Anosmia by the Elements: Air and Water


[size=+1]Man without a nose (from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493)[/size]​

[size=+3]If[/size] you think back to grade school, you will almost certainly remember the question. You were studying the senses of the human body. You had just learned what you already knew - that you had 5 basic senses: vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. The "sixth sense" was not yet a movie. You were asked which sense you would give up. Almost all the kids chose smell. You were probably one of them. A few nerdy kids - who knew that most flavor actually comes through the sense of smell - might pick taste instead. And there was always some romantic girl in the class who would pick vision - so that she could smell the roses, taste fine chocolate, feel the luxurious texture of silk, and hear the words "I love you". Come to think of it - I'll wager that she's on a perfume blog at this very moment!

I never really resolved the question for myself. I think I picked smell, but I always had a sneaking suspicion that the girl had chosen more wisely. In any case, since that time, over the course of a lifetime, I have had the experience of losing each of the senses for short periods of time. Vision was scary. Hearing was painful. Touch was weird. I'm not sure if taste really happened, since smell was probably gone, too. But in any case, I don't want to talk about those. I want to talk about the one we Basenoters all care about.

I now understand that I have probably lost my sense of smell several times in the past. I just didn't care about it. And I just assumed that it would come back. It is only in my post-fragrance life that it really mattered to me. It is only in that life that I tested my anosmia, discovered just how long and strong it actually was, and wished for it to end.

I have now experienced anosmia by two causes - which I have whimsically named Air and Water. Yes, it's a scary thing. But bear with me. Knowing that the story usually has a happy ending, I hope to share my experiences, so that others will realize that there is a light at the end of the tunnel when they, too, experience anosmia.

Let's do Water first. That's an easy one - and one which is easy to prevent. Flash back to a summer pool party. Now I'm not much of a swimmer, but I've been swimming since childhood. I don't do it often, but I do do it at least a few times a year. Well, the interesting thing about my neighbors' pool is that they have something which most lawsuit-weary hotels don't have any more - a diving board. Testing it out for a cannonball, I got some big air - and rediscovered something I had forgotten since childhood. The need to pinch one's nose.

When the neighbor's highly chlorinated pool water filled my nasal cavity - and possibly even my sinuses - it stung like the dickens. Letting it drain, I actually had to wait a while for the pain to subside. I also had a bad feeling about what had just happened. This wasn't just my nose - it was my sniffer! But I didn't notice any loss of smell for a while. We even had a beer-tasting event later in the evening, and I felt like I was getting decent differentiation between individual years on the same brew. But what I didn't realize until later was that these dark, powerful beers, ales, and stouts were all registering way lighter than they should have. And so it wasn't until the next day that I realized what had happened. Swimmer's anosmia.

When I pick my scent of the day, usually in the morning, I always sniff the spray nozzle of the bottle as a final check. The basenotes are always there. They are either reassuring me that the scent is going to work for the day, or warning me to choose something else. But unless it's a brand-new bottle, I always register something - usually at the level I expect. Any deviation tells me how well my sniffer is working. Like any finely tuned instrument, it's not always operating at 100%. But on this particular morning, it was operating at 0% - on everything I could throw at it.

It was only my higher brain that was telling me not to freak out. My sense of smell was so utterly gone, it seemed like I had never been able to smell at all - that my scent memory was just my imagination. Even Kouros, sweet Kouros, could not rouse a response. But thankfully my higher brain was telling me that I had jumped into pools thousands of times, blowing water up my nose as a kid, and even as an adult, without destroying my sense of smell. Surely this could not last.

Well, it didn't. It took some time for my sense of smell to come back, but it did. By the end of the day, I was registering something. I even sniffed a couple of things in stores, and got more than just air. Over about a week, my sense of smell got back to a level that was no longer threatening. But I will never jump into a pool again without pinching my nose. Nor will I use chlorinated cleansers without adequate ventilation. For I have met the enemy, and her name is Chlorine.

My second experience - Air - was also quite scary. Air isn't actually air - it's germs and viruses, which may or may not be airborne. But whatever it was, this particular bug was the first one in my post-Basenotes life to actually knock the old sniffer offline. It was a nasty sore-throat-and-dry-nasal-cavity bug - the kind that sets the sinuses on fire. On day one, I was unable to smell lighter scents like Tabarome Millesime at all - even when sniffed directly from a vial. Even Green Irish Tweed - normally a powerful and very specific set of notes - barely registered. Still, I went to bed hoping that not all was lost.

On day two, I am happy to report, my sense of smell began to return. But when I got up that morning, it was still almost completely gone. For SnS Saturday (Amber!), I had hoped to wear Ambre Sultan. However, my tiny, 1-mL sample did not deserve to be spent on a nose that might not smell it. Neither did my precious sample of Ambre Precieux (which may soon turn into a full bottle, but not soon enough). So I decided to opt for a pair of highly reliable scents - which I had already bottled on - with good, strong, ambery drydowns that my nose could search for all day long: Miller Harris Feuilles de Tabac and Creed's Bois du Portugal. Not exactly amber scents, but close enough for an anosmic nose.

I could barely smell Feuilles de Tabac when I first put it on. But by the time I left the house that morning, I was getting something - the primary balsamic note. At the nursery, shopping for evergreens, I could not smell the flowers, but I could smell the lavender-bergamot room freshener on sale - enough to tell that it was decent stuff. As lunchtime approached, I was overjoyed to reach the point where I could not only smell my cologne on my wrist, but could have easily picked it out of a crowd of similar scents. After lunch I verified this by applying Bois du Portugal on the other wrist. Indeed, although I was not getting a lot of difference, I was getting enough to tell them apart. By evening, I could still get faint whiffs of both scents from the drydowns. Not quite cured, but on the way to recovery.

I also experienced some interesting effects as my sense of smell returned in bits and pieces over the next two weeks. For example, I wore Tokyo by Kenzo one morning, and was surprised at how well I was getting the green aspect of the topnotes. Interestingly, I could barely smell the guaiac wood note that I normally enjoy so much. As I concentrated on the green notes, I could definitely detect the melony note of another fave - Bond no.9's Wall Street. I had never consciously detected this in Tokyo, but now, thanks to a selective anosmia for the guaiac wood component, I had discovered it.

I decided to test my observation by wearing Wall Street the next day. As expected, I was treated to the biggest blast of melon that I have ever experienced from this scent. Within days, my sense for guaiac wood also returned, stronger and better than ever. It is almost as if the episode somehow cleaned out my sniffer.

I think that the lesson is not to freak out about temporary anosmias. It seems likely to me that they are far more common than we think, and that we just don't notice them unless we have some reason to be worried about it. So the next time you suffer anosmia, take comfort - it almost certainly won't last forever. And even if it does, it's not the end of the world. "Oh yeah?", you say. How do I know?

It turns out that I have an actual anosmic acquaintance. I've known him for years, but I didn't know that he was a total anosmic until recently, when he caught me with a bag of goodies from Sephora and we got to talking. It may have happened sometime during early childhood, or he may have been born that way - nobody is sure. He always knew that he had a bad sense of smell compared to normal people, but he didn't really understand just how bad it was until he discovered that he couldn't even smell powerful lab chemicals. Surprisingly, he's just not that bummed by it. He loves fine food, and gets quite a bit of pleasure from it, despite not being able to smell it. Perhaps taste and texture are enough, or perhaps he doesn't know what he's missing. Either way, I don't expect to be able to turn him into a Basenoter anytime soon.

However, I do have a new buddy for those Kouros-wearing days...

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