Anosmia – Don’t take your noses for granted!

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There's a funny thing about noses: Everyone smells things differently. Every single olfactory experience is unique to the person smelling it. That's astonishing when you think about it; 100 people smelling the same rose will experience that smell in their own, particular, way. How they experience that rose's scent will depend on their memories, their experience of having smelled roses before, their own physical makeup, even their mood will have an effect. Some people even “see” smells (a condition called “synaesthesia”), and every person who “sees” a smell will see it filtered through their own unique experience too. It's pretty wonderful, and completely mind-blowing when you ponder on smell for a while.

That is, of course, unless you can't smell at all. Every person who loses their sense of smell experiences it in almost exactly the same way. It is (not to put too fine a point on it) miserable. And worse, to those not affected by anosmia, not being able to smell is pretty funny. Just think, rides on the tube not affected by smelly feet and BO, what a relief! Not being able to smell bins or sewage, or fox funk in the streets, what bliss!

But it's not bliss. For every bad smell you miss out on, there are a hundred other wonderful smells you miss out on; bacon frying, your lover's hair, fresh cut grass. I could have listed any one of a million things here, because I miss them all. Even the bad ones. Sometimes, even especially the bad ones. I had a bad cold a while ago, and whilst the cold symptoms have long gone, my nose is simply refusing to co-operate, and now, over a month later, I still can't (reliably) smell a thing.

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In ordinary life, this may not have mattered so much, I'd probably be quite happy doing my new, de-funkified commute and never knowing when the bins need putting out. But, for a few years now I've been educating myself about perfumes, and in the process, almost as a by-product, it seems I've accidentally been teaching myself to smell things differently. Better. Scent now occupies a place in my heart that I never expected, and it's become a huge part of my life. I miss it. I miss it like an old friend, or a favourite pet, and I'm astonished at just how painful losing the sense of smell has been. I mourn it daily. I'm acting like a drama queen, perhaps, but it's true.

Deconstructing fragrances, filtering them through my own perspective, and then writing about the impressions I get has been one of the most pleasurable experiences of life over the last few years, and it's been an experience I've been lucky enough to share with many people too. I've made a lot of friends in the perfume-sphere, through our shared bond of an unhealthy interest in how things smell, and now I'm feeling an outcast, thrown adrift on the whim of an unreliable nose. Even though I mainly write funny pieces for Basenotes, pieces that look like they've been thrown together in a few minutes flat, those essays have been just as important a learning experience – to learn what is good, one really does have to try the bad too, just so you can really tell the difference – for my nose as my more "serious" pieces elsewhere. Even though I've not been involved in fragrance for long, I thought I was showing an aptitude for it, in a way that had been totally unexpected to me, and it was a wonder to find such joy in something so simple. Smelling things. With my nose.

My nose which now doesn't work. My nose, which is causing much hilarity to my loved ones, just doesn't do anything. Noses are intrinsically funny though, aren't they? My nose is big and bumpy and bony, and one would think that something that takes up so much of the valuable real-estate of my face would have a function, but for now, it's just there, hanging around, not doing very much. It's like an uninvited guest at a particularly boring party. There's nothing funny about going temporarily blind, or deaf, but because noses aren't “important” organs in the same way, when we lose the specific ability to use the sense of smell, it's funny in a way that blindness or deafness isn't. There's something hugely amusing about a fragrance writer losing their “nose” – I still have a sense of the ridiculous, and yes it is funny. Spend a couple of years learning to smell, only to lose the entire ability overnight. Yes, that's amusing in a schadenfreude kind of a way, alright.

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Smell however, is not just about being able to tell if the milk is off, it is tied to memory (or at least my memory), in an almost primal way. Imagine never being able to form a new scented memory again. Imagine never having the luxury of cuddling up to a t-shirt, imprinted with the smell of a loved one who is far away, for comfort. Go find a bottle of your mother's favourite fragrance, take a deep sniff and revel in the memories that unfurl in your mind. Then imagine never being able to do that again. Not so funny now, is it? I once nearly burst into tears whilst smelling Clair de Musc by Serge Lutens for the first time in Selfridges. So strongly did images of long-gone female relatives spring to mind, that I needed a few moments to compose myself. It was an unexpected vision, and so shockingly awesome in its Technicolor imagery that I had to sit down for a minute or two, apologising to the sales assistant all the while, cursing myself and my momentary madness. However, it was such a beautiful, searing moment, and I eventually treasured it so much, that I wore a tiny dab of Clair de Musc alongside my “official” fragrance on my wedding day, so I could symbolically take those much-beloved, and long-missed women down the aisle with me.

Now imagine that every single thing you eat has the taste and texture of “moderately flavoured socks”. That's the other problem with anosmia, it's a “buy one, get one free” situation. You lose taste too. Pinch your nose, put a small amount of your favourite food in your mouth, whatever that happens to be. Really attempt to taste that food. Faint, isn't it? The ghost of a favourite flavour. Now, release your nostrils. Doesn't that taste like someone has turned the volume up on that food all the way to 11? Everything I taste these days tastes like it does when you pinch your nostrils, and it's the worst diet ever invented. When flavour is relegated to an extremely distant second to texture, food simply isn't a pleasure any more.

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I have hopes that smell will be back. I've been smothering myself in some much-loved scents recently, and I think I can smell them. But, in reality, I don't really know if I'm actually smelling what I think I'm smelling, or simply remembering what something used to smell like. It's an olfactory and psychological puzzle, and it's exhausting. Occasionally, I'll catch a fleeting whiff of something, a handwash, maybe, or the passing fragrance of a cup of hot soup on a colleagues desk, or, as it was for one bright and shining moment, the smell of Miller Harris Tangerine Vert, but it's never for more than a second, however much I do my best impression of a sniffer dog in a hippy compound on the hunt for contraband.

Don't take your noses for granted. Sniff, smell, and rejoice in your own unique scented world. Smell the bad things, and then revel in the truly great smells, and the memories they evoke. Once smell is gone, the world is a much greyer, less pleasurable place, in a million tiny, unexpected ways.

 

Bacon Image: LisaFX/IstockPhoto

Scary doll image: Grant Osborne

 

 

 
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Not having a sense of smell

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