The Biggest Missing?

If asked to name the smells we miss most, an anosmic Top 10 would be fairly predictable. It would include things like the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, or the cooking smells of food. Bacon in a frying pan was my nose’s favourite hors d’ouvre. Parents would likely bemoan an inability to smell their kids, especially babies. And those in relationships quickly become aware of losing something of their other halves. I soon realised how my partner’s body smell – a kind of odour genome – was so personal, intimate and ultimately, reassuring.

Yet as the years pass, I am increasingly conscious of what is arguably the Biggest Missing of all – experiential loss. Beyond what we try to make of our lives, a great deal of what we call fulfilment is characterised by our experiences of the world around us. The role of smell, while subtle, is often central to experiences which are, by definition, sensory. Smell is life’s mood music. And ours has been turned off.

I miss how the bookshelves in my study once greeted me with the musty yellow of a million words. In my favourite old pubs, I miss what the interiors once shared: impregnated by centuries, the walls, beams and furnishings let me drink in their history by nose as well as mouth. When backpacking, I miss what the seasons leave unseen: the light, sparkling air of spring’s renewal, the rising, burnt umber of summer earth, the damp, moulding goodbyes of leaf litter in late autumn. Last thing at night, I miss the soporific, comforting freshness of clean bed linen.

Importantly, smells needn’t be pleasant to bring meaning. On match days at my football club, my nose misses the heated excitement, the sweaty anxiety from thousands of supporters, swirling as a heady, air-born cocktail, captured beneath the overhanging roof of the stand. Once home, this pungency would send me to the shower and my clothes to the laundry. Yet these are the real-time odours of pitch battle.

Are you aware of experiences that don’t quite cut it like they used to?  Get in touch if there’s anything you’d like to share.

I’m thinking now about that smell of summer earth… always took me back to a childhood spent outdoors during school holidays. I’m told that memory is indebted to smell more than any other sense, so is there a double whammy here? When scents disappear, it’s not just the present that is diminished, but random-access memories returned from experiences past.



8 thoughts on “The Biggest Missing?

  1. I’ve never been able to smell, as far as I know. But reading this, there is a lot that I’m missing or “missing”. They say that you can’t miss something that you’ve never had or known. But…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for helping me make sense of what is happening to me since I’ve become anosmic 3 months ago. It’s a strange way of being and this resonates: “Smell is life’s mood music. And ours has been turned off.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always thought that the absence of body odor indicated cleanliness, so I don’t miss any smells of my significant other. That said, I do miss the many perfumes that women wear. What I miss with anosmia is the anticipation: the smell of coffee brewing in the morning, bacon sizzling in the pan before breakfast, the turkey in the oven for hours on Thanksgiving… Half the enjoyment of eating is the anticipation of eating. Like Christmas, it’s the anticipation from Black Friday on that makes it every Christian kid’s favorite holiday, not just the rapid opening of gifts Christmas day. Right now, I just eat at the table; and feel that I’m missing out.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for putting our experience into such eloquent words. In such a short article, you highlighted the most significant parts of acquired anosmia. It’s not just the loss of one sense; it’s the loss of all kinds of connections to experiences, emotions, and people.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have Kallmann syndrome which means I also have congenital anosmia.

    I feel it must be worse for people who have acquired anosmia as they have the memories of the smells / odours that they have experienced over the years.

    The other symptoms of Kallmann syndrome do affect me more than my anosmia but I still wonder about the experiences I am missing out on, both the good and the bad. Sometimes people do not believe me when I say I can not smell, but it is not really something you would make up. The next question they normally ask if whether I can taste food or not.

    I am not sure there is a particular smell I would like to experience if given a chance, it is a whole world that I have never had the chance to experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kallmann Syndrome,
      It’s very kind of you to contemplate that acquired anosmics like me must be worse off than congenitals like yourself. I’m not sure its true though. It was Tennyson who wrote; ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’
      I read about Kallmann Syndrome on your blog. Anosmia – and my own condition in particular – suddenly seems a lighter cross to bear.
      Best perhaps to worry less about the smell you never had and max out the senses that remain. Wouldn’t it be great to think that olfactory absence is compensated for in other sensorial ways? Perhaps we’ll never know. But when it comes to taste, from what I’ve heard, congenitals are probably more in touch with their tongues.


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