Cream rinse and tobacco smoke, that sickly scent is always there… My life with #anosmia

My stove takes forever to heat up.  I put a pan on with a small amount of oil then went to watch The Batman while I waited for it to be ready.  When I next turned around, the apartment was full of smoke.  It had freakishly warmed up faster than usual and the oil was smoking.

This isn’t an uncommon event for me.  My sauteed mushrooms once ignited and I had no idea until I turned around to see the tongues of fire licking the rangehood.

Food, in general, is a bit of a disaster zone.  As I told ABC Radio Canberra a few months ago, I once ate sausages so rancid that the carrion-eating magpies wouldn’t touch them.  I regularly consume off food.  Has the milk been out of the fridge too long?  How long ago did I cook that curry?  Are the contents of this unmarked jar supposed to be brown and squidgy?

This is life without a sense of smell.  The official term is ‘anosmia’.  Unlike the majority of people who lose their sense of smell due to age or accident, I’ve been nose-deaf since I was born.

In some senses (ha), I’m lucky.  It’s an invisible disability.  I can function in the world without people staring or commenting.  I don’t need special ramps or white sticks or for people to speak into my good ear.

On the other hand, I’m a bit unlucky.  It’s an invisible disability.  If I need somebody’s help, I need to ask for it and encourage them to get over their quite understandable politeness.  I need somebody to tell me if I’ve stepped in dogshit, for example.  I need people to pick out deodorants and colognes for me (what the McFreak does ‘Pulse’ smell like?  Or ‘Africa’?).  Can I wear this shirt again?  Has my wet laundry been in a heap for a bit too long?  Can I invite a girl back to my bedroom if I haven’t aired it this week?

The paranoia is probably the worst bit.  I am impeccably polite, but there is a complete sense of dread when I have to take my shoes off when going into somebody’s house.  A friend of the family complained that her son’s friends made the whole house smell of feet whenever he took his shoes off.  Do people say things like that behind my back?  I moved house recently and refused — absolutely and utterly refused — to let anybody help me with my mattress because I dreaded the thought that it smelled.  I air it and flip it every month…  Is that enough?  I hurled a Queen size mattress up four flights of stairs singlehandedly because nobody — nobody — was going to judge me silently for how my mattress smelled.  New pillows every six months.  I think it’s almost time for a new set of blankets and duvet.

I’ve lived in apartments with gas leaks.  I now offer people lifts after it was revealed that, in my previous car, I’d been driving around with in cabin full of petrol smell (a tube had burst in the engine and was spraying fuel across the rest of the engine).  I have a fairly extreme allergy to a particular plant which, apparently, has a very strong and distinctive scent: somewhere between work and home, I was bumping into this plant or somebody was using the oil for something, and I had absolutely no way of detecting it.

And then there’s dealing with the jerks of the world.  I’ve been in heated debates with people who campaign against ‘use by’ dates on food.  I live by them.  If we got rid of them, I would have to consume food within a day of purchasing it.  To this objection, I was told that people with anosmia are in a minority and don’t justify the huge amount of wasted food caused by use by dates.  It’s a weird world where ‘Ensuring food doesn’t go to waste’ is a higher priority than ‘Ensuring people with disabilities can function in the world’.  I was once mocked quite viciously by my high school sports teacher in front of a class when I admitted to not having a sense of smell during a first aid class.  He teaches sport, so I figure I was still beating him at life.

And then there’s my favourite phrase of all: ‘Oh, you’ll be able to smell this!’  There’s a level of unreality to anosmia: people just don’t believe that a person could lack a sense of smell for some reason.  Nobody would come back from seeing the most amazing film ever and say to a blind person, ‘Oh, you’ll be able to see this!’  Nobody buys tickets for their stone-deaf friend to attend a rock concert because they believe the noise will be so loud that their hearing will magically cut in.  And yet, about every two months or so, somebody will inform me that I’ll definitely be able to smell odour or other.

Beyond practical concerns, there’s also the missing qualia.  People describe to me how particular smells remind them of their childhood, how they become hungry when they smell bread baking, how the air smells after a storm.  According to a study, having a poor sense of smell is even linked to psychopathy, callousness, and a lack of empathy.  It’s difficult to not sound like a psychopath when you let a girl know how great her neck tastes (seriously, people’s skin ranges from salty to sweet to bitter to fruity…), and yet I’ve seen people in television shows nonchalantly opine, ‘Hey, you smell great.’

There’s a disappointed look in a girl’s eye when she realises I can’t smell her perfume.  While flowers look pretty, I get very little help from florists when I ask them to describe the smell (hat tip to Lush in the Canberra Centre: I was trying to get bath salts as a gift for a partner; the elaborate lengths to which they went in order to describe the smell to me…).  I’ll never win the MasterChef smell challenge.

A friend of mine enjoys doing blindfold tests to test my enjoyment of food as taste and smell are linked.  Although people have insisted to me that I’m unable to taste things because I have no sense of smell, I can still taste salty, sugary, spicy, bitter foods.  Although I can pick a good scotch and spot the bourbon amid the whiskeys, I can’t accurately distinguish the taste of blue cheese.  It turns out that the Homebrand salami is my favourite kind of cured meat (it’s the saltiest and greasiest).

That last point is important: I would half-jokingly declare that my favourite food is salt.  If I’m not careful, I eat like an American.  And ‘X-flavoured’ food rarely tastes X-flavoured (although I’m reliably informed that banana-flavour doesn’t taste like banana to regular people either).

So it’s difficult not to get excited about documentary projects to raise awareness about anosmia, or hear about massive meetups of people with no sense of smell.  On the one hand, it makes you feel slightly less like a complete freak.  The world is now populated with people who are just like you, who know what it feels like to have absolutely no way of knowing if your friend is leaning away from you because of your body odour or because of their dodgy back.  And on the other hand, it makes everybody else in the world slightly more comfortable with dealing with you.  ‘Oh, you have no sense of smell?’  they will say in the future.  ‘Heads up: your coat is a bit stinky.’

But more importantly, it gives me a bit of space to say ‘Hey, this is actually a disability’ without feeling like a sook.  Sure, I’m never going to need my own parking space, a fun run for a cure, or a dedicated lobby group to have a colossal antisocial whinge when the definition changes in the DSM, but what I am going to need is a bit more of a say in debates about food regulation than the dumpster-diving hippies who can tell the difference between ‘expired’ and ‘beyond its expiry date’.

And an artificial nose.  Seriously, why don’t we have gizmos that can detect and identify odours yet?  Get to work, boffins.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

3 thoughts on “Cream rinse and tobacco smoke, that sickly scent is always there… My life with #anosmia”

  1. Great read which describes the congenital anosmic life brilliantly. Too many similar list. I’m glad I have a more sensitive sense of taste than you do though. Instead of an artificial nose, can someone develop a device that as soon as you say you have no sense of smell, it’ll switch on the common sense part of their brain to stop the “You must be able to smell this!” or “I bet you can’t taste either!” comments?

  2. I’m an acquired anosmic, 20 years ago I simply stopped being able to smell. I think that what is lost is flavour – I have all the tastes – including umami, but I cannot tell one jelly bean from another, soft drinks – I think I could identify Coke and plain lemonade but others I’d struggle.
    Rockmelon/cantaloupe tastes awful. I prefer savoury, crunchy foods. Sadly these are mostly fattening!!
    I think you get used to anything, including this. I don’t think of it as a disability, just an impairment.
    My greatest sadness is not being able to smell my children (now grown up) or my beloved man.

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