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Anosmia: It’s Not Funny Anymore

Imagine a world without the scent of spring flowers, the smell of freshly baked cookies, or the aroma of coffee to get you out of bed. Pretend you’ve never smelled sweet perfume, or your favorite meal being cooked, or even towels fresh from the dryer. How empty would you feel if you could no longer smell something that brought back a favorite memory?

It’s not a fantasy world, it’s actually very real—this world without scents, smells, and aromas.

Hello, my name is Kathleen, I’m an anosmic, and I’m tired of being treated like a freak.

What’s an anosmic? It’s a person with no sense of smell. There are millions of Americans living with anosmia every day, and there is no cure. What’s worse is that most doctors simply ignore the issue—as my former doctor once said—“Well, it’s not like you’re deaf or blind or anything. If you’re going to not have one sense, smell would be the one to pick.”

But the problem is that I didn’t pick it. It picked me. And I’m not alone.

Most people do have a sense of smell. Anosmics refer to these people as “Olfies,” or persons with perfectly functioning olfactory nerves. Olfies tend to take their sense of smell for granted, going on about their day knowing perfectly well how their hair and body smells.

Anosmics, however, don’t have this luxury. We shower daily—sometimes twice a day—just to make sure we don’t smell funny. We live in constant fear of someone telling us that our apartment or house smells bad. We go to the store and pretend to have a cold so someone will help us buy candles that smell nice. When someone asks us, “Doesn’t that smell delicious,” we usually just nod so we don’t have to explain the whole damn thing about not having a sense of smell, and “how can you taste things if you don’t have a sense of smell,” and what life would be like if they couldn’t smell.

And those are just the cosmetic things.

Four years ago, when I became a new mother, I couldn’t tell if my son needed to be changed just by “smelling” him. I remember being mortified when, while standing in line to pay for shoes, a lady walked up to his stroller and said, “What a cute baby . . .” and after standing over him for about five seconds added, “ . . . but BOY, does he need his diaper changed!”

Or what about the time my husband had to rescue food out of the oven because it was burning and I couldn’t smell it?

Anosmics don’t know what gas or smoke smells like. We don’t know when something is leaking and burning in our cars, so as anosmic women—when we take the car in for service—we get the old “ditzy girl” treatment as the mechanic says, “Well of course your car isn’t running like it should be . . . can’t you smell that transmission fluid burning? It’s leaking all over the place!”

Yeah, Olfie. Thanks for the diagnosis.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found websites that explained Anosmia, and discovered that there were millions of others like me. I don’t ever remember having a sense of smell, which means I could have “Congenital Anosmia,” or was born without a sense of smell.

There are others, though, that have actually had a sense of smell and lost it—either by receiving a head injury, or taking Zicam while suffering from a cold, or even sitting in a dentist’s chair with their mouth open for too long. These are the ones that seem to complain the most. Welcome to my world, former Olfie.

Of course, many would say that anosmia is not a disease. You can’t actually die from having it. It’s not like cancer or ALS—we’re not debilitated and are not forced to receive highly invasive treatment for it.

But what most people don’t understand is we can die from it. Yes, smoke detectors can protect us from fires when we can’t smell the smoke. But lets not rule out those of us who have suffered from countless trips to the hospital because of food poisoning. And the ones who have been killed because they couldn’t smell the gas in their house as it leaked from their stove, and either lit a cigarette or a burner that wouldn’t turn on correctly. Not a good way to go.

Having no sense of smell is not funny anymore, and frankly I’m tired of it being just a quirky trait.

I’ll be seeing a specialist soon, and will keep you posted on how things go.

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