by: Chris Thompson
Struggling to live in a world without flavor…..
On Friday May 10th, 2013, around 6:15pm, my sense of smell and taste disappeared. Took off like a thief in the night. Only what was stolen from me wasn’t some prized family keepsake or an expensive piece of art. No, what was taken has no value in the material world, falling easily into that category simply entitled: priceless. 2/5th’s of how I now perceive the world is gone and I’m desperate to get it back.
How is this possible you may say? One’s senses simply do not disappear. That’s true. For me it’s quite simple actually: I’m suffering through one of the worst sinus infections I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s crippling. It’s left me listless and numb, deafened and dull, feeling like a visitor in my own body, clumsily trying to control my limbs with a brain foggy on drugs like Multi-symptom, Maximum-strength, Mucinex Fast-Max Cold and Sinus, chock full of designer compounds like Acetaminophen and Guaifenesin and Phenylephrine HCL. I’m actually struggling to write this essay right now, transfixed by this perpetually blinking cursor……Where was I? Oh, yeah….these drugs I’m taking, they only treat the symptoms. They do nothing to treat the affliction.
“It has to run its course,” my physician Dr. Doug tells me as I struggle to put my pants back on in the examination room. Why I have to take my pants off when I come in complaining of a head cold still to this day baffles me. I think it’s some sort of doctor-patient power struggle that I still don’t understand.
“How long will that be?” I ask weakly.
“It could be anywhere from one to six weeks. It’s either viral or bacterial and either way there isn’t much we can do.” Dr. Doug replies nonchalantly, like that’s no time at all, as he causally checks a text on his iPhone. Except for me one to six weeks is a long time. A lifetime actually. Each hour, each minute, each second takes forever to pass these days and since I’ve started feeling this way Time seems to be blending into an endless haze of grayness.
But back to the point. I’m sorry, that’s another side effect of what I’m going through. I can’t seem to stay focused. What was I trying to say? Oh yeah, I can’t taste or smell anything. I told this to my wife the moment I realized it over dinner and she just smiled, like I was overreacting again as I so often do. Except this time I wasn’t. I had to run it by her several more times until finally, she said:
“Oh? You mean like you really can’t taste or smell anything?
“Yesssss.” I replied softly, crushed, defeated, anxious, my hand going to my head to support me as I glanced down at the delicious home-cooked meal I had just prepared. It was a curried chick-pea dish served over Israeli couscous that I had perfected over the years. I had prepared a side dish of roasted eggplant with a generous slathering of tahini and a yogurt, dill and cucumber salad to go with the meal. It looked delicious and is one of my favorite meals to cook, especially on a chilly day like that Friday was. I love the delicate interplay of flavors in the dish, the bold taste of the spices my wife had brought back from her trip to Turkey that develop as they simmer in a fresh tomato-vegetable broth, the coolness of the yogurt-cucumber salad and the sweet, bitterness of the tahini, all of it coming together to create a truly delicious flavor combination. But as I picked up another heaping spoonful and placed it on my tongue I was again met with blandness. Actually it was less than blandness. It was a complete lack of flavor. How do you describe that? Words fail me. Usually taste and smell weave a delicate dance, a sensual interplay that produce something we experience as flavor. What I experienced could only be described as sterility.
In a moment of panic I leapt up from the dinner table, startling my poor chocolate lab who so patiently holds vigil beneath the dinner table, defending the floors from any errant scraps of food that may fall, and I ran clumsily to the kitchen. I flung open the refrigerator door and grabbed the jar of prepared horseradish that I use to season the homemade Bloody Mary’s that I usually make on Sunday’s. I tore open the jar and held it up to my nose. Real close. Like almost touching close. I breathed in deeply and was met with nothingness. Tranquility. Business as usual. Not a blip on the sensory radar. I brought the jar over to my wife and asked her to smell it. She told me to get it the hell away from her. That she was OK. That she could smell it from the kitchen.
I was suddenly filled with anxiety. I grabbed a lemon from the fruit bowl next to the cupboard. Cut it into thick wedges and sunk my teeth in deep, like I was eating an orange back when I was a kid playing youth soccer and it was halftime. I couldn’t taste anything. I ate the whole thing and was left with nothing more than a burning sensation at the back of my tongue and a promise that I’d be needing a handful of Tums later. Defeated I stumbled groggily to my computer and blew up Google, devouring any information I could find, entering search strings like “What are the side-effects of sinus infections?” and “Do sinus infections cause you to lose your sense of smell?” and “Help! I’ve lost my sense of smell.”
I learned a lot, quickly. The Mayo Clinic’s website told me that a loss of one’s sense of smell is called Anosmia. It can be either temporary or permanent, partial or complete. My mind got the better of me for few moments and I had to use all of my limited focus to shut down my imaginings of a future where I have a permanent, complete loss of flavor. Moving on I learned that the deadening of my senses was most likely being caused by a temporary irritation of the mucous membranes lining the insides of my nose. I also learned that people with seasonal or chronic allergies also suffered from Anosmia, but to varying degrees.
I’ve never had seasonal allergies and I’ve never really considered what people who suffer from this affliction go through. The fact that as a result of their allergies they could develop a permanent reduction in their ability to sense the world never occurred to me. And now that I’m swimming in their waters, I must say that I have a newfound respect for what they suffer through. For too long my canned response to someone telling me they have bad allergies usually was “Oh that sucks.” But now that I’ve learned a bit more, gained some perspective on the whole matter and walked a few miles in their shoes I won’t be so cavalier in my response.
Our sense of smell is a primitive sense and it deals heavily with emotion. So much of how we perceive the world is tied up in it’s essence. Memories, thoughts, sentiments. Pleasure, pain and indifference. They all draw heavily from this sense. Be it the ancient, infinite scent of the salty ocean in Summer as it instantly whisks you back to a childhood vacation, or the sweet odor of a perfume on the wind that reminds you of love’s first kiss. Whatever it is, it’s woven deeply into who we are and how we experience life.
When we smell something, a volatile odor molecule physically binds to us deep within our nose, interplaying with an olfactory receptor in our nasal cavity. Densely packed and occupying less than an inch squared, these receptors capture the whiffs of the world and are hardwired through delicate nerve fibers to the olfactory bulb in the brain. Impulses travel quickly down these nerves and stimulate us, creating a constant stream of scents that function to build an endlessly dynamic perception of the world around us. And it isn’t just the nostrils that transmit smells to our olfactory system. Our mouth and throat play a role too. There are channels that connect the top of the throat to the nose and many of the flavors that we enjoy are due to the interplay of taste and smell, volatile odors from the foods we consume drifting up into our olfactory receptors in our nose and allowing us to smell the food we eat. It truly is a remarkable system our senses of taste and smell, and they are so indelibly linked that to lose one or both is incredibly disorienting.
My body has been adapting to my loss of smell and taste in a most curious way as of late. Spring is befalling us here in Brooklyn, and where I live the endless, tree lined streets of my neighborhood are awash in all manner of flowering trees. Lilac, Dogwood, Magnolia, they all are in bloom. Crabapple, Pear, Redbud and Cherry are there too. And usually when I walk my dog in Spring, our mornings and evenings are sure to visit a particular Lilac tree up the block. It’s an older tree, twisted and gnarled from its many years of growth and the lush odor of its blossoms are intoxicating. The fragrance is sweet without being overpowering and fruity without being citrusy and clean and fresh and crisp smelling. Whenever I pass below its low hanging branches it’s like stepping into a momentary fog of bliss. It takes me back to the Lilac tree that grew below my bedroom window growing up, and the sweet odor of its blossoms that awoke me each Spring morning and bedded me each night. But lately the effect as I pass the tree is different. I’ve lingered below its limbs for many minutes, vainly struggling to whiff its intoxicating fragrance to no avail. But my brain seems to be trying to connect the dots for me. Trying to use my other senses to experience its fragrance. A few nights ago I could have sworn I felt the odor of the Lilac. Smelled its colors with my eyes and heard its perfume with my ears. It was truly a remarkable and quixotic experience.
I know, its the drugs you think right? I thought so too but it happened again over dinner last night. My wife made a delicious homemade soup to make me feel better. “Something to warm you from the inside.” she said. It was kale and barley and carrots and mushrooms and northern beans, all simmered beautifully in a garlicky vegetable broth. It looked delicious but sadly I couldn’t taste a thing. But I could certainly feel it on my tongue. I could sense the texture of the pearl barley as it popped and danced between my teeth. I could feel the slick texture of the kale as it slid down my throat and the slight resistance of the carrot as I bit down. And the warmth of the broth as I carefully sipped each spoonful, its essence spreading out to fill my chilly frame. Together, somehow, I began to “taste” the soup. My recollections of what each ingredient tasted like interplayed strangely with my enhanced sense of feel and sight and sound. And although I may not have actually tasted the soup last night, I did exclaim to my wife “that soup felt delicious,” later that night as we watched Games of Thrones on the couch, but she just smiled at me strangely.
So as I write this I’m only eleven days into this cold and there is no end in sight. I wake up each morning, struggle to undo the cranial constipation established during the night, drink endless cups of burning hot green tea, soothe my membranes with saline nasal sprays, blow my nose, take my drugs, look at myself in the mirror through red, bloodshot eyes and struggle to pull myself through the day. When my senses will return I have no idea, but I’d like to think it’ll be soon. That there’s been no permanent damage. But I have an overactive imagination. The mind wanders. “Time will tell.” the old adage goes and while I wait I’ll continue to explore my new reality, one devoid of taste and smell, and see how my other senses step up. Who knows, maybe I’ll begin to smell the world with my eyes and taste the world with my hands?
Stranger things have happened….
Update: many of you have contacted Across the Margin wondering if Chris Thompson’s sense of smell and taste ever returned. We are pleased to say that several weeks after posting this article, he did indeed return to his “senses” and is now able to perceive the world through both taste and smell.