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What It's Like to Be Born With No Sense of Smell

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Close your eyes. Cover your ears. Do you know where you are? Do you know what surrounds you? Without sight or sound, most human beings could in some capacity navigate the world through their sense of smell. For smellers, this sense is constantly, subconsciously running in the background.

I live with fewer senses than most people. I have congenital anosmia, which means I was born without a sense of smell.

I haven’t been able to smell my entire life. I’ve understood I am unable to smell for essentially my entire life, yet I “try” to smell surprisingly often. In the back of my mind, I worry that I’m a phony, that I’ve made it all up in my mind and I just don’t understand that I can actually smell. Or that I’m bad at it. This is ridiculous because I do not have the necessary apparatus in my head. I will never be able to smell.

Reading despairing articles about those who’ve lost their senses of smell, or those like me who have never had the sense, sparks this doubt. The articles often talk about how anosmics can’t enjoy food, have no desire to eat and can’t differentiate between foods. But I can tell the difference between a banana and a strawberry, can’t I? I can distinguish between chocolate and vanilla, right? Or is that the real delusion? If I conducted a blind test, could I  actually even taste?

Unveiling my disability has always been embarrassing, frustrating and uncomfortable. The questions and comments seem to drag on, predictably following the same pattern. Regardless of their relationship to me or educational background or other personal characteristics, people inevitably repeat the same refrain and downplay the impact of my condition.

“If you had to choose one sense to not have…” “So many things smell bad.” “It’s the least useful.” As if it were mutually exclusive. As if someone with all his senses somehow has a better understanding of what one loses by not. Comparing the lack of sense of smell to the lack of any other sense is offensive and condescending. Would you look at a person who has lost an arm and say “at least you have a leg?”

Minimizing my disability because you can’t imagine its limitations is dismissive and cruel. It comes with undertones of “stop complaining, it could be worse.” Or “it can’t be that bad.” Or even, “you are lucky.”

This attitude has been drilled into my head. Referring to it as a disability feels disingenuous or melodramatic. I lead a “normal” life. I receive no special accommodations. Does this lack of ability really permeate all aspects of my life? Yet when people list all my imagined limitations, it’s somehow even less helpful and more offensive. I have to deal with their mix of pity and shock as they search for the things they most enjoy smelling. “You can’t smell…[fill in the blank]?”

Now as I am four months away from becoming a mother, I have to hear the most painful example, which is almost always brought up by women: “you will never smell your child.” Even when it’s presented as a “helpful” silver lining — “you’ll never have to smell a dirty diaper!” — it is a jab that cuts to the core of my disability.

Some of the most basic human behaviors, feelings and actions hinge on the sense of smell. Smell as an instinct. Smell as the formation of bonds and memories and relationships and understanding.

Here comes the paranoia again. Do I actually even remember events? Do I have the same level of interpersonal bonds? Do I act like an alien? Does my lack of smell diminish my humanness?

I believe most mothers-to-be fear they will be inadequate in some shape or form. However, my inability to smell haunts my images of motherhood. I have said to my husband and mother that I worry I will give my child a complex by obsessively checking his diaper since I won’t be able to smell when a change is needed. And I will never experience the “baby smell” people talk about as a key experience of early motherhood. Animals know the unique scent of their young. It’s a form of protective instinct that binds them together. I will never smell my child. I will never be able to teach my child about smells in the world or protect my child from danger indicated by smells.

Anosmia, particularly congenital anosmia, can be lonely. It is rare and misunderstood, probably because it’s not seen as an important matter to study. I’ve occasionally met someone who claims to have no sense of smell, but usually in the end I find out they have a weak sense of smell rather than none at all. I can’t relate to those who’ve lost their sense of smell, entirely or partially, because they vehemently claim food has no taste, the changing seasons bring no pleasure, and they are therefore no longer able to fully enjoy life. These more common folk dominate the anosmia conversation, furthering my relative solitude as a never-smeller and calling into question my own life experience.

I do not have a sense of loss because I never had smell in the first place. Instead it’s a longing for experience, but even more so for inclusion. I have no understanding of what it means to smell. I can not fathom how it feels. Even the most good faith attempts at describing scents ends in frustration for both parties because it’s impossible to describe a sensory experience of this nature. My husband refuses to even try anymore despite my pleas because, as he says, “you won’t understand anyway.” I often liken it to describing the color blue to someone who was born blind. There is no language for it. Thus, I remain on the outside of this ongoing experience which is shared by everyone I know and what feels like everyone else in the world.

It is also lonely due to my admittedly self-imposed lack of conversation around the disability. Not only do I avoid talking about it among friends and family by making self-depreciating or dismissive remarks, or by changing the subject quickly, I expend a remarkable amount of energy “faking it” so as not to reveal my true identity as an asnosmic.

I continue this series of absurd acts in the interest of self-preservation. I pretend I can smell, offering vague responses based on context clues when challenged. It happens most often at work. A coworker will offer some hand lotion to smell. “Doesn’t that smell good?” I nod and smile. The most dreaded incidents are when people ask for my interpretation of a smell. “What’s that smell in the hallway?” One might ask. This is trickier to navigate. Depending on the person’s body language and facial expressions I mimic them and say “I don’t know!” or try to pass the buck to a passerby. “What do you think?”

I’ve often embarrassingly been caught in a direct one-on-one interaction of this nature. “What do you think this smells like?” I pretend to smell the product. There might not be any context clues. My face becomes deep red. “Hmm I’m not sure, what do you think?” I try. There have been instances when the person won’t relent. “No really, what do you think it smells like?”

The reason for the charade is simple. If I explained to one coworker that I can’t smell, I will be ensnared in the inevitable conversation I described earlier. Reading this, you may think you would never ask those kind of questions or make those kind of comments, but in my experience, you would. So once I told one person, I would have to explain over and over again every time I was in a situation where one person knew and others did not, lest I be seen as a liar. There are over 600 employees at my organization, and thousands more at the school districts I serve. I would be caught in a perpetual loop of that terrible conversation. So I fake it. I lie.

Does that make me a hypocrite, to lament the lack of understanding of my condition while at the same time obscuring it and hiding it from view? To actively and strategically avoid bringing my disability to light? Maybe it does.

To my close friends and family, my disability is a punch line. I don’t mean to say they cruelly mock me. I often crack jokes at my own expense. However, the jokes reinforce my otherness and double down on the idea that my disability is not significant or worthy of empathy. The worst is when friends or family “out me” to others, or use me as a party trick to entertain a crowd. It happens.

If my family or friends were to read this essay, they would undoubtedly feel defensive. “You never said jokes bother you.” “I didn’t realize you were so sensitive.” And of course, “get over yourself.” My husband would accuse me of being dramatic. “You really don’t have it that bad.”

There is no “cure” or prescription to solve my lack of ability. I will never be able to smell, and I fear the myriad ways it affects my existence in the world will never be understood. I’m sharing my story in the hope of creating public awareness and collective empathy.

Getty image by Magdalena Kleeman.

Originally published: June 11, 2019
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