A Tale of Olfactory Blindness: When I Couldn’t Smell Anything for Three Weeks
Perhaps as a welcome to living this near to the equator, I contracted a tropical bacterial infection during my first month in Singapore. This resulted to three weeks of congestion and mucus. There were a lot of very embarrassing social situations and a consistent need for tissues. But the most awful thing about it was the fact that I lost my sense of smell. This is absolutely catastrophic for someone who studies perception. For one who once tested the link between smell and memories. For one who made an olfactory memoir. For one who can tell cities apart by smells.
The medical term for this is anosmia. (Check this video and article on NYTimes.com for people who permanently lost their sense of smell or were born without it.)
If anything, I am grateful it only lasted a few weeks. There is nothing like valuing something more when you’ve temporarily lost it. To make it a learning experience, I pretended my anosmia was an experiment.
So, how was life without my sense of smell?
The smallest activities were voided of their pleasures. I could not smell the mint on my toothpaste, the citrus crispness of a sliced lemon, the aroma of coffee, the freshness of new bedsheets. Perfume, which was a daily habit and a mood booster, became unnecessary. Each object blurred into the next, unclearly defined.
Without smell, I was unable to detect the orange juice spilling on the opaque countertop. I could not gauge the weather, because I could no longer the smell rain or heat through the window. My days lost a dimension—like the difference between experiencing a movie on a bad screen and in HD. Life became very dull; a mere shadow of its former self. It was then that I realized that in many ways, we can smell movement, and therefore stories. Smell made things more real.
Our senses of smell and taste are related. And so without smell, I couldn’t taste anything either, apart from being able to determine if a dish was sweet, sour, salty or bitter, more or less. This robbed me of the joys of eating. I ate a lot of spicy food, mainly to clear my congested sinuses and because most of the time, spiciness that was the only thing that registered.
On a less depressing note, I learned to better appreciate the texture of food. And because I could not taste anything, I stopped eating food that was unhealthy. I don’t recall a time in my life when I ate less chocolate. Or drank less coffee. Because really, what was the point? I may have lost a couple of pounds, but I was unhappy.
There were other minor benefits, I suppose. The delight and wonder of things faded, but so did their disagreeableness. I thought it was great not to be able to smell smoke or public toilets. In the gym, in taekwondo class, in crowded subways, I could not be offended by body odor. Hurray!
However, not being able to smell noxious substances is dangerous. It is what tells us if there is a gas leak or if our food has spoiled. And another problem with not smelling is that while nothing and no one stinks, you don’t know if you do.
Eventually, as my colleagues told me that my cold was probably an infection, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a dose of antibiotics. As the medicine kicked in and I became better, my sense of smell started to come in short spurts, probably analogous to a blind person seeing flashes of light. Whoa, that basket of fruit actually registered. Oh my, cornflakes tasted like cornflakes. I can smell my shampoo again.
Having my sense of smell come back to me was like getting out of a bubble. I realized that like smell made me a part of my environment because I could breathe it into myself and establish a continuity with the world. Slowly, I felt more alive. I had never been so overjoyed to smell garbage again.
P.S. Huge thanks to the awesome staff of the University Health Center of the National University of Singapore, who took me in past closing time last Friday when they realized I was close to passing out. Kudos!