The virus hit me the summer of the great American eclipse.
I’d caught one of those super-strength germs when I was visiting my mother in the hospital. The night before the eclipse, when the moon passing between the Earth and sun would turn day into night, I’d ordered in vindaloo in an attempt to chase away the last vestiges of the virus. My eyes teared and my sinuses dripped, but there was no flavor to my food at all. Just a cold, I thought. But it seemed like my symptoms should have already subsided.
I thought I was lucky to find an eclipse viewing spot on the concrete steps in the crowded plaza outside of my office building. A woman with a pinhole camera fashioned from a single-serve cereal box caught my eye and pointed toward the trash can nearby, then held her nose. I didn’t smell a thing. Astrologers say eclipses show us things in a new light, and by the time the sun was obscured, I realized that my ability to taste and smell had been eclipsed from my life.
The human nose can detect, according to some studies, up to 1 trillion distinct scents, but the virus rendered me unable to smell anything. I became one of the estimated 2 million Americans who suffer from anosmia, the inability to smell, and consequently have a reduced ability to experience flavor as well.
My primary care doctor had little information about smell loss. She suggested I see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. Friends and colleagues were equally befuddled when I mentioned my condition. One co-worker pushed her salad topped with blue cheese under my nose. “Surely you smell this.” Others just said, “That stinks.”
Despite being an avid at-home cook, I didn’t realize how crucial smell was to taste. The tongue detects the basic tastes of salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami, but it’s smell that provides the flavor. To simulate the experience, grab some jelly beans. You’ll likely be able to distinguish the taste of a yellow one from a lavender one. But hold your nose and they all taste the same.
My eating habits suffered. After years of clean eating, potato chips and Doritos were suddenly my jam. Junk food hit the buttons — the crunch like a cheap thrill, the obscene amount of salt and chili powder was my version of lonely dude porn. Afterward I felt like shit, and lost myself in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — cold, sweet, salty and filled with textures. An anosmic ambrosia. (Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s, has anosmia, and he has said his desire for texture led to their distinctive style of ice cream.)
The ENT was more knowledgeable than my general practitioner, but he said there was no medicine he could prescribe, as there’s no known cure for post-viral anosmia. It was possible I’d regain my sense of smell, but he couldn’t tell me how likely it was. He told me about a patient of his, a chef, who’d developed anosmia eight years earlier and had been traveling the world to no avail looking for cures. It had only been six weeks. I couldn’t imagine it going on for eight years.
My laundry pile ballooned. Since I couldn’t smell myself, I erred on the side of caution and changed clothes with unusual frequency. Off to meet a group of writers, several for the first time, I worried about first impressions and decided to freshen up in the ladies’ room in Macy’s. I passed through the men’s cologne section, where I used to go for a bit of sensual reminiscence; a whiff of Grey Flannel once evoked visceral memories of afternoon delight with a particularly handsome photographer.
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I sprayed some Obsession on the tester strip, the scent my husband wore when we were first engaged. It’s an aggressive, musky scent, but that too was blank. I felt the sting of oncoming tears as I tossed the strip in the receptacle by the counter; it had detonated a profound sadness. I imagined myself inside an impenetrable bubble or swathed in cotton, removed from the world.
Anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure, is common among anosmia sufferers. I missed the smell of coffee, the scent of the spice bread I made, the smell of rain. I was jealous of how the white moustache on my shaggy dog twitched as he lifted his nose in pleasure. I missed the popcorn smell of his paws. I missed the smell of sex.
I became a regular at dollar-oyster happy hours. Zinc, I’d read, could help with smell loss. I started working out more. I read that perfumers run up and down stairs to refresh their noses, so I pumped up the cardio. I needed every endorphin I could muster. I found support by participating in anosmia listserv and Facebook groups. I swapped stories and treatments with fellow sufferers — from shared fears to the lack of knowledge about loss of smell in the medical community. There are some inherent dangers in not being able to smell. From burnt toast and scorched pans to actual fires and gas leaks, life without the early warning system of smell was newly risky.
Mostly we exchanged potential cures — some clinically sound, others not so much. Some had doctors who prescribed antibiotics, steroids, or drugs for respiratory issues, others tried muscle relaxers, seizure medications or anti-anxiety protocols. People shared their herbal potions and vitamin supplements, from alpha lipoic acid to moringa powder — the only one I tried was vitamin B12. Others tried hanging from the side of the bed and coating their noses with vitamin A drops.
Several people reported success with smell training. I was intrigued. Training worked for me at the gym, and I knew nose training worked for perfumers, wine experts and even dogs. This rehabilitative version was devised by Professor Thomas Hummel of Dresden University. In 2009 he tested the twice daily sniffing of each of four essential oils: lemon, rose, eucalyptus and clove. For 30 percent of the subjects, 12 weeks of this regimen improved their olfactory function.
I discovered the Smelltraining.co.uk site, founded by recovered anosmic Chris Kelly, who developed her own protocol for smell training. She offers basic instructions as well as guided Skype sessions, and even sells smell-training kits.
But I didn’t want to wait for a kit to ship. I dug up a pad of watercolor paper left over from my days of printing Polaroid transfers. I found the high-quality essential oils at a Wicca shop in the East Village, where I waited while a woman selected herbs and sage to snuff out a bad love.
I unscrewed the cap of the amber glass vial and let a few thick drops of rose oil bleed on to the strip of creamy white watercolor paper, forming a party-dress-pink stain.
There is a proper way to sniff — measured, deliberate, no urgent draws of breath. Our sense of smell is dependent on the first smell signals the olfactory receptors detect. The power of the top note. I brought the oil-soaked paper up to my nose. I breathed in and hoped to be lifted from the bleak, flat reality of my odorless world.
I didn’t smell the eucalyptus, but I could feel it. The trigeminal nerve, which runs through the face and nose, responds to scent. It’s the reason menthol feels cool and that there’s a burning sensation when you breathe in ammonia. The trigeminal nerve serves up the joy that is the spicy food I can feel but not taste. It’s the reason I always have hot sauce in my purse.
I dipped the watercolor paper into the lemon oil and took a whiff. Nothing.
I decided that if smell training was going to work for me, I’d have to add another layer. I’d reverse engineer the Proust effect, the power of smell to unlock memory — the name a tribute to the narrator in Swann’s Way, who dips a madeleine pastry in tea and unleashes a flood of memories.
Lemon bars were my madeleine. I thought of the ones from Aureole, when that restaurant was in a townhouse on 62nd Street. I conjured the elegant upstairs banquette, celebrating with my then soon-to-be husband. We were flush and in love. Lemon can be biting, but the buttery richness of the shortbread crumb, the dusting of confectioner’s sugar on the top, made these lemon bars creamy and delectable.
I squeezed my eyes and tried to focus on the memory. I could almost feel the circuits firing in my brain. I breathed in. I sniffed again with desperation and abandon.
My ability to detect flavor improved after a few months of smell training. Soon I could detect the odor of all the essential oils, but not smells in the wild. That is, until one otherwise forgettable dinner with friends. In a bright flash of pleasure, I squeezed a lemon on my fish … and I smelled it.
I wanted more. I sniffed everything in my spice cabinet, everything in my world, usually to no avail. I purchased a larger set of essential oils with a good selection of citrus. I worked on nuance, and soon could detect the difference between lime, grapefruit, sweet orange and tangerine oils. I had an awkward moment at the gym after deadlifts. I suddenly and briefly smelled the sweat of a woman who was working out nearby. I’m sure my face telegraphed my extreme delight at smelling again, which must have sent a very confusing social cue, because she avoids me now.
On a Sunday morning during our spring trip to Amsterdam, my husband and I visited the city’s 17th-century Portuguese synagogue. The women’s gallery rims the ceiling of the enormous Sephardic sanctuary. We climbed the stairs, my breath quick and deep. One section of pews looked as if it had been recently replaced. As my breath slowed, I detected the scent of wood and aromatic spices, the scent lingering from the previous night’s Havdalah ceremony. It was faint but intoxicating. My husband confirmed the smell.
I felt physically lighter. I thought of it as a sign. When a Havdalah service is over, the candle is extinguished and the smell of wick and wax mix with the spices. You breathe in the sweetness of Shabbat one more time and hope it carries through to the week. I wanted to cheer and hear my voice reverberate around the grand room. What a perfect place to regain my sense of smell.
But before we hopped the tram back to our hotel, all smell was gone, and I was again enveloped in a gray blanket.
It was just shy of a year since I’d had the virus when I booked a Smell Identification Test. I’d seen several posts saying a year was a good barometer for a recovery prognosis, and Chris Kelly was offering a smell assessment test through her site. I sharpened my pencil and scratched each of the 40 circles, trying to identify the correct odors from the multiple-choice answers in the booklets.
I had to guess at many of the smells, and a few I couldn’t detect at all. I’d pegged soap as black pepper, I thought licorice was cheese, and pine smelled like smoke. I scored 20 out of 40, somewhat better than if I’d just guessed, and technically had hyposmia rather than anosmia. But I still couldn’t wake up and smell the coffee, cook by taste instead of recipe, or smell my own perfume.
I’d procrastinated about getting the results interpreted, in part because I’d settled into a more accepting stage of grief about my smell loss, but also because I didn’t want to confront the newest manifestation of my smell dysfunction; I was experiencing parosmia — random, phantom bad smells.
“Parosmia comes after the void,” Chris Kelly reassured me. She’s whip-smart, and through her organization AbScent, she helps fill an information gap about anosmia. She told me she and others she’s spoken to have experienced parosmia as a precursor to further recovery. Her words carried weight since she was standing on the other side of what I was going through.
Someone in the anosmia support group signed off after he’d been recovered for as long as he’d been without smell. His parting words of encouragement — just keep sniffing — stuck in my mind as I persisted with my smell training. Kind of like faking it till you make it.
People sometimes ask if my other senses were sharper after I’d lost my sense of smell. I’d quickly answer no. My anosmia made me feel like I was sealed off from my life — nothing was sharper. Yet at random moments, I noticed I’d become hyperaware of touch. Little things, like the feel of the leather on my dog’s leash, smoother in the spots where I curl it around my wrist, or the enveloping comfort of my yoga pants, or the spark from the touch of my husband’s hand on my back inching around my waist. I looked forward to the salad from my neighborhood spot, shaved beets, walnuts and sweet potato: a rainbow of color and texture I now relished. Even plain Greek yogurt had a luxuriant creaminess, silky on the tongue.
And music. The cross-fades and fuzz-box effects of a favorite Jimi Hendrix song unfurl memories. The music is vivid, visceral, perhaps more so than ever. Maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to compensate. Like so many other valuable things, it seems to come with practice. If I keep up smell training and make more progress, maybe I’ll be better off for having honed my other senses too.
I was in upstate New York at the end of the summer, a full year after the virus, on the peak night of the Perseid meteor shower. When my son was young, we’d time our getaways to be able to see the shooting stars. Keep your most important wish in your head, I’d tell him as we looked up at the sky.
As much as I’d like to regain my full sense of smell, that night I wished for other things.