THE BLOG

Anosmia: the Quiet Killer

07/16/2010 11:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was Zicam, a cold remedy pitched (not to me personally, understand) by none other than the king of the cochlear implant, Rush Limbaugh, that murdered my olfactory cells in cold blood.

Then anosmia went to work on the rest of me. Anosmia is the medical term for no smell. My loss of what I've come to think of as the primal sense was initiated by the opposite of no smell: vile smells that no one could smell but me. When, after six weeks casting about for answers in the offices of various doctors including a psychiatrist, I was told by an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist that the uncanny nonstop odors were phantoms. Olfactory hallucinations. They are akin to the fake pains amputees suffer and the buzzing and/or clanging in the ears of tinnitus sufferers.

Needless to say, this one-two punch--first I find out that the bad smells are all in my mind and then that in a few weeks they'd be replaced by a world stripped of all scent--was taken by my traumatized self as a fatal bow.

What is eating, loving, gardening--I am a professional gardener and garden writer-- and what is life without smell? I was certain I'd lose my lust for living, but would I lose my memory too? Smell is a co-collaborator in the limbic system with feelings and memory, a vestige of our prehistory past when we were smellers first and thinkers not at all.

Smell has lost its top-dog status in the human sense hierarchy but as I fumbled my way through each miserable, sterile and frightening day as an anosmic, trying to get my bearings in this antiseptic world, trying to memorize the smells of my family, my beloved dog Mel, my plants, and my living room, I couldn't help wondering why most people, given the choice, would rather lose a big toe than their sense of smell.

They don't give smell a second thought, is why. They take it for granted. How many of you have even heard of anosmia? I hadn't until I had it. And then I discovered another miserable side effect. It is invisible. No one remembers the next time they see you. Go out to eat and your best friend acts like you, too, are blown away by the cilantro in the leek soup. The rhubarb in the pino grigio. And so on.

Taste is ninety percent smell.

Moreover, you can't imagine what it's like not to be able to taste, or smell, unless you're anosmic. Close your eyes and you know blindness, your ears and you become deaf. But a pathway behind the nose to the brain ushers smells from your mouth to the olfactory system even if you have a head cold and can't breathe.

We have Proust to thank for the comparative sophistication of our understanding of smell's most uncanny trick--the way a familiar odor conjures up whole episodes of your long-ago life in vivid multisensory detail.

Loss of those moments was catastrophic to me. I grew up around farms. When all else fails to cheer me up on a bad day, I have only to sniff a pile of manure and be happy again. I'm back in the horse barns I loved as the kid. Would anosmia extinguish my silly girlish ardor for lathered horsehair and hay-scented manes and saddle soap?

Imagination is a wonderful thing, But not good for much without smell. Unless you were born anosmic and your brain was never wired to depend on the primal sense for so much, well, happiness.

Writing a book about what happened to me helped put me back in touch with my old doggedly curious self, even as the cells were nudging one another back into action in my olfactory system. Only smell neurons regenerate in this dramatic way, though repair is possible only if the receptor sheet hasn't been severed completely.

Remembering Smell is a memoir. Passages describing phantosmia and anosmia were written back when I was in the thick of them. Research took up the next two and a half years. I had to fill in the blanks in my woefully poor education in biological topics, not to mention brain science, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, cooking science, and a few other sciences if I were to write a book that answered the questions my experience brought front of mind.

Partial answers are better than none.

Smell is the most complicated of the senses, and only when the genes for smell were discovered in 1991 were the doors to awareness of how it works finally opened, albeit just a crack. Many mysteries remain, but smell is on the leading edge of medical research nowadays, offering the possibility of helping scientists deliver stems cells to damaged brain regions and even deconstruct consciousness. An awakening appreciation for the primal sense is long overdue. But I see it coming. I hope my book helps.

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