Life Is Non-Scents

by Debbie Jinks

Who would have thought when I got up that Friday morning that my life would change in such a devastating and unusual way by the time I went to bed that night? That my whole world would be turned upside down by one small incident.

Life was pretty good until that point; I’d succeeded in my ambition to be a professional singer and songwriter….ok, not famous but making a decent living out of it none the less. I was also a singing teacher and worked part time on a nature reserve, so going well, really. But on that day Friday 7th February 2015, (I’ll never forget it), the contented aroma of my life disappeared.

It all started out fine. We were going over to a friend’s for a meal and catch up that evening as we hadn’t seen her for a long time and were really looking forward to it. We arrived  armed with the usual bottle of wine and beers, anticipating an enjoyable and fun evening.

But it never happened that way.

Instead after bending down to pick up my phone, I passed out, banged the back of my head very hard against the living room wall and ended up in a heap on the floor. When I came round, I had the headache from hell and a tennis ball size bump to go with it, but otherwise seemed ok. I know it was stupid of me and I should have gone to the doctor there and then, but I was determined not to ruin the evening. I said I’d be fine and sat down to have a drink and a few nibbles as you do!

My favourite tipple then was a good red wine so I went to have a very much needed gulp after the disastrous start to the evening only to find that I couldn’t taste it at all! I kept trying and there was nothing; then I realised the scented candle on the table didn’t smell of anything, and the curry which I knew we were having for dinner had no aroma whatsoever. This was curry, for goodness sake!

My world had turned scentless. That was when I started to worry, and when we sat down to eat and I couldn’t taste the hot curry even a little bit, the panic started to creep up my spine. I had completely lost my sense of smell and taste.

We went home not long after, as not only had I started to feel physically ill by then, I was also feeling mentally deranged!

My life became a nightmare after that. With a whirlwind of doctors’ appointments, tests, medication and a lot of blank looks and head shaking, even the doctors weren’t sure what was going on.

It took research and dedication by my wonderful family and husband to discover that I had the little known and life changing condition called Anosmia. I was too numb and depressed to even attempt to look into it myself and totally withdrew from the world. This condition was incurable and so unusual that even some people who practised medicine didn’t know anything about it!

But I certainly learnt the hard way. Anosmia can occur for a number of reasons. A severe sinus infection, or flu. Nasal abrasions or polyps, often from sinus infections and similar. Scar tissue from a blow to the nose, and it can also be congenital, meaning you are born without the ability to smell. Or, as in my case, a head injury.

When I hit my head, the impact was so hard that it rattled my brain, (yes I do have one), which severed my olfactory nerve fibres. These are smell receptors, tiny fibres responsible for sending information about smell to the olfactory bulb, your “smell centre” if you like. So with that gone my sense of smell went too!

At this point I was a complete mess. No longer could I smell the sweet aroma of flowers or the scent of freshly cut grass, which was something I had always loved. Perfume, food cooking, the list is endless. Talking of food, that was awful. I may as well have been eating cardboard for all the taste I was, or wasn’t getting. Even the act of chewing became a chore, so I stopped eating, simple as that. I was in meltdown, and couldn’t see the point of even trying to eat….so I gave up.

That was when the weight started to come off…slowly at first as my body still had some fat reserves to fall back on, but when that had gone it went to work on my muscle instead and I deteriorated rapidly. I lost so much weight that my doctor said I was critically underweight and put me on all the food supplements under the sun to keep me functioning. Inevitably, I ended up in hospital after collapsing at work due to the fact that my blood sugar had dropped so low that my body couldn’t cope anymore. In fact, I was told later had they not caught it when they did I could have fallen into a coma.

This devastated my husband, my family, and my close friends and I realised that I was making their life hell as well as my own. I knew at that point I had to try harder, if not for myself then for my loved ones at least.I has to pull myself out of this pit I had fallen into and regain my life or I was going to waste away. How could I do this to my family, was I being selfish? I know they all understood and kept telling me I was strong and could do this, but I felt like a useless waste of space and completely at breaking point. It was now or never for me at that point:  fight or give up?

Well you’ve probably realised that I decided to fight or I wouldn’t have written this. But it was an uphill struggle, that’s for sure…so this is the point where I would like to introduce you to Parosmia. Which decided to come along and add to my challenges.

Parosmia.

This occurs when the small nerve fibres I described to you earlier try to heal and reattach to the nerves themselves. You are probably thinking right now, oh great, she’s healing! Well, not always so great I’m afraid, as sometimes when the fibres try to do this they get twisted and end up reattaching to the wrong nerve endings.

This causes inaccurate smells, known as distorted or phantom smells; things don’t smell as they should, and often they smell horrible, like sulphur or rotten eggs…and worse! Unfortunately for me this also meant any taste I regained due to the attempted healing was distorted too and yes, you guessed: everything smelled and tasted vile. So my uphill struggle suddenly plummeted down again as I tried to force food into me without gagging every time.

Not long after this I read about the possibility that I could have both Anosmia and Parosmia simultaneously and that turned out to be the case for me. I had Anosmia in my right nostril, meaning there was no healing going on, and Parosmia in my left where the attempted healing was taking place.

So in an attempt to adapt to the situation I started pressing down my left nostril to flatten it when I ate so as to lessen the impact of the horrible taste, in theory blocking my nose up like if you have a cold and can’t smell/taste so well due to it. This worked to a point but very strong flavours like onion and garlic were not cancelled out and tasted as if they were rotten; even now I can’t go near them.

But at least I was eating; in fact, getting the odd pleasant taste of sweetness in sugary foods like biscuits or milk chocolate, and salt in things like cheese or olives. Which is better than nothing, I suppose. This kind of kept me going and I focussed on the food I could eat even though I had to sit there with my finger stuck against my left nostril most of the time, not a good look! In fact, joking aside I couldn’t face eating in public anymore…can you imagine the looks I’d get?

Going out for a meal became a definite no-no.

But life went on and I tried to make the best of it; even though there were still moments of complete hopelessness, they lessened a little, and it’s the point I am at now.

Mind Healing.

I know that I may never regain my sense of smell and taste properly, there’s no guarantee that my nerve fibres will ever heal completely; coming to terms with this, getting my mind right is where I am now.  If I’m ever to move forward my mind needs to heal.

My sister said don’t let your Anosmia define you as a person and I think I’ve done that quite a lot. I look at food and anticipate the fact that it will be either tasteless or horrible before I even try it, and I am attempting to get out of that mind set now. I do try new things and have occasionally been pleasantly surprised that it doesn’t taste too bad. I’ve also recently been catching the odd scent of vanilla if we have a candle burning and sometimes a sweet smell if my husband has put on body spray. So it’s all positive stuff.

I can still get easily depressed and have to remind myself that I have a lot to be thankful for; I also practice ‘Mindfulness Training’ to try and keep myself alert and focussed on the present, and not dwell on the past or worry about what the future may hold.

Instead…I’m living for the now, this moment and the good things in life, whilst shouting the bad things down as best as I can. Maybe I am strong after all!

If you would like to know more about this condition and Debbie’s Anosmia journey, please visit her blog: Anosmia My World