Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel. Oliver Wendell Holmes
How true that quote is. After my mother died I treasured a cardigan she had worn that retained her special fragrance. It was a great comfort. But for many years I had absolutely no sense of smell. This was due to nasal polyps and inflammation, related to a serious autoimmune condition called Churg Strauss Syndrome.
The sense of smell is connected to that of taste, which meant I could only distinguish between sweet and sour. To my frustration, doctors brushed aside my complaints. Why worry about such minor issues when I had so many other medical problems? But my very psyche was affected, not to mention the practical issues of being unable to detect a gas leak, or to smell smoke! The medical name for loss of smell is anosmia. Few people have even heard of this term, which illustrates how little attention the problem receives.
Sometimes I would think that I could taste, totally confusing my partner. ‘That was nice’, I would say after eating a ripe orange. But in reality it was the sight of the fruit and my memory of orange flavour that were at work….plus, I suspect, the imagination of a writer.
Thankfully, a harsh regime of drugs produced full remission of my condition, and the return of my two lost senses. I will never, ever take them for granted. Oh the joy of being able to catch a waft of expensive perfume, and to appreciate the exotic flavours of foreign cuisines.
Nothing provokes the nostalgic response as strongly as the scent of flowers. After moving to the Blue Mountains from Sydney I can now grow all the plants I knew and loved during my Tasmanian childhood. I inherited an old garden, and my joy in discovering an existing lilac tree was due to an incident that occurred fifty years ago. A playmate from a neighbouring farm once climbed onto the school bus with her arms full of freshly cut lilac blooms. The memory of that fragrant, dewy bouquet has never left me
I have since established a bed of one of my mother’s favourite plants; Christmas lilies. To me, their scent is as evocative as pine needles and mince pies.
I also grow Portwine Magnolia, which smells like juicy fruit chewing gum, and Blueberry Ash, which has sweet, liquorice scented flowers.
Of course, it is not only delicate perfumes that arouse nostalgia. I can be transported back to my childhood by the sharp odour of a sun perished, rubber beach-ball, or the earthy aroma of a farmyard.
I am certainly not the only person to feel the loss of taste and smell so keenly.
Stacie Hogan from California says; ‘I have read that anosmia doesn’t bother some people. It bothered me greatly. I never knew I took smell/taste for granted until I lost it. As someone who enjoys baking it was very upsetting to me not to be able to taste what I was making…and smell was just as important to me. ….so many memories are associated with our sense of smell. Losing two of my five senses was totally depressing. None of my three sinus surgeries for polyp removal brought it back.’ Stacie is now on a low dose of anti-inflammatory medication, and is reveling in her restored sense of smell.
My English friend and fellow writer Mike White has been unable to retain his taste and smell since undergoing chemotherapy in 2005. He is a connoisseur of wines and told me, ‘I kept hoping I’d be able to enjoy the wine when I opened it, and indeed I could enjoy it to a certain extent, but the pleasure was mostly vicarious. I took to buying cheaper wine, which seemed unfair to Suki [his partner] who’s always had a better palate than mine. We used to go on wine tours, and were planning one to Burgundy this year. I cancelled it, as it was pointless.’
Steroids provide Mike with temporary relief, but these powerful drugs are not recommended for long term use. Happily, as spring returned to the UK this year, so too did his sense of smell. Of course he realizes it may be fleeting; ‘It’s so good when it returns; an extra dimension. I’m going downstairs right now to smell the hyacinths in the porch.’
There is a reason why we use the phrase ‘stop and smell the roses’ to convey the importance of appreciating life. I hope that physicians will learn to be more sympathetic to those of us who lose the ability to do so in a literal sense.
FOOTNOTE…In the general population the sense of smell and diminishes with age. Smoking hastens and increases the loss.
UPDATE – Since writing this piece I have had some interesting information from Ripley Patton, who suffers from intermittent loss of smell and taste. She told me that she feels fortunate, because her grandfather, father and youngest brother have congenital anosmia. This rare gene mutation means they have never been able to taste or smell . Ripley says she was always able to impress her brother by telling him what was being cooked for dinner without actually seeing it. I was amused when she said that although they have never experienced flavours, they don’t understand what they are missing and are quite insulted if anyone mentions the fact.
PLEASE FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A COMMENT IN THE BOX BELOW. BUT DON’T FORGET TO COMPLETE THE LITTLE ANTI-SPAM SUM BEFORE PRESSING ‘SUBMIT’