What aromas have you enjoyed today? For me, I woke to the smell of baking as my daughter made some muffins. It is so easy to take our senses for granted. Today I share a guest post from Chrissi as part of my series about women who have overcome adversity. She tells us about losing her sense of smell and how this made her feel. Be inspired by how she took this experience and set up a charity to help others.
Losing the sense of smell
That summer, I had visited a favourite mountain spot on a hot day. I stopped the car to admire the view. Above me, tall stands of pine trees created a shaded presence, with a cool downdraft that was woodsy, resinous, and earthy. Below me were meadows and fields. From the valley I could smell the heady summer cocktail of hay and pollen, rising up on a warm draft. Those two beautiful smells of the outdoors, which tied me in place and time to a place I loved, were the last smells I remember smelling.
The next day I caught a cold and when I recovered, my sense of smell was gone. Losing my sense of smell changed my life.
My story started on that summer day in 2012. I was in my 50’s, just finishing a decade of caring for my parents who were at the end of their lives. They lived in the States, and my home is in the UK, so transatlantic commuting, along with looking after my husband, grown children, home and dogs made my life full and busy. I loved my garden, being outdoors, cooking.
The forgotten sense
Smell is the forgotten sense. It is the one least prized and also the one least understood by scientists. A recent survey in Australia of university students found that given a choice between losing their sense of smell and their phone, the students would opt to keep their phones. Scientists still do not understand the precise mechanism through which we smell. Drs Axel and Buck in 2004 were able to map out most of the olfactory process, but there are still pieces missing to the puzzle. Back in the doctor’s office, treatments for smell disorders still lag terribly behind, both in terms of possible interventions but also doctor’s attitudes to patients who express such profound bereavement in losing their sense of smell. Most often patients are told: you’ll get used to it.
Women have a more acute sense of smell than men. There are theories on this—we need an acute sense of smell to form a bonding relationship with our babies—but in practical terms our noses are important to us for a variety of reasons. In identifying a sick child, checking for spoiled food, finding the source of a pet accident. Scientists know that when choosing a mate, we can sniff out partners who have a different genetic makeup than we do, a mechanism that helps us produce healthy offspring.
We are not aware of all the ways we are affected by smell. Our brains are constantly picking up information about our environment through our noses, and storing this information, even when it is on a subconscious level. Here’s a great example: if you were to revisit your first school, when you walked through the door you would immediately be taken back in time—by the smell. You won’t remember making a note of what the building smelled like when you were young but when you smell it again, you will be right there in place and time. We know that memories and smell processing take place in the same part of the brain, the limbic system, and this is also the centre of our emotions. To have a strong smell memory like the one I’ve used here, there needs to be an emotional component to the story. You will never remember your car registration number using smell.
My sense of smell was gone, and within a few short months I felt my personality change. I was not just sad that I could not taste my food or smell the flowers in my garden. I felt bereaved. I felt disassociated from the world, my loved ones, even from myself. I felt like I had been thrown in a dungeon and someone had thrown away the key. I can still hear the voice of the doctor who told me “you’ll just have to get used to it” and remember the feeling of my stomach turning over and the sound of a key turning in a lock. I would be separate from the world forever.
My smell loss, at first, was total. This is called anosmia. Coffee and tea were like hot water. Food tasted like cardboard. There were no seasons, and life felt completely flat and without colour. But within a few months, a new horror emerged: strange unearthly smells that could not be described. They were with me constantly, and soon they were making the smell of food unbearable. I found out that this condition was called parosmia. These new smells were at first a nuisance and then a plague, turning coffee, onions, meat and other foods into something more like sewage, putrid and rotten. I could hardly force myself to eat, and cooking or going to the grocery store were impossible. I lost weight, I lost interest in life. I considered suicide. I saw no way of escape.
Seven years on, I’m here to tell the tale. I’m also here to spread the word, and to do that I started a charity called AbScent. My goal as a charity was to provide a resource for others that was not available to me. Somewhere to share my grief. Get reliable information. Learn about the very latest in scientific treatments, or where studies were being conducted that I might participate in. I learned about a technique called smell training which was a life saver for me. This is a major part of AbScent’s offering to our community. I’ve also developed a smell training app called Snif, which is available for free to members of AbScent. And perhaps the achievement that I am most proud of: AbScent is a partner in two important research projects with several universities. One of them, with the University of Reading, seeks to find a molecular basis for parosmia. The other, called the Sense of Smell Project, we are doing in collaboration with one of the world leading research centres for smell disorders.
I made a choice back in 2012. I could lie down and give up or rise up keep going forward. I’m moving forward with AbScent. And I’m pretty well recovered, too.
Have you experienced losing the sense of smell?