The Memory of Scent

I didn’t notice that my sense of smell had been lost until I picked some lavender from my garden one day a few years ago.

I held the bunch of flowering purple stems close to my nose, anticipating the pleasure of its distinctive fragrance, and inhaled. When I didn’t smell anything I sniffed harder and still: nothing.  That’s strange, I thought. I wondered if the plant was too old, or had not gotten enough of some essential nutrient.

“Can you smell this?” I held the lavender under the nose of my partner, Beth.

“Mmmmm…. Yeah,” she said. So I tried again, sniffing as deeply as possible, and got not even a whiff of scent. And that’s when I realized something had gone wrong. With me.

I recalled how I had recently been disappointed by my morning tea. Holding steaming mugs beneath my nose and inhaling the aroma had not been delivering the pleasure it once did.

My sense of smell was gone, and it took some time for that shocking reality to sink in. I went around the house sniffing everything, and announcing the results to Beth. “I can’t smell cinnamon!”   “I can’t smell dish soap!”  “I can’t smell deodorant!”

I sniffed so many things with the identical result that it began to annoy her. “Let me guess,” she said, “you can’t smell anything.”  Beth was concerned and encouraged me to see a doctor, but she didn’t share my incredulousness. Or my alarm.

When I googled “loss of smell” the first result that popped up was Parkinson’s disease.  The second was Alzheimer’s. I learned that a loss of smell is often an early symptom of both these diseases. But the loss of smell, known as anosmia, can also be caused by head trauma, a tumor, sinus problems, polyps in the nasal passages, or as a normal part of aging.  Elderly people often have a reduced sense of smell.  Elderly people.

At the age of fifty-eight I did not consider myself elderly. But there was no denying that my future as an elder was fast approaching. And it was a future that now held the possibility of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. A depressing prospect to say the least.

I learned that olfactory receptor neurons reside in the same brain space as memory and emotion. This is why a loss of smell is often associated with dementia. It is also why scent can stimulate a flood of memories.

While researching anosmia I learned that a loss of smell is one of the first things to go when mental capacities begin to decline, and I thought of all the things I wanted to accomplish on my long-term to-do list. I couldn’t help but think that I had better get busy.

In the weeks following my discovery I went through a period of mourning. The ability to smell is something I had taken for granted. I never considered how much pleasure it added to my life, and I experienced grief for the scents I once savored. Lavender and hot tea for sure, but also soap, sautéed onions, freshly laundered sheets, fresh bread, a campfire, mint, Swiss cheese,  Pine trees, the earth in spring, and countless others.

I felt sad to know I might never smell these things again, and wondered if my memory of certain scents would eventually dissipate. I could clearly remember the smell of frying bacon, but I wondered if I always would. Or would the memory fade, like the voices of long gone loved ones.

Beth and I were in Pier One a week after I discovered my lost sense of smell. “Hey, come over here,” Beth said. She was standing in an aisle filled with reed diffusers – those sticks in bottles of essential oil.  “Try this.”  She placed one of the bottles directly under my nostrils and when I inhaled deeply I smelled citrus. Citrus!

All of my fresh summer orange happy clean bright fruity neurons flashed on. And tears sprang to my eyes. I could smell citrus and the memory of scent overwhelmed me. I felt relieved to know I could still smell something if it was strong enough and close enough to my nose, but it also reminded me of what I had lost.

When I went to see my doctor about this problem she did not furrow her brow and order a battery of tests. Instead, she looked in my nose with an uncomfortable implement and said, “How do you breathe through this thing?” She diagnosed a deviated septum, inflamed nasal passages, and shook her head when I mentioned my fears of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. She gave me a spray (which did not help at all) and sent me on my way. There is not much you can do about a lost sense of smell.

I eventually went to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) who ordered a brain scan to rule out a tumor and suggested I take zinc. He determined that I had most likely lost my sense of smell due to a virus which had “knocked out” my olfactory nerve.  And I had, indeed, just gotten over a bad head cold when I first became aware of the problem. He said he saw a lot of this. And he also said I might regain my sense of smell within a year or so.

In the meantime I got over my grief and adjusted. It wasn’t as if I had lost something vital, like an eye or an arm.  And there were some advantages. The good thing about having an impaired olfactory system is being unable to smell farts, garbage, bad breath, the gym, or car exhaust.

I learned to live with my anosmia, hardly ever giving it a second thought. And then, eventually, some of my ability to detect scent returned, coming back in fits and starts. My sense of smell is now like a radio signal that can only occasionally be tuned-in clearly. One day I’ll be able to smell a certain scent, and the next day I won’t. But I can now always smell some things, like onions, lemons, and shampoo; scents for which I now have a deep appreciation.

While walking through a hotel lobby one day I briefly caught a whiff of roses as I went by a huge bouquet, a remarkable experience, which I probably would have hardly noticed before that nasty virus found its way to my olfactory nerve. Scents are now extraordinary to me.  I delight in them. Celebrate them.  Roses! I nearly swooned.

Unfortunately, some of my returning olfactory sense is not good. I cannot bear the smell of gasoline, which no longer smells like gasoline to me, but like something indescribably awful.  And I have the same experience with bleach, and artificially scented products, like perfumes and room sprays. Instead of smelling whatever scent these products are meant to emulate, I now only detect their chemical compositions, which do not smell good at all.

I have become a scent snob, eschewing the false, and reveling in the naturally fragrant. I now routinely hold things like spice jars and fruits close to my nose in order to sniff them; I inhale things like rosemary and cinnamon just for the pure joy of it.

While making a salad the other day I held a slice of cucumber to my nose and detected its subtle fresh scent, and this was as pleasurable to me as hearing a long forgotten song, or finding cash in an old coat pocket. Cucumber! Such a delight.

3 thoughts on “The Memory of Scent

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