I lost my sense of smell for a year. This was back in 2013, long before the pandemic made its absence a harbinger of a devastating virus. Today, as the effects of long COVID become better understood and some people report continuing anosmia (loss of smell and taste), I’ve been remembering my life without smell, and how it distanced me from the people I love.
I had caught a typical nasty cold. But along with the exhaustion, achiness and runny nose, my sense of smell disappeared. No big deal, I thought, it would come back when the cold cleared up. A full month passed and all my other symptoms had faded, but my sense of smell—and therefore taste—were AWOL.
Their departure meant the disappearance of easy and daily pleasures. A crisp piece of bread generously spread with butter and jam, the scent of woodsmoke from a fire, the earthy fragrance of autumn leaves on a forest floor. Those were basic joys that I had taken for granted.
Worse were the subtle human connections I lost. I couldn’t catch my mother’s perfume when I hugged her. I missed the scent of toothpaste on my husband’s breath as he kissed me goodnight. Hardest of all, I couldn’t smell my four-year-old daughter’s little head after a bath or catch her sweet, slightly sour morning breath when she woke me for the day. As much as we deny it, we are just animals, and scent is a primal connector. This subtle, but vital, form of communication was now closed to me.
During my time with anosmia, I kept telling myself that it wasn’t a big deal. In the grand scheme of things, smell and taste are the lesser senses. They were so obviously secondary to sight, hearing and touch that I was almost embarrassed to raise my problem with healthcare professionals.
And yet, as the months wore on and there was no improvement, I got sadder and sadder. My passion for cooking waned, since not only could I not taste anything, but I couldn’t even test what I was sauteing to ensure I was on the right track. My Monday Starbucks chai tea latte was no longer a delightful treat fortifying me for the week. Mostly I missed cuddling up to my little girl and breathing in her scent, connecting with her in an ineffable way I hadn’t realized I needed until it was gone.
Most medical professionals couldn’t figure out what was wrong or provide a timeline for improvements. Only the allergist gave me an iota of hope, positing that maybe my “smeller nerve”—not the technical term—was inflamed and angry. Possibly, if I took antihistamines and waited, things might calm down. I grasped hold of his hesitant guesses, clinging to those shards of hope.
After a full year without smell, I was depressed. I missed the scent of clover in springtime and the warm, sleepy odor of my child when I put her to bed. My daughter’s birthday came and went, and while I made her chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting, I couldn’t enjoy them or smell the shampoo I used to wash the icing from her hair later that night.
That summer we went on a big trip to the UK. I tried not to be sad about missing out on the deep-fried Mars Bar or the smell of a salt-sprayed beach. While we were traveling in London, I started craving cigarettes. This was odd because I had never smoked. It was only after three days that I realized what was happening: I was smelling the cigarette smoke. I couldn’t believe it.
Over the course of the next month, my anosmia faded away. The allergist had been right. My “smeller nerve” just needed to calm down. I was deeply grateful to taste chocolate and enjoy wine again, but more than that, I was thrilled to reconnect with the joys of my daughter’s life. I could smell the wax crayons of her drawings, the ranch dip for her beloved chicken nuggets and most importantly, her indescribable, squishy, unique self.
The loss of smell and taste is just that, a real and devastating loss. It’s easy to dismiss the mental toll of its disappearance. After all, without smell you can still function normally: You can drive a car, feed your baby, create a PowerPoint presentation. But the truth is that without your sniffer, the world becomes less pleasurable, and human connections suffer. This is a loss to be fought against and mourned if it cannot be regained.
Amy Tector is an archivist and novelist in Ottawa. Her debut novel, The Honeybee Emeralds, a lighthearted mystery set in Paris, is available in all bookstores.