How a Random Library Find Taught Me about My Anosmia

Last week I was wandering through the library when I glanced at a book entitled Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum.  I immediately picked up the book because I had never meet anyone who admitted to not having a sense of smell.   That is, no one besides myself.

Yup, it’s true:  I don’t have a sense of smell (the clinical term is anosmia).  I’m not a congenital ansomic, someone who was born without a sense of smell (pg. 51).  I remember being able to smell manure, my maternal grandmother’s musty house,  and my paternal grandparents’ smokey home.  I even remember liking the smell of popcorn.  I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I no longer had the ability to smell; for years I claimed to have a cold whenever someone tried to get me to smell something (and I honestly thought I had a cold because no one had ever said that people could lost their sense of smell).  However, during a Girl Scout activity in sixth grade that required smelling flowers, I once again explained that I must have a cold because I couldn’t smell anything.  Then I realized, I felt fine.  I didn’t have a cold.  Likewise, I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to smell anything.  I thought to myself, I don’t think I have a sense of smell!  Yet with the resiliency of a child and the self-consciousness of a pre-teen (again, I didn’t know of anyone else who didn’t have a sense of smell!), I quickly discarded my shock and continued about my normal activities.      

Since I lost my sense of smell in childhood, I don’t feel like my life is missing something.  There are some foods and drinks that I cannot enjoy as fully as someone with a sense of smell can–teas have no taste beyond the honey or sugar I mix in, Jelly Bellies don’t have variations in their flavors, and the nuances of flavor in something like a roasted chicken don’t exist.  Sometimes I worry about how my clothes smell or if there is a gas leak in the house.  Sometimes I even wish I could smell when babies have soiled their diapers so I know when to change them without having to guess and check (this became even more apparent the day I was caring for a newborn and I didn’t realize that he had poop coming out the side of his diaper until I had accidentally smeared it on myself.  Gross, right?).  But, as I just mentioned, I don’t feel like I have a void in my senses.  I still like food–teas provide me comfort through their warmth, I like the sugary taste of Jelly Bellies, and I can still find delight in a juicy piece of meat.  Febreeze helps with the clothing situation and I’m happy to have my husband live with me so he can detect any harmful smells.  And when I’m actually changing a baby’s poopy diaper–JACKPOT!

But still, nobody likes to feel completely unique, hence my excitement when I happened upon Season to Taste.  Here was someone else who knows what it was like to not have a sense of smell.  Even better, because Ms. Birnbaum decided to write a book about her experience, she presented a whole slew of people who can’t smell or are trying to learn more about those who don’t have a sense of smell.  From anosmic Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (pgs. 53-56), to Richard Doty, scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Taste and Smell Center (pgs. 51, 177-208), Ms. Birnbaum takes us on her journey to discover how to cope without a sense of smell* and how smells and tastes can enrich our lives.

Molly Birnbaum has been blessed to have her sense of smell return–she is one of the fortunate 10% to have their sense of smell return after losing it due to a head injury (pg. 184). 


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