Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Life with Anosmia

I am anosmic. The word is Greek and translates to “without smell”. Anosmic is the term used to describe people who have no sense of smell. For a long time, I thought I was born anosmic. I hadn't been completely convinced of this fact, because I do have the memory of one single odor. It is the smell of cherry cough syrup. That's probably not the best memory to hold, but it is the only smell that I do think have. Given the fact that I recall this smell, it is possible that I had a sense of smell at one point in time. When did this change? I do not know. How did this change? I have a theory.

I don't know when I discovered I have no sense of smell. I don't even know when I came to recognize the fact that I lacked a sense other people had. What I have, instead, are three stories about my sense of smell from my childhood. I also have my experiences living without this one sense and the interactions and complications that I have run into with this smell. And, I have my own personal response to common questions or statements I hear.

My earliest memory involving the sense of smell is a very short picture. I remember having a set of scratch and sniff stickers. The stickers, I believe, were fruit shaped. I tried scratching them and sniffing them. I didn't notice anything different. I tried other stickers and came to the same conclusion. My mom, I believe tested them and confirmed they did actually work. I tried again and gave up. In my childlike mind, I could not grasp that it was me, not the stickers that were broken.

My next memory has a little bit more detail to it. I was in the fifth grade in Mrs. Murphy's class. The class was studying the five senses. I remember volunteering to the class that I had no sense of smell. Mrs. Murphy actually tested this in front of the class. I was blindfolded and different foods were held beneath my nose. I couldn't even tell that something was underneath my nose, let alone identify a smell to them.

My other memory is more of a story. I was a teenager and I was vacuuming the living room. My mom came racing into the room in a panic. And had me shut off the vacuum cleaner. I had no idea what the alarm was about. Well, as it happened, the rubber belt to the vacuum cleaner had slipped loose. The vacuum cleaner was creating a lot of friction on the rubber, making the entire house smell of burnt rubber. My mom, realizing I had no idea this had happened, turned to me and said, “You really don't have a sense of smell, do you?”

The last story is important, because it is an echo in my life. Smell is both a major part of our world, and something overlooked. On one hand, I'm lucky with my disability. The impairment is both minor and inobvious. People can be horrible or idiotic when dealing with people with disabilities. I have witnessed first hand on numerous occasions the offensive behaviors from members of our society. I've been lucky in that I've never had to experience those behaviors. On the other hand, my disability has the drawback of being both minor and inobvious.

My mom's statement is a perfect example of the minor drawback. She forgot. Everyone forgets. My sister over Christmas, who has known me for her entire life, forgot. Everyone forgets that I have a sense of smell. I absolutely hate having to remind people. If I had a five dollar bill every time someone asked me, “What's that smell?” I'd own my own personal elephant with a private elephant trainer.

People forgetting I don't have a sense of smell isn't that big of an issue. It certainly isn't my biggest annoyance. That is reserved for people who are trying to sell products with an odor to them. You might find these people annoying too, but take this from the stand point from someone without a sense of smell. Imagine walking into Best Buy and having a salesperson shove a DVD within inches of your face. Now imagine going into Target and having a salesperson spraying jets of mist in your direction that only make your throat choke.

You see, there is something I didn't know about my sense of smell. Smell comes from two sources. There is the olfactory gland and the nervous system. The olfactory gland processes the smaller odors and transmits the signals to the brain. This gives you the different scents you come to know. The nervous system gets larger particles and transmits directly to the brain. My olfactory gland does not work, but my nervous system does. For me smell functions like this. Air is clean and crisp or air is thick. Candle stores, perfume shops, and those annoying “smell this” vendors don't produce positive smells. They make my breathing clench up.

FAQ Time!
First common statement: “Can you taste food?”

Answer: Yes. I can taste food and I enjoy a wide variety of foods. Most of what makes my food experience different from yours, is your ability to smell the seasonings and spices of the food. I can taste some spices in my meals, but not all of them. Which, in my opinion, tells me that some spices don't actually add taste to food. The reason why your food experience changes when you're sick, is because you are used to having the smell and taste blend together. I am not.

Second common statement: “That must be nice, not being able to smell XXXX.”

Answer: Thank you for pointing that out. I never realized that before that moment. Yes, the world has a wide variety of smells that are horrific, or at least I'm told. At the same time, I'm missing all of the smells of the world that aren't horrific. And, if that isn't enough, smell can invoke memories. That's something I'll never, ever be able to do.

Third common statement: “Are you sure?” or “How do you know?”
Answer: Yes, I've gone 33 years of my life and just haven't sniffed the right odor yet. There is no response to this question and yet I hear it a lot.


  1. Cool post. I must say I'm always amazed that you love food so much but if you've never really known it any other wouldn't bother me.

    But man...When I have a cold I just hate to eat because i can barely taste anything.

    Thanks for the POV. I don't think I'll forget that you can't smell again. ;)

    1. Thank you for the comment. You are most certainly welcome. One story about spices that I didn't share took place when I lived in Asheville, NC. I had a string of people that learned of my anosmia at once, and each of them immediately asked the question about how smell impacts my ability to taste. I was started thinking about my lack of sense of smell more than usual. One day, kind of out of the blue, I did an experiment. I'd take a spice, open up the bottle, inhale... and smell nothing. However, when I exhaled through my mouth, I could taste the spice on my tongue. I had never realized that before then.

      I don't expect you to always remember I have no sense of smell. After all, if my mom forgets, I can't expect my friends to remember. I just hope you never stick something right under my nose to get me to smell it. I really hate that.

  2. I didn't know the word "anosmia" existed or what it meant, until I read this, so a sincere thanks for the enlightenment.

    Thanks also for the reminder that what we may consider to be innocuous questions or statements might be insensitive or even ridiculous. I've been thinking a lot lately about consciousness of speech and how what we say can affect others.

    1. The question about how smell impacts my taste doesn't really bother me. On the contrary, it amuses me. 99% of the time, it is the first thing someone says to me after I reveal I have no sense of smell.

      Most things involving smell don't bother me too much. I don't expect anyone to know I'm anosmic. It isn't like I have a big red sign painted on me. I've come to expect certain questions, because the subject is fascinating and it does make for some interesting discussions. The issues I have are people that seem to treat anosmia as a good thing.

      Also, smell gets a fun exception to personal boundaries for some reason. It is strange, to see someone who would never enter another person's personal bubble, take a scented candle or a scented marker and shove it under another person's face. They think they are doing that person a favor, and maybe they are for people who can smell. But for me, it is simply very unsettling.

      I actually don't mind talking about my lack of a sense of smell. I'm very open to discussing it. It's the presumptions that people assume about me and my lack of a sense, that bothers me.

      Thank you for the comment!