In 2009, I underwent elective surgery for nasal electrocautery. It was to cure my chronic nosebleeds, which had been increasing in severity and frequency.
The procedure uses electrical current to char the lining of the nasal passageway so that it will be heavily scabbed, and cover up the capillaries under a heavy layer rather than the thin, breakable, skin with which I was born.
It also destroys the olfactory receptors.
I’ve had strong, though not total, anosmia ever since.
I rapidly got used to it. I was a picky eater as a kid, and I was fifteen at the event. A year later, I had my largest growth spurt, and my body realized I couldn’t afford to be picky anymore. Plus, well, I couldn’t smell. So the first major change in my life was that I was now willing and able to eat a lot more food. Another was that smells didn’t bother me anymore, so I could tolerate unpleasant things that might annoy other people.
It also meant that my personal hygiene suffered, since I lost the ability to self-assess. I try to be diligent about my habits as a result, but when I literally can’t tell if I’m off, it’s harder.
Anyway. Like I said, I acclimated quickly, and then I forgot how to remember scents or tastes from before it, so since then I haven’t really been able to know what I’m missing. I’ve been able to talk about it; I know in the abstract that it’s a cost, but I generally don’t feel actually limited as a result of it.
I went grocery shopping with my girlfriend the other day. This was actually our first real grocery trip together, since my fridge was completely empty from moving and unlike all our past times together, we’re not visiting for a few days or traveling. We live together now. We’re going to cook together. All that good stuff.
So she asked me what my favorite meals were, and to pick out some things I liked.
I couldn’t. As soon as she asked me to make active choices that she would be observing, the façade of knowledge and discernment fell away and everything in the store became incomprehensible to me. Since moving out west, I’d mostly lived on either takeöut or very basic dishes, just a handful of staples tossed into a pan and fried together. Potatoes, peppers, onions, beef, oil, fire. You can get a lot done that way. The only times I’d tried cooking real actual recipes were when I remembered to use a meal planning service one of my friends introduced me to (it’s PlateJoy btw; I really like it because it’s shopping lists and recipes only; no deliveries. Not a paid advertiser, I just like it) or when I was thanking that same friend for letting me crash at their house for two weeks. Other than that, I pretty much just subsist on what my dad called “bachelor meals” like the fry scramble I described above, or, yeah, takeöut.
I realized I didn’t know what any of the assembled foods in the store were. Everything in the deli or the frozen aisles were all equally unknown. I couldn’t think about what they tasted like or which ones would be good or interesting. It was just a long selection of essentially identical grey boxes I couldn’t tell apart.
We talked about it in the car later and while she’d known about my lack of smell since the beginning, I don’t think either of us had ever been confronted so starkly with what it actually meant for us. She relates to food very strongly, and attaches a lot of memories and importance and emotional satisfaction to creating meals and sharing them with people.
There’s a snippet in The Dresden Files where a vampire character explains that when normal people look at others, they see them as actual, fully-realized, people, with interesting characteristics and unique determinants, but all he sees is food, food, food. That’s the closest depiction of the way I think about this that I’ve seen. I don’t see different dishes or taste combinations. It’s all just calories. That’s it.
That’s not to say everything is indistinguishable to me. I guess it’s like a greyscale. Some foods are brighter, some are darker, and in general I like brighter things. I can brighten food by pouring absurd amounts of a taste chemical on it, like capsaicin or sugar or acids. My taste buds work fine. I just can’t discern anything from aromas. I can’t tell how flavors interact or combine.
So she was upset that I was being dismissive or indecisive about what to get, or ignoring her attempts to pick out things that we’d like, because to her, of course that’s what it looks like! Of course it looks like I didn’t care – I didn’t; I couldn’t – but how are you supposed to really believe that’s because of an inability to perceive normal perceptions? And as I was explaining myself, it really landed for me too just how much of a problem this actually is.
Because when I’m cooking for myself, I don’t need to care about anybody else’s thoughts or feelings, and when I’m cooking for other people, I’m not dumb; I know how to follow directions and I know that there are things people like about how food is made. But she wants to cook for me, and she wants to put emotion and effort and care into it, and she wants me to appreciate that. I want to.
But I can’t. I am physically incapable of receiving any of it. It’s just. Calories.
And that was a deeply hollowing realization. To really think about the fact that one of the ways she wants to communicate with me is just completely gone. To have to confront the fact that no matter how much care or effort or thought she puts into a meal to make it special for us, I’ll never be able to acknowledge any of it. Maybe it looks nice. Maybe it’s bright. I won’t know anything else she wanted it to be. I won’t be able to care.
I’ve never considered anosmia a disablity before. Honestly it’s been more helpful than harmful; I can tolerate poor work from my scouts, I can cut onions without PPE, I can deal with garbage or vomit or other smells that make everyone else upset. It’s a cool immunity for a lot of tasks.
I got bored writing this article and wanted to try something I saw from other people who had Covid and lost their sense of smell.
So I went to my refrigerator, pulled out an onion, and ate it. Like an apple. I took off its skin and I bit directly into it. Chewed. Swallowed. Again. And again. The whole thing.
I can tell it wasn’t an apple because onions are brighter than apples.
It didn’t taste bad, or sharp, or however you describe a raw onion. My eyes watered a little, because that’s a chemical reaction between the vapors coming out of the onion cells and the eyeballs. Has nothing to do with scent. But I didn’t care that it was a whole raw onion. It wasn’t a bad experience or a good one. It was just something to eat.
That’s pretty fucked up, right?
I’m not saying only anosmiacs can eat raw onions. I’m sure you could if you wanted to. But you’d probably have a bad time. You’d probably be very aware of what you were doing. You’d probably think there were a lot of other, better, choices you could be making with your time or with that onion.
Like they say in Westworld. It doesn’t taste like anything to me.
I lost an entire language people use to talk to each other and I never even noticed it was gone, because I haven’t tried to speak it in thirteen years. I can’t tell you what my favorite food is because I can’t tell any of them apart. The way I decide if food is good or not is if I like the environment where I’m eating it.
I was given some pork schnitzel the other week by one of my scout’s moms as a meal to have instead of takeöut once my kitchen was packed. I didn’t think about it at the time I was eating it, but, in retrospect I realize that I couldn’t taste it at all. It was the exact same recipe my mom and I make, and I put lemon and fry sauce on it like we always use, but I wasn’t with my family, I wasn’t at an actual occasion of a mealtime, so there was no emotional ambience. It was just bread and meat and acid. Nothing more.
I’ll tell you things are good if you have me eat them. I’m probably not even lying. I can tell if something’s made correctly or not. I can admire the craft put into it. I just don’t know what it tastes like.
I guess it’s like if you asked to read a story you wrote and all they can say is, “you didn’t make any spelling or grammar mistakes”.
I mean, yeah, that’s good.
That’s not what you fucking asked though.
But I can’t answer the question you asked. I can’t understand what you’re trying to tell me.
I’m not ignoring you. It’s not that I don’t care.
I am quite literally unable to perceive or comprehend food in the manner you expect me to. I have lost that ability. I guess that’s what a disability is. Part of the normal human experience is gone for me. I can’t experience part of our lives anymore. As these things go, it’s a pretty trivial one. I’m not pretending otherwise.
But god above, watching her and me both realize the depths of what this meant was agonizing. I’ve never felt more like a simulacrum in my life.
It’s not true that humans only have five senses. We have plenty more beyond the standard sight/sound/touch/taste/smell. But those are the big ones.
Try not to lose them.
There are many, many good reasons you shouldn’t get covid. There are so many things it can do to you that you don’t want. But I haven’t had covid, and I haven’t had any of them.
But I can tell you that you definitely don’t want to have anosmia.
It doesn’t feel bad. It doesn’t hurt or ache.
It just doesn’t feel like anything at all.