The smell of failure

When my sense of smell does occasionally come back, it can be weirdly specific and perverse. It can feel like being trolled by your own senses, because it seems to pick on only unpleasant smells. For example, cycling around country lanes, should I happen to pass a huge steaming pile of manure, or a field that has been spread with silage: I can usually smell that. If I drive to work and the prevailing wind carries the smell of the chicken factory in my direction, I’ll often get that. On the other hand, when it comes to the fragrance from a perfume or an eau de toilette: nowt.

I don’t think I’ve written much about this, but it has been the case that I suffered a loss of my sense of smell long before the Covid-19 pandemic.

How long before? Now you’re asking. It has been several years. It’s not a constant or total loss, but it is persistent and consistent enough that I don’t think it’s coming back any time soon.

I still have my basic sense of taste. I can detect sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami. But the subtle differences between flavours, the aromatic elements, are largely absent. For example, I can tell fudge and chocolate are sweet; but can I tell the difference between, say, caramel, and cocoa? Not usually. And I can taste the bitters part of Orange Bitters on my tongue, but I cannot tell it is orange.

This does, of course, make me sad. It’s obviously compromised my enjoyment of food, but also it cuts off whole parts of the world from me. The pleasure in being close to a woman wearing perfume; the smell of freshly baked bread; the welcoming aroma of fresh coffee; the vanilla caramel notes of an oak soaked bourbon. Gone, gone, gone. Except, sometimes, there will be something: a slight return, a reminder that it’s there.

There are very few upsides to this loss. The only one I can think of is the time a couple of years ago, when there was a nasty smell, as if something had died in the wall cavity, in the office at work. Everybody complained about it as soon as they walked in: I couldn’t smell it.

I’ve tried sinus washes, anti-allergy medication, and just putting loads of chilli in everything.

There are those who claim you can train yourself to smell again. There has been discussion of this in the wake of Covid. And so I went to the web site of Abscent, and I ordered one of their kits, a smell training kit.

It contains four glass jars containing a disc impregnated with aromatics. The four are: lemon, eucalyptus, cloves, and rose.

You try to relax, and get into a meditative state. It’s supposed to help if you look at a picture of the thing you’re smelling. In the case of eucalyptus, I picked a photo of Vick’s Vaporub. With cloves, I was torn between fruitcake, or just the cloves themselves. Anyway, I’ve set myself up and I’ve gone through the cycle a few times. You score each smell (and how well you recognise it) from 0 to 5.

The results have made me a little optimistic. For example, on the first attempt, I got nothing from the Rose jar. But on the second attempt, I got a faint floral note (a 2). Lemon was strong (4), which made me happy. Clove and Eucalyptus were somewhere in between the two extremes, better on one day than others.

Today I got up and really felt like I had a head full of cold. But while I had a cold about two weeks ago, I think this is just the central heating, colder weather feeling. Or cat allergy? Who knows. Anyway, results this morning were poor. Lemon: almost nothing. Rose and Clove: zero. Eucalyptus: as if someone running past on the other side of the street had rubbed liniment into their thighs a week ago.

So it comes and it goes, the nose. My dearest hope is that it hasn’t gone forever, that I can train it to come back. I’ll leave this here as a marker, so I can return to it in a few months and see if progress has been made. My average scores so far:

AromaStrength (ave)Recognition (ave)
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