I’m having my sense of smell switched back on, and it feels like a farm went off in my nose

Jason Caplin
6 min readMay 6, 2015

About five years ago I lost almost all my sense of smell. No catastrophe, no trauma; my sinuses just conspired against me.

This evening, with the help of a final hefty whack of steroids, I’ve just started to smell and taste again. And although losing your smell is in no way as debilitating as losing sight, touch or hearing, I can only begin to imagine how incredible it must be for someone to regain those senses too.

I’m recording this for two reasons. One, because I’ll probably never have the experience of regaining a lost sense again. And two, because I was supposed to be going out for dinner tonight, and I couldn’t really explain why I had to bail. You know who you are; please accept this by way of apology.

This morning, as almost every morning, I went into Starbucks and came out holding a skinny latte. They offered me a Peru roast, which I took, because hey, I’ve got gold stars so it came for free. I have absolutely no idea what it tasted like in comparison to their normal coffee, because I can’t taste either of them. I asked for a hazelnut shot (also free — thank you, Seattle) because I can taste that. It tastes of sweet. I like sweet. Not as much as salty, but I don’t think they do a popcorn shot yet. And that’s as far as it went taste-wise. Hot sweet thing.

Over the past few years, people have often asked why I like cooking and eating so much if I can’t smell or taste anything. I’ve realised only recently that I’ve really come to enjoy the texture of food. That latte, for instance. It’s smooth and a bit squeaky on your tongue, like the shiny side of Sellotape. In a cappuccino the edges of the milk bubbles are more cottony on the roof of your mouth. Espresso makes the roots of your teeth tingle. I think this is what sommeliers call mouthfeel. But it’s not like feeling with your skin; your tongue gives you hints of the taste, and there’s warmth and scobles and vapour and bubbles and crunchy noises to enjoy too, so it’s like feeling in extra dimensions. I have come to love this; it’s half the joy I get out of a good meal, and richly complements the other half, which is watching someone else glory in the tastes of the food too. (I love cooking for this reason alone. I really, really hope people haven’t just been being sweet to me these past few years. Don’t worry, I’ll have a taste of my own medicine soon, and then I’ll write to you all to profusely apologise.)

And during the day today, I’ve realised my smell has been coming back in irregular, muffled announcements. My deskmate exhaled his vape smoke and I thought for a split second I could smell it. Coffee, I guessed. Wrong, he said, watermelon. Later on I thought I could taste hazelnuts. Was my nose-brain interface just going very slowly, was it all happening inside my head, was I smelling the end of my latte still in the back of my throat, or was something else going on? I feel like I can’t tell the difference between memory and reality yet, and I’m no longer sure there’s a clear line between the two.

That’s something that’s regularly confused me in the past few years. If I look at chocolate, and my mouth registers chocolate, can I taste chocolate? Or can I conjure the memory of chocolate to go with the texture? If I split a Mars bar in two, as I have done regularly, I can’t taste the caramel part. And it goes without saying that none of it smells of anything.

And a medical consultant I once saw told me that my asthma might have been caused by salicylate intolerance, and advised me to stop coffee, tomatoes and cheese. It had no effect, but it planted the seed of a thought back then: is there another link? If I reeled off the list of everything I look forward to eating (chocolate, coffee, blueberries, roasted cashews, Marmite, bloody maries, stinky cheese, paprika, burnt onions, seaweed), is it coincidence that they’re almost all sources of salicylic acid?

There are other flavours and smells that have got through over the years, too. I don’t know how I know they’re there, but they are. Pheromones. No question, they fly straight past nose and into brain. And I can tell when I’m in a dog flat, or when I’ve burned the clutch. Though I wonder whether I’ll be able to keep not smelling farts. That’s been useful.

And so to tonight. Here it is, then. Smell at full blast. The inside of my head is basically completely uncalibrated. My nose just has no idea what to do with this rediscovered fury of data. Walking to the tube, I tentatively tried breathing in through my nose. Once. I felt alarm bells going off at the back; smells that had no place together (and which I could only vaguely recall in name) set my eyes watering and made me gag. I sneezed, a lot. At the big roundabout I could smell mint, horses, an outdoor pool from a family holiday when I was eight. The supermarket smelt of hair, even though I don’t think I could tell you what hair smells like, and it set me wondering how much of this my brain was reconstructing on the fly. The tube was almost unbearable and I blinked to stop crying. Chilli, pigs, an oak tree, digestive biscuits, pond, Mr Sheen. A woman leaned back towards me and — I’m sorry — I coughed because her coat overwhelmed me with lavender and book. Some of the smells I can’t place. There’s one that smells a bit like burning cardboard but which my memory is constantly scraping itself to put a name to. There is sileage and rotting meat everywhere. I feel like a farm has gone off in my nose.

To write this I’m breathing through my mouth because if I try my nose I can’t concentrate on the screen: fresh emulsion paint, lemons, urban snow, something acrid, something earthy. I’m not near any of this stuff. What’s my brain doing? Is it trying to recalibrate, or is it just telling me this is what I can smell? Is this actually what my flat smells like to everyone else? I’m really sorry, people who came to the barbecue. I thought I was a clean person. But maybe my flat reeks. (Someone tell me it’s not true or I’ll die of shame.)

For dinner tonight, instead of the glorious sticky sushi I was looking forward to giggling over, I have just bitten into a supermarket cheese and tomato pizza. Smoke, plywood. Salt, maybe something a bit meaty. Nothing like tomato. Sweet dessert wine. I can’t feel the pungency rising through my head from the cheese; sadly it’s not French, unpasteurised and ancient. What if that sensation will go now, overwhelmed by the flavours? Do I lose my texture buds? Do I get a choice in how my brain interprets food now? Will I take it for granted? (Can I smell if milk is off before I put it in my mouth and feel it curdle now?)

I’m sorry, supermarket. I can’t eat your pizza. It tastes of donkey and blood and eggshell and leather jacket. Don’t sue me. I know it’s not true and it’s just my brain interpreting. But I’m suddenly not hungry.

And to the other person I have in mind while I’m writing this, I’m sorry that I cancelled tonight. I wouldn’t have wanted to inflict this on you all evening, and I worried that I wouldn’t have been able to focus enough attention anywhere else, including the far more traumatic situation that you are currently living with. If you or anyone else wants to come over and tell me my flat doesn’t reek of cow farm, I’ll be very flattered.

But in any case, here’s my little story of regaining a lost sense, and my admiration for anyone else that’s experienced the same blizzard of neuron renegotiation. I thought emotions were the only rollercoaster. I was wrong; turns out the inside of a human head has a few other joyrides to unlock too.