Friday, November 4, 2011

Anosmia and my nose

Congenital Anosmia is something I have lived with my whole life, I have never been able to smell one single thing. Many think that this would affect my cooking or my ability to taste. And they are right to a degree, I certainly am not comfortable with winging it when it comes to cooking (sewing is another matter). I tend to follow directions and ingredient lists to the letter. Parsley and cilantro taste exactly the same to me, cinnamon and cumin are like dust and lemon zest and orange zest are just pithy things that get caught in my teeth. But I can taste sweet, sour, salt, and bitter.

The reason I bring this up is that I just finished reading Molly Birnbaum's book, "A Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way" and it was like suddenly someone finally could put into words what I could not explain for so many years - the complete absence of smell and how tied it is to taste.

A dear friend of mine, Katie, used to be my "Smelling Nose Dog" where she would try and describe a smell to me and I loved hearing her descriptions. The most memorable one was that cut grass smelled like the way you feel when you walk into a forest on a clear crisp day for a hike and the amount of oxygen around you just smacks you over the head. I loved that description so much. But Molly's descriptions blew me away and also humbled me. I realized how much I am missing, but at the same time how much I can taste. I don't think things taste like cardboard - ever. I judge what I taste on texture and flavors that I can discern. A doctor once said I probably taste about 40 percent of what the average person tastes. I can live with that.

Being a congenital anosmic has its downsides, but I really can't complain about them because it doesn't feel fair. That same doctor also told me, "Of all the senses to not have since birth, smell is one that I can imagine one could live without and not feel like you are disabled in some way. Be thankful you have your sight, your touch, your hearing. But no smell? You'll be just fine." Of course I'll be fine. I am fine. But I would love to know why I can't smell, everyone else in my family can. My children can smell just fine. I am just a fluke.

As a child and teenager I thought I was just stupid for not being able to smell. When people would ask, "Can you smell that?" I'd just play along and say yes, I didn't want anyone to know that I was different in some way and certainly with one that they couldn't see. I was worried they would confirm what I had been slowly saying about myself, "I'm not smart enough to smell things." Then one day while babysitting for some kids down the street, the Pop-Tart I had put into the toaster got stuck and started to burn. I didn't smell the smoke for some time and it had started a small fire in the kitchen. I only noticed the fire when the smoke came into the living room and I quickly (and foolishly) threw a jug of water onto the appliance and shorted out the entire electrical circuitry of the house. When the children's mother came home and asked why I hadn't smelled the smoke, I knew the jig was up. I told her I couldn't smell anything, so she walked me home and suggested to my mother that I get tested. A few years later I did get tested and the doctors that I had visited ranged from the one who accused me of lying to get attention, the one who said I probably had a bad cold at the time (I didn't) and then one who was so fascinated by my story that he went and got a medical book and we sat together, looking through it till he found the word "Anosmia." He did a battery of tests on me and confirmed what I had known all along, I couldn't smell a darn thing. Not oranges, not gasoline, not medicine, not flowers, nothing. However, we did learn that peppermint did cause a sensation akin to burning in my nose, so at least I can say I can smell peppermint.

I had heard of people losing their sense of smell from accidents and from surgery and I never understood this lamenting loss they all expressed, this depression they seemed to get into. I guess that is what comes when you lose something you once had. I never had it so it doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me. The only smell I wish I could have is the one of my children, I wish I knew what a baby smelled like - that powdery smell that is often described sounds like heaven to me. Other than that I am fine with what I don't have. I have gone from being embarrased about being different to embracing it and owning it. I can cook, my friends and family enjoys the dishes that I cook and I love to eat. I may not be able to tell the difference between some things, but I have the love for food.

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