If it ever came to sacrificing a sense, I’d have always volunteered smell as ‘tribute’. When I think of the sensations I love most – the touch of my partner’s skin against mine, the sweet taste of melted caramel – smell has never ranked highly. That was until I lost it all together.
At the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, my partner and I revelled in ordering a Thai takeaway as a weekly ‘treat’. The order is as routine as it is simple – prawn chilli yaki udon, chicken green curry, jasmine rice and beef pad krapao. It was the ultimate comfort while stuck in lockdown in London – a city famous for its bustling and rich restaurant scene. As I twizzled my fork into a mountain of noodles one Friday night, my eyes predictably began to water. The heat of the oil tickled my tastebuds, the chilli flakes pricked my gums. My mouth burned… but I tasted nothing. The familiar citric aroma from the kaffir lime leaves – absent. ‘Another one bites the dust,’ I joked to my partner, disheartened that our beloved takeaway haunt seemingly couldn’t maintain its standards with the demands of lockdown.
Over the next few days, I noticed a shift in my mood. Peanut butter on toast failed to provide the same contentment it once did. My go-to Jo Malone London lime basil and mandarin candle flickered but ignited no spark of relaxation. Toothpaste felt chalky without the peppermint aftertaste. At first, I put my dip in mindset down to the myriad of global uncertainties that now challenged our every life decision. A few days later, my partner and I called our friends to chat about our experiences of lockdown (read: which Netflix series we were watching) so far. ‘I think I’ve become a worse cook,’ I moaned. ‘I can’t taste or smell a thing!’ The line went eerily quiet. ‘Neither can I,’ one of them replied, confused.
The weekend before, a group of us had met at a brewery in north London to celebrate my partner’s birthday. It was mid-March and the rumours of a nationwide lockdown rumbled. While many of us kept our distance from each other and grappled with how to wear a face mask, there were inevitably hugs and cheers, so naïve we were to the pandemic’s threat in its infancy. A week later, eight out of 10 of the group were bedridden with Covid-19 symptoms. Three of us suffered a total loss of smell.
It would take another two months for anosmia – the loss of the ability to detect one or more smells – to be added to NHS’ list of Coronavirus symptoms. But the unanimity among friends and rumours of it being a possible side effect on social media soon confirmed our suspicions – we had Covid-19. In addition to the dull muscle aches and mild difficulty breathing, losing my smell was the worst symptom because it robbed me of all other forms of enjoyment. For many people in lockdown, food has been a source of comfort. For me, it’s been a cruel joke.
During my 14-day quarantine, I became fixated with testing my loss of smell. I crushed up garlic cloves and sniffed them with the zeal of a coke dealer on Narcos. I over-spiced curries with garam masala and mustard seeds. I stuck my nose into every milk carton, salt and vinegar crisp packet and coffee bean bag I could get my snout close to. My brain told me what these foods should smell like, but it was as if they were cocooned under an impenetrable layer of clingfilm. Smells became like the memories that exist at the back of your mind you can’t quite grasp when you need them most.
Professor Victoria Tischler, chartered psychologist at the University of West London, says this isn’t an uncommon side effect of anosmia. ‘Memories triggered by smell last longer than those triggered by other senses such as vision or touch,’ she notes. ‘Smells are also more effective at triggering memories compared to other types of stimuli. This is why we have such a visceral response to them.’
I began to worry that my smell would never return. Worse still, I was terrified I’d be unaware of burning if I accidentally left the hob on or forgot to blow out candles. I forced my partner to do a ‘smell check’ under my armpits, fearful I’d not applied enough deodorant, and salivated every time I saw a jar of English mustard in the fridge. I was in mourning for something I never truly cherished and scared for the unknown.
‘The sense of smell is our most primeval sense important for understanding our physical and social environment,’ Anne Churchill, a research fellow at fragrance manufacturer Givaudan, tells me. ‘It has powerful and direct connections with the emotional and memory centres of the brain. Individuals with [anosmia] report difficulties with cooking, decreased appetite and enjoyment of eating, challenges with maintaining personal hygiene and social relationships, fear of hazardous events or feeling less safe and greater depressive symptoms and loneliness.’
As my smell slowly began to return weeks later, I found myself increasingly sniffing out strong plumes as a form of self-comfort. After weeks of working from home – alone – and listening to disheartening news bulletins about the pandemic, I craved a heady smell that would ground me in the present and remind me of my improving health. For the first time, smell became a form of solace and relief.
I started by digging out unused perfumes from my bathroom cupboards and laying each one out on my dressing table. I popped open the black leather lid of a bottle of Yves Saint Laurent Blouse, grasped its thick glass bottle in my right palm and sprayed a spritz of it on my wrist. The smokiness of the galbanum and pink peppercorn stung my nostrils. Prior to developing anosmia, I wore subtle, floral scents but I instantly felt invigorated by the sheer potency of this unopened perfume. It soon became an integral part of my morning ritual – shower, brush teeth, make coffee, spritz perfume – and a way of ‘dressing up’ for Zoom meetings for my own pleasure and relaxation. Its strength in both smell and its ability to soothe me, in addition to its longevity, gave me an added confidence boost when smelt by strangers and friends. Even at a two-metre distance, my perfume gave me a proximity to others I’d never felt before and when I needed it most.
Explaining the comfort scents can bring, Mr Kalpesh Patel FRCS, consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon from Harley Street, says: ‘Certain smells can trigger fond memories of past experiences whilst others will improve our mood, such as that of fresh flowers. All of us have our own smell, and our nearest and dearest detect this and it provides comfort when smelt.’ Rather than invoke old memories from childhood, my newly-adopted perfume represented the start of a new chapter and progression at a time when every experience feels mundane and monotonous.
Seven months on and I’ve regained the majority of my sense of smell. But it’s by no means back to full strength. Coffee tastes bland, blue cheese is less stinky and dark chocolate less lip-smackingly bitter. While full recovery of smell and taste returns for the majority of Covid-19 patients, Mr Patel notes that up to 40 per cent have persistent symptoms up to eight weeks and some after six months. ‘As it’s a new disease, we do not have a full picture on the risk of patients having long term or permanent loss of smell and taste,’ he adds.
At a time when the world appears to be losing so much, developing anosmia and slowly regaining my sense of smell has taught me the importance of actively seeking out and cherishing life’s small pleasures when you can. As for my new perfume choice, its strong aroma is indicative of my newfound appreciation of my post Covid-19 health and serves as a reminder of the importance of grounding myself in the present. And while my ability to smell might take a while to come back to its full potential – if ever – when it does, I’ll embrace it much like I will my pre-Covid life: with open arms and a hot bowl of prawn chill yaki udon.