Posts Tagged ‘no sense of smell’

rydal mount

My lawn had grown overlong since the last mow, virtue of a week of rain and heat. It felt soft and springy underfoot, and the grass released its scent as I walked, a delicious scent that mingled with that of haymaking coming from the meadows beyond the fence. It was an overcast evening, warm, with pale white clouds rising into an oppressive background of blue-grey. I sensed the approach of a thundery rain. They say you can smell the rain, or if not the rain exactly then something of the atmosphere that precedes it. And yes, that evening I fancied I could smell the approach of rain. All of this intermingled was the scent of a rural late summer evening, rich in memory, releasing images of childhood, faces and events from a past I had forgotten, long locked in the treasure chest of experience.

The remarkable thing me in all of this was that I could smell anything at all. To lose ones sense of smell for so long as I had, and have it return as strong and keen as it sometimes is now is more than a joy. It is an intimate and profoundly meaningful re-connection with the deeper world, a connection many normal scented people take for granted. Indeed I’ve seen them pull a face, overwhelmed by scents of the wrong sort. But to the recovering anosmic, even the rancid odour of organic decay is a sensual experience of incalculable value, if not exactly to be enjoyed, then at least, like all scent, appreciated for the enhanced degree of self awareness its grants for, as any anosmic will tell you, to be without scent is to be not fully in the world at all.

I can’t remember how long I was without a sense of smell – decades probably. It faded gradually, for no known reason, and doctors could not help me. My road to recovery then was one of personal experiment, and the search for useful information in a sea of online nonsense, and hear-say, and old-wives-tales. But had I cleaved solely to accepted medical opinion I might have subjected myself to painful and invasive surgery only to find, as many had before me, that it did not work. I might also have subjected myself to a life on steroids. I persevered with the medically accepted route for two years with intermittent and at best only temporary respite, before giving up on it. Instead I followed a tentative lead to a harmless common food supplement called Lipoid Acid. Six months later my sense of smell was returning. Getting on for two years now, and its sharpness can at times astonish me.

But Dr Google is for sure an unreliable healer. He will tell you what you want to hear. Is my condition incurable? Yes/no, he says, depending on what you want to believe. Will this or that cure it? Yes/ no, he says, again depending on what you want to believe. Life threatening? Ditto.

There is no substitute then for a circumspect approach, one that values only the evidence of a verifiable efficacy. But here we find the skepticism of science overwhelmingly biased against the hope of myth, and old-wifery, dismissing it in its entirety as nonsense when actually there may be useful snippets to be gleaned. As a rule we must be suspicious of anything that costs us money, avoid also the inane chatter of vexatious forums and other online support groupery. Instead seek the accounts of those who have done things, who have tried this or that, and written about it in detail, and aren’t trying to sell you a cure. I found my own crock of gold in the writings at No Smell No Taste, judged it to be a reliable source and followed my nose (pun intended).

So it was partly from the sea of online myth the stories of Lipoic Acid arose. It was also a degree of faith and determination that guided their application, and eventually saw me through to a re-connection with a sensual experience I had not dared hope I’d ever know again.

The varieties of fragrance of women at a wedding is astonishing, as I had reason to notice last weekend. There are so many commercial perfumes, and I had forgotten how unique they are, and how they play upon the senses, how they tickle the emotions – some of them darkly erotic, some playfully sharp, dancing light upon the night air like the faery folk, and all obliterated now and then by the heavy sweetness of a cigarette, an unwholesome troll of a scent that can have me compressing my lungs in defence at twenty paces. Yet, but a few years ago, I would not have smelled a cigarette even had I been holding it myself.

The realisation doctors do not know everything is a salutary lesson, and something of a shock to the layman. Certainly they know much more about a thing than you or I, but to own a condition like Anosmia is an education in itself and qualifies you by default for intelligent study and comment. And it is through study we might understand it, and by understanding come either to terms with its incurability, or aid our own recovery.

With anosmia, a complicating factor is no one knows how the sense of smell works, how it takes the airborne molecules of the scented thing and reads them in a way the mind can interpret a signature of the scent of that thing. We can guess it’s something to do with the mucous membrane and the way the sensory nerves lie within it. We can look suspiciously at invasive polyps – cut them out if they are sufficient in number to actually block the nose. But I still have polyps, yet also a keen sense of smell, so polyps, although much maligned and blamed, and to be honest a flipping nuisance, I conclude, are not the cause of anosmia.

My own feeling is that inflammation of the mucous membrane is the cause, that polyps are a symptom of this as much as anosmia, that in swelling of the membrane the nerves within it are stretched and lose their ability to do whatever it is they do. Reduce the inflammation and the nerves recover their mysterious function, and the sense of smell returns.

The scent of a cupboard when you open it, the scent of shoe polish, the musky sweetness of WD40, the sharp repellent tang of petroleum, and metal polish. And in the garden, a rose, or lavender, or rosemary, the interior of an old shed containing a mad cornucopia of scented stuff. The scent of a car under a hot sun. The scent of a handful of copper coins. A newspaper. A chip shop.

All these things are to be marvelled at adding incalculable layers of meaning to the world that is also seen and felt and heard, and without which the world is not complete.

[PS the garden featured in the photo isn’t mine, but once belonged to William Wordsworth]



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The short answer appears to be yes.**

I’ve been anosmic (no sense of smell) getting on for a couple of years now. Before that my sense of smell was intermittent to put it mildly – sometimes sharp, though mostly non existent. But to lose your sense of smell completely is a hell of a thing. Yes, it’s insignificant compared to going blind or deaf, because you can function quite normally, and the only danger in it is you might not smell the presence of life threatening things like gas or smoke. But for the sufferer, the world becomes a very bland place indeed.

Our sense of smell touches us in subtle ways, triggering memories, or adding immeasurably to life’s experience. To walk over a peaty moorland or through a rose garden and not smell it is to take away so much of what the world has to offer, disengaging you from it emotionally – because a sense of smell does connect you intimately with life – arousing you, comforting you, warning you, or even sometimes repelling you. And to take all that away? Well, you have to be without it for a while to understand what that means.

I’d reached the stage where I was thinking I was going to have to get used to it. My local GP was unable to offer me anything other than a steroid based nasal spray that made me ill. So, I decided to visit a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, who rather spookily turned out to be the spitting image of a character from one of my books* – we’ll call her Doc Lin**. I’ve had TCM before for a bout of tinnitus. That was a very positive experience and quite an education, so I wasn’t going into this blind – any skepticism I might have felt regarding TCM had already been banished during that earlier episode, some five years ago. I knew TCM worked for certain things, but would it work for anosmia?

Doc Lin reassured me that, yes, TCM could probably help – that she had helped others with anosmia and it was certainly worth a try. I’d need around 12 sessions, she reckoned, one each week. It would cost me £350 if I paid up front, then there would be herbal concoctions to pay on top – maybe another £100. Of course when you’re used to free healthcare, you balk at the cost of paying for treatment, and wonder if you’re being spun a line by someone more interested in your money than your health. So yes, it was a risk, but it’s not every day you meet a character from one of your books, so I gave the gal my card and I signed up.

The sessions involved an exam of tongue and pulse and some diagnostic questioning, then thirty minutes of acupuncture, followed by fifteen minutes of massage. I’ve also been taking a liquid mixture of Ginko Bilboa and Ginseng. I’m eight weeks in now. I’d found the sessions very relaxing, and energising, but my sense of smell had remained stubbornly absent.

Until a few days ago.

It was a jar of coffee beans. I flipped the lid off it and was overwhelmed by the scent. It came as such a revelation, I was quite emotional for a while. But alas, the experience was all too fleeting. Indeed, by the time I’d stuck my nose in the jar for another delicious whiff of it, I was back to my old anosmic self. However, these brief glimpses of a world restored to all its glorious scented completeness have been recurring with increasing frequency. I’ve smelled both strong odours, like coffee and camphor and tea-tree oil, but also what I’d describe as more delicate things like camomile tea, and toothpaste. I was also walking in the hills at the weekend and smelled the earth for the first time in years. It drew me up, and made me gasp with wonder at it.

As I write, it’s gone again, so my recovery is somewhat fragmentary and tentative but, even such as it is, I’m very grateful for it, and for once I feel I have some good news to tell Doc Lin when I next see her. I’m sure things can only improve further from here.

If you’ve lost your sense of smell, and western medicine has been unable to help you, it does seem possible that TCM, however it works, can achieve the  impossible, and restore it. So don’t give up, don’t resign yourself to a textureless world. Go and talk to a practitioner of TCM.

*If you’d like to meet Doc Lin, you’ll find her in my story “Push Hands” here.

**Update July 2013. It didn’t last. It was a glorious scented interlude, but all too brief – disappearing after only a few weeks. After that I tried the ENT department of my local hospital where I was diagnosed with nasal polyps and had more luck – all be it temporarily but for much longer, with a course of antibiotics and corticosteroids. That acupuncture worked was immensely satisfying, but that it worked for so short a period, was also disappointing. See my other blogs pieces on anosmia for more updates on my intermittent journey back to a scented world.

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I’ve always had a very poor sense of smell. In the past it’s disappeared completely for months on end, only to return suddenly, and delightfully, bathing me in an aspect of the world I’d all but forgotten. Then it’ll drift away, immersing me once more in a world considerably less vibrant.

Without a sense of smell, one’s sense of taste is also impaired. I can discern the main themes in food – salty, sweet, sour and spicy, but the infinite subtleties of flavour are lost. Restaurant menus become pointless – shall I have the Pork, the Salmon or the Chicken? It makes no difference because they all taste roughly the same. I usually go for the curry, the hotter the better because at least then I know I’m eating something.

But smell means so much more than just enjoying your food. It also plays a role in triggering and storing memories. The scent of something quite innocent can suddenly release a flood of poignant recollection from decades ago. It’s also useful to be able to tell when something’s burning, or if there’s a gas leak, because it can save your life.

What I miss most is the scent of a freshly mown lawn, coffee beans, a wild meadow after rain, sun-baked bracken on a Lake District hillside, the sea, wild garlic, lavender, rosemary, river water, honeysuckle, freshly baked bread, the fragrance-counter in Boots, and a smoky, peaty single malt whiskey. Sure, you miss a lot of the world when you can no longer smell it.

It’s called Anosmia.

So far this year I’ve been entirely anosmic, except for the occasional period of phantosmia – smelling things that aren’t really there. Sounds weird? Believe me there have been times when the world has smelled vaguely of iodine. My computer, my laptop, my Kindle and my iPad all stink of it at the moment, as if it’s leaching out of my fingertips – but no one else can smell it.

It’s not all bad news though. I had to go rummaging through the bin one evening for something my son was sure had been thrown away, and which he desperately needed. I could tell the job stank by the look on his face, but I couldn’t smell anything, and was glad for it. Yuk! I still made sure I put all my kit in the wash afterwards, then had a good shower, because that’s another thing about anosmia, you become paranoid about your personal hygiene, always making sure you’re well scrubbed and that you have a fresh shirt to hand. When you can’t rely on your nose to tell you you’re over-ripe, you need a regular plan of preventative maintenance.

I used to get hay fever as a youngster, and maybe that’s shrivelled the nerves in my nose over the years -otherwise I don’t know. And while on that subject, another upside is I no longer suffer from common allergies. I remember how I used to seal myself indoors of a summer in order to avoid pollen, but now I can roll about in the hay as much as I want to.

And the doctor’s advice?

Well, I went to see the sawbones about it recently, but he shrugged at me in that rather discouraging way he has, then suggested I tried a nasal spray. Failing this it was a trip to the ear nose and throat specialist at the hospital, but he felt that would probably be a waste of time as well. All told, I came away not exactly brim-full of hope. Anyway, I picked up my nasal spray from the chemist – noted with some concern that it contained steroids – then commenced snorting it twice a day, as per the sawbones’ instructions.

He suggested I kept it up for a month, then go back to see him if it hadn’t worked and he’d make me that appointment at the hospital. But I only managed it for three weeks before developing regular stomach ache, chest pains and shortness of breath. Then I began to feel rather odd in myself – dissociated, wanting nothing to do with the world or anyone in it – all right I feel like this most of the time, but not usually to such a heightened degree. I also spent an entire weekend hiding from my family, unable to cope with anything they wanted of me – and growling at anyone who asked me what the matter was.
Clearly something was wrong.

In the absence of any other clues, I stopped using the steroid spray and my sense of self resurfaced within a few days, all be it still without his sense of smell. But he could breathe okay and no longer felt like he was about to have a heart attack. His family also agreed he was becoming human again, and more importantly, capable of being nagged and needled without going ballistic – which is always a good sign.

I’m not sure where to go from here. Whether to just be accepting of it, or to explore things further – after all I’ve lived with it for decades, so why get upset about it now? What I’ll not be doing is returning to the sawbones. He’s a likeable chap, but apart from an alarming reaction I once had to a bottle of Chianti he’s not managed to cure a single thing I’ve presented him with. When I come away from his surgery, I’m always left thinking a thing will either get better on its own, you’ll have to live with it, or it’ll kill you, so why bother the sawbones about it anyway? Next time I’m in town, I may duck into the acupuncture and herb shop, see what traditional Chinese medicine has to offer.

You never know.

Graeme out.

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