty first and my testicles haven’t descended yet.”
“Smell seems to be the sense people take most for granted. There are no galleries displaying smells like paintings, no concertos written for noses, no special menus of smells created for grand occasions; yet this is the most direct and basic of the senses.”
-The Anosmia Foundation[v]
Anosmia. It sounds like a code word. Very dramatic. The next time you’re at your yearly checkup, whisper it to your physician as he or she leans in, listens to your heart.
See what happens.
Given how the condition is underrepresented in the medical community, you’ll likely get a “What’s that?” and/or lack of proper treatment.
I know of people who have completely lost their sense of smell after severe trauma like car accidents, extensive surgery, and avalanches. Other common causes are head injuries (15%), nasal/sinus diseases (25%), and upper respiratory viral infections (20%).[vi]
I never had anything to lose. Which is to say, I don’t remember ever smelling anything. No complications, no infections or serious injuries in my medical history. It was always just air coming into my nose, sometimes flat, sometimes fresh, kind of like water tastes.
It’s very rare, but occasionally people are born with no working sense of smell. This is called congenital anosmia (1%). These patients often do not understand the concept of an odor, and the condition can be associated with other abnormalities.
I, uh…I don’t have any other abnormalities. Although I’m sure you could dig up a couple of jokers who might tell you otherwise. But I definitely wondered about the freakish nature of my condition when I was researching this article and scouring the online chats, frequenting all those digital rooms where anosmics get together and compare notes about medicine and treatment. People feeling desperate. Passages filled with pure heartbreak and regret:
“Without a sense of smell, eating for me became like my world had faded from color to black and white.”[vii]
“Somewhere on this planet, there has to be help for me. I would consider surgery or anything.”[viii]
This gentleman got his sense of smell back:
“Pretty excited at the moment, and don’t really want to sleep much. Just want to keep my nose in the air and smell everything. I have just missed the smells. Folks that CAN smell simply have no understanding of what we have to go through … The best scents are at candle shops and Bath and Body Works, so I’ll be that freaky dude feverishly smelling everything the next couple days!”[ix]
But…he’d lost it before. Many times.
“I know that … my sense of smell will be gone one morning when I wake up. This has been my experience. This will be a bad morning for me.”
In this context, my congenital condition is highly favorable. You don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone. Hence, ignorance is bliss.
Then again, I do wonder what a rose smells like. I have never smelled the ocean, or a perfectly cooked steak.
I have never smelled my wife.
Irony can be a cruel mistress, and a double-edged sword, and I just want to make it clear that both my testicles have, in fact, descended smoothly a while back. If I recall correctly, this was sometime between the third month of pregnancy and its end when the testes transferred from the lumbar area (or ventro-medial to the mesonephros, for the anointed) into the future scrotum.
This is normal.
I have a strict, almost obsessively detailed routine when it comes to personal hygiene and throwing stuff in the laundry basket. There is no room for doubt. Better safe than sorry.
There was this girl in my high school, let’s call her Henrietta. She was popular, and pretty, but her social stock plummeted when the frequency of her showering was brought into question by some of her influential peers.
“Is she wearing the same clothes as yesterday? I mean, she stinks.”
“Oh god,” another popular kid whispered. “She smells…sour.”
Sour. Henrietta never recovered from that one.
High school was a long time ago, kids are mean, but ugly scenes like these still happen every once in a while. I was at an exhibit the other day with a buddy of mine, and we met an old mutual acquaintance. We had a nice polite chat, and as I walked away I turned to my buddy and said, “What a nice dude.”
My buddy grimaced. “Yeah, but he smells like old sweat and garlic.”
“I could stink,” I sometimes think to myself, especially in those situations. “I could totally stink right now, and everybody could be talking about it behind my back, and I wouldn’t even know.”
This used to bother me, particularly when I was in the throes of teenage angst. Well, okay, it still bothers me a little bit.
Let’s not overlook the very real possibility that my condition may be a blessing in disguise. There is no denying that this complete, nose-wide malfunction does have its advantages. For example, unfortunate events in bathrooms and rotting garbage don’t bother me as much as most people.
I live in New York, an enthralling city celebrated for its insomnia, but it won’t be winning any awards for smelling good anytime soon.
There are also some deeply troubling elements to having a sense of smell, most notably pheromones. Let’s not forget that “Olfactory processing of chemical signals like pheromones has evolved in all animal phyla and thus is the oldest phylogenetic receptive system shared by all organisms including bacteria.”[x]
In 1995, Swiss biological researcher Claus Wedekind conducted a famous experiment on pheromones and human mating. Often called “the sweaty t-shirt study,” men sweated into t-shirts, and women chose said t-shirts blindly based on the attractiveness of smell alone.
The results consistently showed the women chose T-shirts from men with immune systems and genes different from their own.[xi] Then Dr. Wedekind flipped the genders, with the same results. In other words, humans are hardwired to choose a mate based on pheromones and genetic diversity.
This is basically mind control. Love reduced to dogs smelling each others butts. The illusion of choice.
The most insidious shackles are the ones you cannot see.
I feel extremely fortunate that I wandered through this process with a fully non-functioning nose and still somehow managed to find my wonderful wife.
Could she have slipped through my fingers if I had a sense of smell? It truly is a terrifying thought.
To summarize succinctly: Smell is dangerous. It’s like marketing, but worse, constantly manipulating us through unclean and sinful urges, like shambling zombies, or lambs led to the slaughter.
Seeing as how I and my fellow anosmic brothers and sisters are free from that siren song, liberated from those biomechanical imperatives, perhaps the anosmic anthem should be the 1998 Aerosmith hit “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing[xii],” except the lyrics have been altered, just a little bit, to “I Don’t Want to Smell a Thing.”
If you played that just now, in the sound system of your brain, you may have an inkling of the global threat we’re dealing with. Not an earworm, but a noseworm infecting the entire human race.
Maybe this is what it means to be truly woke, to smell the coffee.
I should mention that my younger sister has an unnaturally keen sense of smell. She can smell people’s lunch or snacks on them hours after they eat. I’m not exaggerating. It’s kind of creepy.
It’s almost as if she stole my sense of smell, absorbed it somehow, sucked it into the Great Beyond five years before she was even born. If that’s the case, I’m cool with it.
Good for her.
As for the rest of my family, everybody’s basically normal (which is a highly subjective term). Or so I thought. I recently discovered that my cousin lost her sense of smell a while back, after she gave birth to her daughter. My family being the tight-knit unit that it is, nobody mentioned this to me until months later, at the kids birthday.
“Oh, she has anosmia, like me!” I said excitedly when my uncle finally mentioned it. “This seems to have a genetic factor, but a late onset. I wonder if…”
My uncle eyed me warily. “Anosmi-what-now?”
“Never mind,” I said, deciding to take the scientific route, go straight to the source.
My cousin, patient zero, was burping her beautiful little baby girl on her shoulder.
“Hey,” I said casually. “I hear you can’t smell anything now.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” She seemed very nonchalant about it. “I just woke up and it was gone.”
I cleared my throat, feeling the weight of the moment, choosing my words carefully. “So you…can’t smell anything? Nothing?”
I pointed to the cakes, the gourmet offerings. “Not even, uh, not even the biscuits?”
I leaned in closer. This was my chance. To talk to someone in my shoes. To glimpse the truth. “Do you miss it?” That question about smelling her daughter hung in the air like an odor, unasked.
My cousin shrugged, looked lovingly at her baby, a savage little grin. “At least I can’t smell her poop.”
[i] A lot of the medical knowledge gleamed from this article came from Wikipedia. Don’t worry, I once yearned to be a physician, and am currently an unlicensed hobby-doctor. I know what I’m doing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anosmia
[ii] Please keep in mind that PubMed Health will be discontinued on October 31, 2018 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0025088/
[iv] It’s not unheard of. Some famous people who can’t smell anything include William Wordsworth, seventeenth century poet, and Bill Pullman, actor
[vi] This is another great website if you want to educate yourself further on the condition and its inner workings http://www.fifthsense.org.uk/anosmia-and-its-causes/
[vii] A quote I pilfered from an Op-Doc by Jacob LaMendola https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/opinion/anosmia.html
[xii] It’s a tremendous song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkK8g6FMEXE and you can read about its conception here: https://www.theringer.com/movies/2018/7/2/17518998/i-dont-want-to-miss-a-thing-armageddon-20th-anniversary