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Five Senses, Minus One: Living Without Smell

There was a time when garden writer Bonnie Blodgett took her sense of smell for granted. That was before she lost it.

In Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing -- and Discovering -- the Primal Sense, Blodgett tells the story of the traumatic loss of her sense of smell, starting with the cold that she treated with a zinc-based nasal spray that wreaked havoc on her olfactory -- smelling -- nerve.

The Food and Drug Administration eventually recalled the spray, but not in time for Blodgett.

Suddenly, the comforting, complicated smells of her great-grandfather's wing chair and the rich springtime aromas of her garden were gone. They were instead replaced by vile, metallic phantom smells that Blodgett tried to pretend came from sour milk or dog poop. Then, eventually, there was nothing at all.

"I kind of knew at that point that my brain just wasn't working right," she tells NPR's Melissa Block.

When she finally got confirmation from a doctor, she was devastated.

"I had no way of knowing before what it would be like to not smell anything," she says. "When I woke up and sniffed and there was nothing there -- I don't know how to explain it -- I felt completely disconnected. I truly felt as if colors were more flat. The voices in conversation felt like a TV soundtrack to me."

Blodgett had never realized the role that even the most subtle smells played in the world around her until they were gone and she was left shocked by the emptiness and sterility of her surroundings.

"Smell is tied into the other sensory systems and into the emotions," she says, "and, in a way, that causes everything to be kind of thrown out of whack when you lose it."

For Blodgett, that meant getting thrown into a deep depression that wasn't helped by the fact that friends had trouble understanding or relating to the experience she was going through. "It's not a visible disability," she says. "It doesn't inconvenience other people. You seem to be perfectly fine, and so, of course, one assumes that you are and you assume that you should be. There's a whole combination of sort of self-loathing on top of sadness."

That is, until the day her smell slowly started to return.

"I didn't want to get my hopes up," she says. "I walked by a popcorn shop, and I swear I smelled that popcorn. But I wouldn't allow myself to believe it. It would have been too disappointing."

It wasn't until she was in her garden, taking in the aroma of the flower beds, that she knew it was back.

And that's when the floodgates opened.

"I was going around smelling everything," she says. "Being able to smell lilacs again was just -- I don't think I'll ever get over it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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