The virus hit me the summer of the great American eclipse.
I'd caught one of those super-strength germs when I was visiting my mother in the hospital. The night before the eclipse, when the moon passing between the Earth and sun would turn day into night, I'd ordered in vindaloo in an attempt to chase away the last vestiges of the virus. My eyes teared and my sinuses dripped, but there was no flavor to my food at all. Just a cold, I thought. But it seemed like my symptoms should have already subsided.
I thought I was lucky to find an eclipse viewing spot on the concrete steps in the crowded plaza outside of my office building. A woman with a pinhole camera fashioned from a single-serve cereal box caught my eye and pointed toward the trash can nearby, then held her nose. I didn't smell a thing. Astrologers say eclipses show us things in a new light, and by the time the sun was obscured, I realized that my ability to taste and smell had been eclipsed from my life.
The human nose can detect, according to some studies, up to 1 trillion distinct scents, but the virus rendered me unable to smell anything. I became one of the estimated 2 million Americans who suffer from anosmia, the inability to smell, and consequently have a reduced ability to experience flavor as well.
My primary care doctor had little information about smell loss. She suggested I see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. Friends and colleagues were equally befuddled when I mentioned my condition. One co-worker pushed her salad topped with blue cheese under my nose. "Surely you smell this." Others just said, "That stinks."
Despite being an avid at-home cook, I didn't realize how crucial smell was to taste. The tongue detects the basic tastes of salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami, but it's smell that provides the flavor. To simulate the experience, grab some jelly beans. You'll likely be able to distinguish the taste of a yellow one from a lavender one. But hold your nose and they all taste the same.
My eating habits suffered. After years of clean eating, potato chips and Doritos were suddenly my jam. Junk food hit the buttons — the crunch like a cheap thrill, the obscene amount of salt and chili powder my version of lonely dude porn. Afterward I felt terrible, and lost myself in Ben & Jerry's ice cream — cold, sweet, salty, and filled with textures. An anosmic ambrosia. (Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry's, has anosmia, and he has said his desire for texture led to their distinctive style of ice cream.)
The ENT was more knowledgeable than my general practitioner, but he said there was no medicine he could prescribe, as there's no known cure for post-viral anosmia. It was possible I'd regain my sense of smell, but he couldn't tell me how likely it was. He told me about a patient of his, a chef, who'd developed anosmia eight years earlier and had been traveling the world to no avail looking for cures. It had only been six weeks for me — I couldn't imagine it going on for eight years.
My laundry pile ballooned. Since I couldn't smell myself, I erred on the side of caution and changed clothes with unusual frequency. Off to meet a group of writers, several for the first time, I worried about first impressions and decided to freshen up in the ladies' room in Macy's. I passed through the men's cologne section, where I used to go for a bit of sensual reminiscence; a whiff of Grey Flannel once evoked visceral memories of afternoon delight with a particularly handsome photographer.
I sprayed some Obsession on the tester strip, the scent my husband wore when we were first engaged. It's an aggressive, musky scent, but that too was blank. I felt the sting of oncoming tears as I tossed the strip in the receptacle by the counter; it had detonated a profound sadness. I imagined myself inside an impenetrable bubble or swathed in cotton, removed from the world.
Anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure, is common among anosmia sufferers. I missed the smell of coffee, the scent of the spice bread I made, the smell of rain. I was jealous of how the white moustache on my shaggy dog twitched as he lifted his nose in pleasure. I missed the popcorn smell of his paws. I missed the smell of sex.
I became a regular at dollar-oyster happy hours. Zinc, I'd read, could help with smell loss. I started working out more. I read that perfumers run up and down stairs to refresh their noses, so I pumped up the cardio. I needed every endorphin I could muster. I found support by participating in anosmia listserv and Facebook groups. I swapped stories and treatments with fellow sufferers — from shared fears to the lack of knowledge about loss of smell in the medical community. There are some inherent dangers in not being able to smell. From burnt toast and scorched pans to actual fires and gas leaks, life without the early warning system of smell was newly risky.
Mostly we exchanged potential cures — some clinically sound, others not so much. Some had doctors who prescribed antibiotics, steroids, or drugs for respiratory issues, others tried muscle relaxers, seizure medications or anti-anxiety protocols. People shared their herbal potions and vitamin supplements, from alpha lipoic acid to moringa powder — the only one I tried was vitamin B12. Others tried hanging from the side of the bed and coating their noses with vitamin A drops.
Several people reported success with smell training. I was intrigued.