Anosmia and Me
‘Anosmia’ is the medical term used to describe the loss or absence of the ability to smell. This condition is so rare and so totally misunderstood that the spell-checker doesn’t even recognise it as a word, adorning it with the familiar red squiggles that cheerfully mark our errors.
The condition falls nicely into two neat categories, handily carving up the affected into groups. There are those like me, ‘Congenital Anosmics’ who were born absent of any ability to smell. In the UK there are a scant six thousand of us, approximately one in every ten thousand, among the general population. Aside from those of us who are congenital sit those who were born with their sense intact but lost it through trauma, infection, or brain injury.
As a congenital anosmic I have never been able to smell. Flowers are beautiful but their scent is a mystery, locked away behind a door I’ll never be able to open.
Most of those with congenital anosmia don’t even know there’s anything amiss until adolescence. I thought that being able to smell was something that came with being a grown-up, perhaps when I went through puberty this whole world I didn’t know would open up for me. I eagerly awaited the day when my prodigal sense came to me at last, when I could finally stop pretending. You see, most of us pretended and lied until our useless noses were as long as Pinocchio’s, in order to seem ‘normal’. When someone said something smelled good or bad, the pantomime would start and I would play my part. Even though I had no idea how to react to smell I proved to be a good enough actor that no-one suspected.
Imagine my parents’ shock when at thirteen I gave up pretending and told them that I’d never been able to smell anything. Their stunned dismay eventually faded and we went together to the doctor to see what was what. Ever had a camera stuck up your nose and down your throat? It’s not very pleasant. Long story short, the engine is all there and in order but the pistons aren’t firing.
In the dozen-or-so years since my diagnosis I find myself more comfortable in telling people the truth about my useless nose. Even so, plenty of people have their well-meaning questions. I’ve heard them quite a lot:
Am I sure I can’t smell? Yeah, I’d say I am quite without doubt as far as my ability to smell goes.
Surely I can’t taste then? I can taste just fine, actually! While it is true that those who once had a sense of smell and subsequently lost it suffer from inability to taste, my own sense of taste developed completely independently from my sense of smell (largely because I don’t have one of those!) so as a result I can taste fine. Being able to taste functionally doesn’t necessarily mean I taste things the same way non-anosmics do, this causes me to question whether certain things require a sense of smell to actually like, though (tea? yuck.)
If I can’t smell, how do I know if food is bad? I taste a little bit, I suppose. Either that or ask one of my fully-functioning friends to give suspect food a quick sniff before I eat it.
If I can’t smell, what would happen if there was a gas leak? Well, without wanting to be too melodramatic, if there was gas leaking into my apartment, I’d probably get turned into a pile of ashes when I switch the lights on. Gas leaks and other such hazards are a big danger for the smelling-impaired and there’s not really a solution.
If I can’t smell, how do I know when I need a shower? Aside from trying to keep a regular showering schedule like other adults, my girlfriend is kind enough to gently tell me when I stink.
As a congenital, I count myself lucky that I am not one of the poor souls who lost their sense through an accident. It must be much easier to never have experienced something than to miss something you once had. Rates of depression among traumatic anosmics are high, many sufferers experience memory problems (the sense of smell is inextricably linked with long-term memory), diminished appetite and libido, and a sense that life has lost its lustre. I have long ago made my peace that there’s an aspect of the world I won’t experience, but all the same, I wanted to share personal experiences with a rarely talked-about and quite interesting condition.
This isn’t meant to be a sob story! We can all agree that I’m not a good enough writer for that.