The (gradual) recovery of my sense of smell (Guest Post)

Image: a line drawing of a hand holding a fish, made with black Sharpie. The fish is coloured gold.

Past contributor Michelle Lynne Goodfellow was diagnosed with COVID-19 in November 2020. She’s been writing about her COVID experience.

Losing your sense of smell is so odd. At least, I’m finding it so. Maybe because I had such a sensitive sense of smell, to start with. 

My whole life, I’ve been bothered by smells that don’t seem to affect others. Or I’ve been bothered by smells that other people can’t even smell. Because of my migraine headaches, I had something called “hyperosmia,” which made me very sensitive to scents like perfume, cleaning products, solvents (like Sharpies or oil paint), or even biological odours like vomit, urine and feces. 

All of those smells could trigger a migraine, and if I already had a migraine, all of those smells seemed 10x stronger while I had a headache. Scientists aren’t sure what causes hyperosmia in migraineurs, but one hypothesis is that the neurons involved in identifying odours get overstimulated or amplified in some way, compared to the neurotypical mechanism of smelling.

When I had a migraine, all of those smells seemed so bad, they would turn my stomach – even make me vomit. I often felt like I was trying to get away from many smells, as if eliminating them altogether would make me feel so much better. My hyperosmia was even part of the reason that, when I founded a home-cleaning business, I chose to use only eco-friendly products. I just couldn’t handle the odours from the typical cleaning products that you find on grocery store shelves.

I’ve always hated going to a salon for a haircut, because of the overly-scented shampoos and conditioners floating through the air. And heaven help me if they put them on my own head – there’s no getting away from the smell of perfume-y shampoo or hair product, even if you wash your hair several times afterwards. (Believe me, I’ve tried.)

Over the years I’ve had so many disagreements with friends and relatives, who wanted to wear their favourite fragrances or colognes around me. The fragrances made me so ill and uncomfortable. Don’t even get me started on scents in the workplace; I’m just thankful that many places now have scent-free policies.

Well, now I get to experience life without any of those smells. At all. And yes, in many ways, life is very much better because of it. But it’s also so much flatter and duller, too. Careful what you wish for, right?

During my quarantine for COVID-19, I would draw in my bedroom for hours, to pass the time. It was so much nicer, when I couldn’t smell the Sharpies that I use for making dark outlines. To this day, I still can’t smell Sharpies when I draw. I only smell them if I stick them right under my nose. And I don’t seem to be affected by the invisible solvents that I can no longer smell, either. I’ve had several migraines since losing my sense of smell, and I haven’t noticed any correlation between using Sharpies and getting the migraines.

At any rate, since getting COVID and losing my sense of smell, I no longer have hyperosmia either before or during my migraines. Meaning, I don’t seem to smell more acutely during a migraine, post-COVID. Which makes me wonder if the mechanism that causes the loss of smell from COVID is different from the mechanism that causes the hyperosmia from the migraines. And I wonder if the hyperosmia will come back, if and when my sense of smell comes back.

I think I wrote about this before, but life without a sense of smell is very disorienting – very flat. Food doesn’t taste the same, and doesn’t appeal to me as much (although, thankfully, I can still appreciate the basic tastes that we get from the taste buds in our tongue: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami, and (I’ve learned since losing my sense of smell) the “taste” of fat).

If you can imagine the difference between watching television in black and white, versus watching television in colour, that’s how life seems to me, without smell. Everything is almost the same…  but not as vivid. There’s something missing, and most of the time, I don’t even notice precisely what’s missing until afterwards. When I realize I haven’t smelled the “essence” of the place, or the experience.

Our sense of smell is so elemental. Our memories are so closely tied to smell. Think about it – how do you feel emotionally, when you smell that first “smell” of fall? Or the smell of the first rain of the summer, on hot pavement? 

I work in a fabric store, and I recently had my first day back to work since getting COVID. I realized afterwards that I hadn’t been able to smell the “smell” of a fabric store. (Which is probably the smell of fabric sizing, dye, and other chemicals – which, come to think of it, doesn’t seem too healthy).

I’m an avid sewer. I haven’t ironed anything since I’ve been sick, but that’s another smell that brings back lots of memories for me. Hot fabric under the metal iron. Or the smell of my fabric stash, that’s been packed away in bins for months (or years). It’s a very specific odour, that reminds me of playing with my mother’s fabric stash when I was a child.

The smell of baby powder reminds me of real babies, and also of locker rooms when I was younger. The smell of clementines reminds me of Christmas. The smell of turkey roasting also reminds me of Christmas. The smell of cookies baking makes me think of my mom. 

If we are able to smell, so much of our lives is tied to, and anchored by, our sense of smell.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some things that I’m happy not to smell. I can’t smell my own poop. I can’t smell my own body odour. I can’t smell the yucky barnyard smells that are common in the rural area where I live. That’s kind of nice.

I also can’t smell things burning, which kind of concerns me. Our smoke detector is often triggered when we open our hot oven, and each time it goes off lately, I interrogate my mom: Is something burning? Do you smell something burning?

I want to know if I’m missing something that could save (or cost me) my life. So far, I can’t smell burning (or “hot”) things.

Is there anything that I can smell, right now? Yes – although so far, all the regained scents are very faint. But when each new thing is added it’s absolutely delightful. It’s like having a beloved, long-lost friend come back into my life.

One of the first smells to return was essential oils. I had several bottles in a drawer in my bedroom while I was in quarantine, and every day I would sniff some of them deeply. The day when I could smell “something” – and then correctly identify the oil – was a happy day.

(Interestingly, some of the essential oil scents came back faster than others. That’s a strong yes to tea tree, oregano and lavender. Any of the mints are still so-so. Citrus fruits are faint, but identifiable. Woody scents (spruce, pine) are still hard to identify, and almost un-smellable.)

One day after my quarantine was over, Mom was frying an egg for breakfast, and I suddenly realized that I could smell butter frying! That was a happy day.

Another day, I was drawing with some children’s markers that are scented like fruit. I suddenly realized that I could smell the blueberry marker. Also, the grape one. (But not the banana, orange, cherry, or green apple. Weird.)

Yesterday when I got home from work, I could smell baking when I walked into the house. I asked Mom what she had made – if it was a treat for me. (I was hoping for shortbread cookies.) It was a pumpkin pie. I couldn’t identify the scent of pumpkin spices, but I could definitely smell “sweet baking, warm from the oven”. Happy day.

Last night I was cooking some chili in my slow cooker, and after a few hours – when I walked towards the cooker, to turn down the heat – I could suddenly, faintly, smell chili. That was a happy moment.

Earlier today, I was washing out some empty containers from a natural deodorant that I use. I had put them to soak in some hot, soapy water in the kitchen sink, but forgotten all about them. A few hours later, Mom asked if I would finish cleaning them up, because the smell of rose and lavender essential oils was so strong that it was making her (who also suffers from migraines, and hyperosmia) nauseous. I couldn’t smell a thing. 

Today, as I was writing this, I reached over and took the lid off a black Sharpie, and sniffed it deeply. I could faintly smell “Sharpie”. I’m not so thrilled about that.

So there we are. I feel like I’m smelling the world through a thick layer of gauze. Most of the time, I don’t notice any odours. But then occasionally, something will pop through, identifiable, and I remember that the world smells like things. 

I wonder if I could be happy with only half a sense of smell (i.e. if my hyperosmia is gone for good). I know I could get by. But I suspect that – as unpleasant as hyperosmia is when it’s bad – I would still miss it, if it’s gone forever. A lifetime without a rich and deeply complex panorama of odours? Not sure I want that.

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow is a writer, artist, and maker. You can see some of her creations on her Instagram feed.