Scent and Sensibility

Gym shoes, chemical plants, and dirty diapers don’t bother me in the least. As a proud anosmic—a person who can’t smell—I’ve turned my defect into my greatest parlor trick.

January 2006By Comments

WHEN I WAS IN THE SIXTH GRADE my sister, a couple of friends, and I each bought a little bottle of scented oil for about two bucks at the mall. In the car on the way home, we were passing them around and taking turns sniffing them. Though I suspect now that none of them smelled fabulous, Mom and Dad managed to mumble polite stuff like “Oh. Patchouli, right? Won’t take much of this.” “Mmm, very flowery. Special occasions only.” Then they got a nose-load of mine. Dad gagged, Mom rolled down the window, and everyone else ughed repeatedly. Mom screwed the cap back on my bottle and told me to put it as far in the back of the station wagon as possible.

I was hurt, but it finally got me thinking. How come I didn’t know that my bright-pink bubble gum— scented perfume smelled different from the others? Or, for that matter, different from Pledge or cat urine? As long as I was on this line of questioning, I asked myself why I never smelled the cinnamon toast blazing away under the broiler when I was in the kitchen, even though my sister could smell it from upstairs. How come it never bothered me if some boy threw an old, dead fish on me? Why didn’t I have to hold my nose when we drove by the petrochemical plants? That’s when it hit me: I couldn’t smell.

I realized I’d probably been born this way, which made me kind of like that amazing Helen Keller, didn’t it? All this time I’d thought I just wasn’t paying attention or was too stupid to learn how to smell. Now I knew it wasn’t my fault. What a relief!

Instead of being a liability, my congenital defect, known as anosmia, became my best parlor trick, a welcomed alternative to stuffing my fist in my mouth. It was and continues to be a guaranteed conversation starter: You could never smell anything? Nope, nuthin’, not even when my mom was complaining about how stinky my sister’s goats were until she discovered it was me, wafting away beside her, or when my dad was searching high and low for a dead rat in our walls that turned out to be my gym shoes. How do you know you can’t smell? Well, maybe I can, and everything just smells the same. You can smell this, can’t you? (Whereupon a foot, a baby’s bottom, or a gardenia is waved under my nose.) No. What about your sense of taste? Just fine, I think, since true taste—salty, sweet, sour, and bitter—is generally the domain of the tongue and its taste buds. Flavors like basil and nutmeg, however, mean nothing to me. Ditto for spoiled milk, judging from the number of times I’ve sleepily consumed half a bowl of Raisin Bran before wondering where the little white marshmallow things came from.

And I never tire of the questions. The attention more than compensates for the dangers and neuroses triggered by anosmia. Sure, I wish I had a lottery ticket for every charcoal-briquette cookie I’ve baked, and no amount of therapy is going to cure me of my phobia of lighting pilots. But I muddle through, sticking my clothes under my long-suffering husband’s nose to see if washing is needed, throwing out lunch meat before the use-by date, and choosing my fine wines by the picture on the label. (I like animals, preferably a group of mammals.) Despite the difficulty of describing odors without referring to other odors or flavors (go on, try it), on rare occasions I enjoy a vicarious olfactory kick thanks to writers like Diane Ackerman, who, in A Natural History of the Senses, depicts the powers of a vanilla bean in a way that makes complete sense to me: “Its aroma gives the room a kind of stature, the smell of an exotic crossroads where outlandish foods aren’t the only mysteries.”

I tried only once to get to the bottom of my anosmia. When I told my parents I couldn’t smell, they took me to see a neurologist in Houston who held a couple of vials under my nose, became increasingly frustrated by my inability to guess their contents, and pronounced that, yes indeed, I couldn’t smell. Despite my strong feeling that this doc was nuts—decades later I can still picture him, slumped so far down in his office chair that he seemed to be sitting on his neck, his wide tie as filthy as a napkin in a rib joint—I couldn’t get mad at him for his ignorance. Back when I was a teenager, during the age of bloodletting and balancing humors, no one knew exactly how smell worked, much less how it didn’t.

The time may have come, however, to resubmit my nose to scrutiny. In the past 15 years or so, science has begun to shine the light of intellectual curiosity into the mysterious depths of the collective human nose. The Nobel committee upped the glamour quotient of digging around in noses considerably when it awarded the 2004 prize for physiology or medicine to Richard Axel and Linda Buck for their work mapping the olfactory system from a cellular to a molecular level. Alan Hirsch, the founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, in Chicago, who’s been probing noses for more than 25 years, recently unleashed a product called Timeless View, a scent that can make a woman seem up to six years younger to men. Of more practical interest to us anosmics may be the electronic nose developed by NASA that is sensitive enough to detect the difference between Pepsi and Coke, or the successful treatment of smell loss, discovered by Robert Henkin, of the Washington, D.C., Taste and Smell Clinic, using the asthma drug theophylline.

But I wonder if I would even want to be cured. What if I couldn’t stand the smell of my three beloved dogs, my husband, or, worse yet, beer? What if I became a wine snob or an aromatherapy addict? What if I cried out involuntarily the first time a stranger in an elevator let rip with one of those notorious Silent But Deadlies? But most important, if I were cured, how would I get attention, besides screaming in elevators? What would make me special?

Actually, ever since I discovered a slew of anosmia Web sites about a year ago, my feelings of specialness have disappeared anyway. Evidently, there are a bunch of us out there, between two and three million in North America alone. And, boy, do those of us born without a sense of smell share some eerily identical feelings and experiences. We all want a smelling-nose dog. We’ve all endured smell experiments conducted by siblings that invariably involved searing our mucus membranes with whiffs of straight ammonia. We all remark on the importance of texture in our food. (I’d rather eat car parts than boiled okra.) We also universally suffer paranoia (rooted in reality, in my case) about our own body odors.

For many of us, the fear of stinking outweighs any fear of death by smoke, gas leak, or spoiled food. At times, the social stress of not knowing if I have BO (the kind of stress that makes me sweat and, I worry, makes me stink and thus stresses me out even more in a self-fulfilling, olfactory version of a catch-22) has been so intense that I’ve considered chucking the Mennen Speed Stick and moving in with the Temiar people of Malaysia, who believe that personal stench is our “odor soul” and one of the six components people are made of.

Still, I’ve always tried to maintain a sense of humor about my condition, incessantly tossing out my corny one-liners, like “I can’t smell, but I can stink,” and startling strangers by sticking my nose in their armpits to prove my disability. But from the online postings, I’ve learned I’m about as lighthearted as Dick Cheney compared with some sunny-side anosmics who wrote:

“Changing diapers is like cleaning chocolate.”

“On occasion, it has occurred to me that a dead skunk in a box would be a good way to clear space in the computer lab in school.”

“I realized that I could be the ‘perfect girlfriend’ if I couldn’t smell stinky feet and farts.”

Ah, my people.

Such flippancy, however, is strictly limited to lifelong anosmics. Sure, we can get a little wistful when we think about never having smelled our child or baking bread or freshly cut grass, a few of the top wish-listed aromas, but those poor souls who have lost their sense of smell due to, say, head trauma, viral infections, or medications are nearly suicidal on the subject, their postings generally dissolving into heartbreaking pleas for cures. Evidently, if you know what you’re missing, you really miss it. And vice versa.

So in some ways I consider myself lucky, a smugness reinforced every time I drive by a feedlot or open a magazine packed with perfumed inserts or use a construction-site Port-A-Potty late in the day or dance cheek-to-cheek with a cologne-soaked gigolo or survive a packed flight from Denver on which bean burritos are served (true story).

And face it, all humans are olfactory slackers compared with the rest of the animal kingdom; dogs’ noses, for instance, are one thousand times more sensitive than ours (which does little to explain their fondness for cat poop). From this, some researchers have hypothesized that our species’ ability to smell is diminishing as that sense becomes less important for our survival. From this, I have concluded that my fellow congenital anosmics and I are therefore simply more highly evolved. No? Okay, then at least admit we were born better unequipped to sail through this stinky world, noses held high, in blissful oblivion.

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