To lose your sense of smell

‘What’s that smell? Something’s burning.’

I can still hear the panicked words of the chef running into the kitchen, as I stood red-faced, having not noticed the potatoes in the oven were burning. I was 17 and muddling my way through a weekend job in the kitchen of a village pub.

It was the first of a series of realisations that my smelling senses weren’t quite up to scratch. And over the next two years, they got less and less sharp.

When my mum held out her arm to share the scent of her new perfume, I’d shake my head in disappointment. When friends left a jumper at mine, I wouldn’t be able to give it a sniff to work out whose it was just by the fragrance.

Because the loss was gradual, I didn’t panic about it. In fact, at first, it became a joke. After all, I grew up with two brothers so perhaps it was a godsend when it came to sharing a bathroom.

I loved festivals, so I could deal with the lack of showering and dire toilet situation – and, as far as I’m aware, I can still taste just fine.

But as time went on, I became paranoid about body odour and showered more than is environmentally friendly. I’d wash clothes after every wear and worried that the aromas of food I cooked would permeate the house. I often became anxious about the fact I wouldn’t be able to tell if there was a gas leak.

Soon, I realised I couldn’t tell you what my grandparents’ houses smelt like, or remember the wonderful scent of a freshly cooked pastry. Even my boyfriend’s cologne became a distant memory. Most forms of nostalgia that are triggered by smell are denied to me and it takes away important elements in a lot of my relationships.

It was in my third year of university when I finally spoke to the doctor and was prescribed steroid sprays in a bid to fix whatever was causing it.

When they didn’t work I was referred for an MRI scan. The results showed that I had chronic sinus disease – a condition that causes the lining of your sinuses to grow much thicker than they should.

It explained why I would also suffer from blinding headaches and puffy sinuses whenever I had a hint of a cold.

In 2015, I underwent an operation that aimed to strip away some of the excess tissue. It wasn’t until I’d healed that I realised how bad my breathing had been for years. Sadly, the effect on my sense of smell was marginal.

Even now, I can only make out a handful of particularly strong ingredients by sniffing alone – mainly coffee and fried onions. I’m obsessed with the smell of garlic.

But the majority of life’s odours are still a mystery. My mum picks my perfume for me and my boyfriend has got used to the fact that we’ll always have washing drying in our tiny flat, even if it does cause arguments.

Quite often, I don’t bother to explain my condition to new groups of people.

It causes confusion, intrusive questions and they often assume I can’t taste either, which upsets me. When someone at work comments that my lunch smells great or compliments my perfume I simply smile and nod.

When one sense takes a hit, it’s common for another to come to the forefront. For me, it means that sounds form a huge part of my memory. I can tell you the first CD I listened to in my boyfriends’ car and my dad’s favourite songs take me back to family holidays.

But that doesn’t replace the fact that one day, should I have kids, I won’t be able to recognise that new baby smell or be able to tell when they need a nappy change.

A while back I toyed with the idea of retraining as a florist, but then I realised that it would be pointless if you can’t tell which flowers go together. I rarely burn scented candles I’ve been given as gifts. It’s upsetting to know there’s a huge portion of life that I can hear about but not experience and, at times, I must it admit it makes me feel really sad.

Research suggests that up to five per cent of the world’s population suffers from anosmia – or no sense of smell.

Fifth Sense, a charity for people with sense and taste disorders, are campaigning to address the lack of understanding within society of the role that the senses of smell and taste play in our lives – putting emphasis on the lack of appreciation of the impact that disorders of these senses can have on those affected.

Sure, I’ll joke about the benefits of not being able to detect the whiff of the Glastonbury toilets and having no sense of smell is far less debilitating than losing other senses, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t often feel the loss deeply.

But while it takes more effort to consciously remember scenes, events or feelings in other ways, I constantly remind myself that I still have a lot to be thankful for in terms of my overall health and happiness.

In this exciting new series from, What It Feels Like… not only shares one person’s moving story, but also the details and emotions entwined within it, to allow readers a true insight into their life changing experience.

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