Smell is more than just air-born particles, more than a navigational tool, more than the air in your lungs – it is your appetite, your relation to the outside world and your very self. Concussion took mine away – for over a year, my bruised and swollen brain lost all ability to process the atoms entering my nostrils. It was miserable. Worse than miserable, it was blank. But thanks to time, rest, research and a lot of very conscious, very long-winded practice, I have begun to relearn the world, nose-first. Here’s what I discovered along the way:
Nobody tells you that you smell
Once you’ve lost any ability to tell for yourself, you will live in a state of constant, wet-palmed panic that you smell. And nobody, but nobody, will tell you honestly if you do.
Food without smell is just salt and sugar
I had hoped that the silver lining on the cloud of anosmia (for that is what we call the loss of smell in the trade) would be that I’d get thin. That without all the tantalising distraction of actual flavour, I would simply live on broccoli, rice and the odd orange. It turns out that, frustrated by the fact that all I could taste (my tongue was fine) was salt, sweet, sour and bitter. Which meant that I ended most meals by simply ploughing through an entire packet of crisps, a bar of chocolate and most of a bowl of Doritos.
Airports will give you the sads
Standing in Dubai airport with four hours to kill, I walked over to my old perfume – the one I'd worn from university into the big wide world –Rice is incredibly easy to burn doused myself like a dill pickle and, yet, nothing. I couldn't smell it. The portal to my yesteryears had been pulled shut.
Rice is incredibly easy to burn
All food, in fact. I must have run through at least three saucepans – welded them for all eternity with brown rice, burnt onion, charred potatoes, blackened beans. Because, when you can’t smell the fire, it’s all too easy to sit on the sofa reading, until the room turns thick with smoke and your neighbours start hammering on the door.
You will miss the smell of your mother
The first time I hugged my mum after returning home, my heart broke. Because, standing in her arms, her thick hair pressed against my face, her jumper pushed against my chest, she could have been anyone. A stranger. This woman huddled into the hollows of my body didn’t smell like my mother any more. She didn’t smell of anything.
Smell is all over our language
Fresh air, something fishy, the smell of fear, to sniff something out – these phrases won’t upset you of course. You’ll barely notice them. But occasionally, the person who’s just uttered them will go white-faced with horror, grab your hand and whisper “I’m so sorry” like you just broke up with your wife. It’s very nice. I mean, it’s unnecessary. But it’s nice.
Memory without smell is like a bad drawing
A lot of what happened during my year or two without smell is hard to recall. The hills I stood on, the seas I swam in, the beds I slept in all seem somehow less vivid, less memorable, less like they happened to me.
The first time you smell again, your heart will burst like a firework
I broke down in hot, heavy tears the first time I smelled, unprompted, the tang of wild garlic in the air. The first time I tasted an apple in over two years felt like coming home. The first time I kissed someone’s head and recognised the smell of their neck I fell in love with a thud.
Ginger tastes of soil
The problem with relearning your entire scent palette is that so much of it comes back slightly weird. Like meeting an old boyfriend from school, only to discover that he now wears gold bracelets and has a thick neck. Ginger tasted of soil, men smelled of onions, grapefruit tasted of old pennies and roses smelled like burnt sugar.
You can actually forget your own smell
On a warm summer evening, about six months into the slow process of getting scent back I pushed my nose right into the soft skin at the fold of my arm and took a breath. A deep breath. That smell, so faint, so elusive, so ghost-like was somehow also so familiar. Like digestive biscuits and matches and ever so slightly of paper. It was the smell of my own skin and I had lost it for over a year.