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How I Lost My Sense of Smell For Good

by Jackson Ford 3 months ago in feature
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It has nothing to do with Covid.

How I Lost My Sense of Smell For Good
Photo by petr sidorov on Unsplash

I’m four years old, and we are on a big trip to a game reserve in Zimbabwe. Imagine the most beautiful setting you’ve ever seen - every cliche of a bush camp you’ve ever come across. Cozy huts with thatched rooves, nestled underneath tall baobab trees. A central fire pit, with comfy benches around it. And in every direction: miles of untouched bush, teeming with wildlife.

For my parents the vacation is a chance to regroup. My dad fixes people for a living, stitching them back together after they wreck themselves in car accidents and get into gunfights. He’s as calm and controlled a personality as you can imagine, but thanks to his job at Johannesburg General Hospital, and having two small children, he hasn’t slept in about ten years. He’s in need of a vacation. Ditto for my mom, a family doctor with a thriving practice in Johannesburg. Both of them want time to breathe, and a bush vacation will be the ideal way to do just that.

The problem is, the African bush is a place where you can injure yourself in many wonderful and varied ways. My sister discovers this on day three. She’s just learned to walk, and decides that it might be fun to wander through a pile of grey, fluffy, cloudlike stuff scattered on the ground in the centre of the camp. Unfortunately, this turns out to be ash from the campfire, which results in my sister giving herself second degree burns on the soles of her feet.

Amazingly, this is only the second worst thing that happens on the trip.

In the centre of the camp, there’s a particularly big tree, and being an active four-year-old, I make it my mission every day to climb to the very top. My parents repeatedly tell me to be careful, but I either don’t listen, or don’t care. On the second to last day in the camp, I climb out on the tallest branch, ready to survey my kingdom like Simba being told that everything the light touches belongs to him.

The effect is ruined when I lose my balance, and topple off the branch. I fall twenty feet and land flat on my back, dead in the middle of two roots, either of which could have killed me if I’d landed a foot to the left or right. I knock myself unconscious, and when my father scoops me off the ground, I’m not breathing. As my mother screams, he carries me into one of the huts, places me on the bed, and starts working very, very hard to keep me alive.

Now, my parents aren’t negligent people. They’re just stressed out, hard-working professionals who were unlucky enough to have two adventurous, curious, and slightly dimwitted children. They aren’t going to stop me climbing trees, and certainly don’t plan on stopping my sister from walking. At the time I climb the tree, they are already preoccupied with my sister’s care, and so probably assume that they’ve had their bad luck quotient for the trip.

A minute ticks by. Another. And all at once, I wake up. Groggy as hell, but apparently OK. I know who I am, who my parents are, and what just happened. I have zero memory of the fall. Even now, I don’t know how exactly I slipped off the branch. The next day, with me sitting very quietly and woozily in the back of a Landrover, we leave the bush camp. I don’t think my parents have ever been so glad to see the back of a place.

It’s a few years later when my parents realise that there is something not quite right with their son.

Whenever they ask me to sniff something, or comment on a particularly pungent smell, I look at them like they need their heads examined. I can’t understand what they’re talking about. What is this ‘smell’? Why do people hold their noses close to something?

My understandably concerned mom arranges a kind of ghetto smell test, filling a few small bowls with various pungent aromatics, then asking me to identify them while blindfolded. Now she and my dad are, obviously, quite concerned about all of this, but I’m not. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything vital, so I just think my parents are being even weirder than usual.

Either way, I’m happy to go along with it. When the first bowl is held up to my nose, I inhale as hard as I can. Which is a problem, because my mom has chosen mustard powder as the first substance to test. It’s like someone letting off a flashbang in the middle of my head.

As I said: I’m not a very bright kid.

A week later, when we do the test again, my parents’ worst fears are confirmed. I have next to no sense of smell. Odors, no matter how pungent, just don’t register. To this day, my sense of smell remains so poor that anyone in my vicinity could rip a giant fart, and I wouldn’t even blink. Feel free, by the way, if we’re ever in the same room and it makes you more comfortable. Better out than in.

I am what is known as a functional anosmic – anosmia being the inability to smell. See, when you smell something, your nose does a perfunctory analysis, and then sends the information through a complicated dance in your brain. It goes to the piriform cortex, a little structure behind the olfactory bulb at the back of your sinuses. The cortex identifies smell. From there, it goes to the thalamus, which acts like an air traffic controller, deciding which areas of the brain need to know about this particular smell. The final stop is the orbitofrontal cortex, which combines your smell information with your taste information, and which actually helps you generate a reaction to the smell. In my case, the fall from that tree in Zimbabwe knocked something loose in this little sequence. I have no idea what that something is, but the fact remains, my brain cannot understand what my nose is telling it.

One of the questions I am consistently asked is whether or not I can taste things. I can. While smell plays a small role in taste, we have tastebuds for a reason, and mine work pretty well. So does my nose, come to that. Aside from having sinuses that explode at the slightest hint of pollen, it actually works fine. The problem is my brain has absolutely no idea what to do with the information my nose is sending.

Once, when I worked in a pub in London, I got an order for twenty mojitos. I immediately got as much mint as I could find and started pounding it, and let me tell you, twenty mojitos require a lot of mint. By the time I’d finished, the entire pub had cleared out, staff and patrons, the cooks in the kitchen spilling out into the back alley. I was so intent on delivering the order that I didn’t actually notice until I looked up from making the last mojito, and realised that I was completely alone.

I know what you’re thinking. Mint smells nice, right? How could you want to get away from it? The thing is - and I’m obviously relating this information secondhand - even the nicest smell in the world can become overpowering in high volumes. Chanel No. 5 smells amazing, so I’ve been told, but I bet twenty litres of it is probably a bit much. Ditto for twenty mojitos worth of mint. The sheer volume of aromatic compounds produced by my dedicated pounding was enough to empty the pub. By the way, that included the party who ordered the mojitos, who suddenly decided that, on second thought, they’d go drink in a pub that was a little less whiffy. Well, it was annoying for the pub owner, less so for the bar staff. After all, hey, somebody has to drink those mojitos.

My anosmia can often have very weird outcomes. I write sci-fi novels for a living. My very first book series took place on a massive space station orbiting the earth, which for a century had held the last humans alive. When I was putting the book together, I came to the conclusion that the station would probably stink to high heaven after a while, and that it wouldn’t be beneficial to have my characters walking around holding their noses. I designed a complicated system of implants for them, which would nullify the smell of body odour. I even had a scene where my hero, a delivery woman, knocked out a potential attacker by disabling his implant, so he was suddenly felled by a hundred years of accumulated pong.

My wife had to point out to me that humans get used to smells very quickly. I’d literally never thought about it. The smell implants did not make it through to the published book. But that’s the thing, you see. I find it very difficult to conceive of what a smell actually is. I quite literally find it impossible to imagine the sensation. I’ve been told which parts of the head and face sense it, the emotional memories a smell can conjure up, the way it can bring tears to your eyes or smile to your face. To me, it’s a completely abstract concept. It’s like presenting me with a particularly clever philosophical argument – something that doesn’t actually have a form in the real world. I will nod and smile and tell you understand, but in reality, it’s like trying to explain atmosphere to a fish.

By the way: yes, my wife can and does let farts out with impunity when she’s with me. I mean come on, you’d do exactly the same thing.

What, did you think I’d tell a story about smell and only make one fart joke? Come on, be serious.

Weirdly, I’m not bummed out about any of this. In fact, I consider myself extremely lucky. Anosmia is no fun, but it does have some advantages. I can’t smell puppies, or fresh-cut grass, or new cars… But I also can’t smell body odor, rotting vegetables, dog shit. If you need someone to take out a particularly smelly batch of garbage, I’m your guy. Packed public transport doesn’t bother me.

I’m a big believer in neuroplasticity – the idea that your brain can completely change its physical make up over time to respond to new stimuli. When someone goes blind and develops a stronger sense of hearing over time, well, that’s neuroplasticity – the brain literally shifting key functions to somewhere else. When you are four years old, your brain is exceptionally plastic anyway, and it’s my theory that my neurons reorganised themselves very rapidly when it became clear that they couldn’t smell shit. There’s no study backing this up, no empirical evidence that I can’t point to - it’s not a hypothesis one can test without incurring the wrath of child protection services. But think about how children often seem indestructible. They can fall down stairs, suffer accidents on trampolines and bicycles, take soccer balls to the face, and come out with nothing more than a bruised ego. I believe the brain is the same way. It can handle a few knocks at an early age.

I’m often asked if I ever miss my sense of smell. I’m told that it is theoretically possible to give me my sense of smell back. It would take months, perhaps years, and would involve regimented, weekly sessions of holding strongly smelling oils up to my nose, and paying rather a lot for the privilege. I considered it for a while, but decided that if this was the disability I was going to have to live with for the rest of my life, I’d gotten off very lightly indeed.

Having said that, there are certain situations where I long for it. I wish I could inhale the rough, warm smell of my dog when he jumps up to say hi in the morning. I wish I knew what my wife smelled like. But when I have these thoughts, I tell myself that it didn’t stop me from falling in love with her. I don’t know her scent, but I know what her laugh sounds like, the touch of her skin, the colour of her eyes.

That’s enough for me.

This article comes directly from my weekly newsletter, Sh*t Just Got Interesting. Want to read stories like it a week before anyone else? Sign up here.

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About the author

Jackson Ford

Author (he/him). I write The Frost Files. Sometimes Rob Boffard. Always unfuckwittable. Major potty mouth. A SH*TLOAD OF CRAZY POWERS out now!

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Comments (2)

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  • Pamela Carpenter .B.5 days ago

    oh my this is very interesting i really love it.

  • Julie Shetler17 days ago

    Very interesting; I never suspected that would be the way you lost your sense of scent from the beginning of the story.

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