|graphic by Sister Anosmiac Jessebelle Lemonade|
Today, February 23rd, is National Anosmia Awareness Day.
A year ago, I'd never heard of anosmia, the clinical term for lack of a sense of smell. I wish that were still true. In June following a virus and knock on the block, I became a textbook case. Previous blogs talked some about the disorder and its impact:
The Less Nosy Life
A poet, a hunger, and life goes on
I never imagined how the loss of this sense would affect my life. That helps (some) with being patient with how difficult it is for others to understand the profound and entangled grief, the daily complications. I don't know if an Awareness Day will help you walk a mile in my shoes, or care how they fit, but maybe you'll get a block or two in.
|This Schnoz-- it was made for smellin'!|
Here's a few things I've missed this year:
The smell of the seasons-- wet pine in rainy fall, a campfire, Christmas. The briny ocean breeze. The sharp, sulphur scent of the 4th of July. Now, the beginnings of Spring with daphne beginning to blossom.
My family as I hugged them, especially those that live far away and I see so rarely. My father's cologne on his clothes, after he died.
Every day scents and the memories they evoke: the dust of books, the sharp of cheese, the incense of wine. My sweethearts' pillow. So many, too many pleasures now gone.
And the biggie: Food. FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD!
I am reminded of this loss a minimum of three times a day. Food is the centerpiece of nearly every celebration, most socializing, each holiday. And I either can't taste it, or it tastes bad. I loved food, such that I was getting significantly "fluffy" the last few years. I have dozens of cookbooks I used to read just for fun; I loved the farmer's market, new restaraunts, reading and talking about food. And I miss it so, so much.
I learned a few years ago to eat slow and to take real pleasure from tastes. It helped me lose 25 pounds in my first ever attempt at weight loss. No diet, just appreciating what I ate and where it came from and being mindful. I put some back on due mostly to a job that requires me to sit (as still as a fidgety person can) in a chair all day, and in misguided self-comforting after some losses a couple years ago. But I kept the habit of truly enjoying what I ate.
In the first few weeks of losing my sense of smell I lost 10 pounds, because nothing tasted. I changed my habits to enjoying texture and stopped losing.
Then in the fall, I developed parosmia (distorted smell). My brain tried to rewire, and amplified or distorted the apparently one molecule I could taste. Suddenly, anything that smelled, smelled the same-- and horrifying. Like burned hair dipped in toxic waste. I became food adverse and lost 25 pounds in short order. I was afraid to go to friend's homes because they might offer or be cooking something that would literally make me sick. Most restaurants were out too. I ate apples and almonds only for weeks and weeks, because they were, if not good, at least predictable and unoffensive.
I'm still not skinny. But please don't tell me how much you wish you could have this disorder so you could lose weight. I would trade my new sizes-smaller jeans in a heartbeat to be able to eat and enjoy a cookie, or even just a regular meal. Most work days I 'm still on apples and almonds. For dinner, if someone cooks, I'll eat it-- but don't ask me what I want to eat, as it mostly doesn't matter. I have learned that I can eat food that doesn't taste good at all to me. I don't like it, but I can eat it.
Memories are another thing slip-sliding away. The olfactory system links straight in to the limbic one, that part of our brain so responsible for emotion and memory. You know this, if you can smell-- one hit of cinnamon and you may be back at Grandma's; hot asphalt may spin you to summers on the midway at the fair. I used to be able to call up scents and the memory would follow. But after not smelling lilacs for a couple of seasons, I can no longer recollect them-- or some of the memories that were hard-wired linked to them.
Depression is common with loss of smell. In some cases that's because of what caused the loss in the first place-- Parkinson's or other degenerative neurological diseases. But studies show it's prevalent in persons with acquired anosmia. Whether that's biological or psychological is up for grabs. But I felt it, and talked to many other anosmiacs who were there too. Anxiety is pretty common as well. I've left the gas burner on, burned food, hugged someone AS they were smoking a cigarette I didn't see. I don't know if I smell bad-- if I had a rotten tooth, would I know it? Is it time to wash that sweater? As a former super-smeller, that just didn't happen before.
And because the few things I can detect smell EXACTLY the same, I don't know what's happening when I walk out of my office late at night and am assaulted by fumes that smell of burnt caramel toxic waste. Is the building's burning down, a cigarette-smoking transient in the hallway, or is it just that someone sprayed the Glade in the bathroom? Maybe it's someone baking brownies in the basement apartment. This is disconcerting.
There are daily inconveniences, especially for the preoccupied/ADHD mind. I can't tell by sniffing if I remembered to put on my deodorant. I have to have my sweetheart smell the milk to see if it's gone off, or the laundry I forgot in the washer to see if it's soured. When I cook, I have no idea if it tastes good or needs a little more or less of this or that spice.
I see shades of recovery. Learning to eat again and overcoming the body's natural opposition to eating things that taste bad was a big one. My nutrition should be improving and my weight stabilizing now. The parosmia has mutated--or my brain, through exposure, has calmed down and no longer sees The Smell as a huge threat. I don't spend most days feeling like I'll throw up. I can go in restaurants now and tolerate the produce and cleaning products section in the grocery if I dart in and out and take a big breath first.
|Please sir, may I have some more?|
If you smell, take some time today and treasure it. Read up a little-- the memoir A Season of Taste, documentary of Luca Turin The Emperor of Scent, Corvallis's own Keith Scribner's novel The Oregon Experiment all talk about the richness of smell and the devastation of its loss.
If you know someone who's lost olfaction, don't ask them if they can smell THIS big smell (just like you don't ask blind people if surely they can't see THAT building). Don't tell them they are making a big deal of it, or that it must be great to not smell farts and poo and garbage. Don't keep offering them the same food they can't bear if they have parosmia, or tell them you wish you could lose weight like that if they have or tease them if they gain (people without the distortion tend to gain weight, since nothing is satisfying like it used to be). Don't center all your plans and celebrations with them around food-- take them to a museum, or a play, or a walk.
And my personal request, just for now, just for while I adjust-- don't rave too much about how great dinner tastes or smells. Just for a little while longer. It's salt (smoked chardonny salt, fresh fleur del mar)-- in the wounds.
Thanks for indulging me today. Take a deep sniff for me, wouldya?