“I have to ask,” a pen springs to a close between his fingers. “Have you taken cocaine?”
His office is too big.
There’s a partly dismantled examining table next to me, legs splayed, trying its best to prove it can still stand when all it really wants is someone to shout ‘Food?’ and to call it a night. Odd watercolours of Manhattan hang between strips of peeling wallpaper, the buildings soft and pathetic. I look at his face, then rest my eyes somewhere on his legs. I start to trace the faint dog-tooth pattern back and forth. It makes me sleepy.
His pen clicks again.
I look up. “No.”
He makes a line on his paper, then presses the nib on the next question. The ink bleeds into a little spot, disfiguring the first few letters of whatever word used to be there. “Ever snorted anything; long-time smoker–”
“No.” My teeth grapple my tongue. “I’ve never smoked, never taken drugs.”
He marks another line. “Have you bumped your head; been hit in the face?”
I release my tongue again. “No.”
“I’m sorry, Lucy.” He makes two more lines then puts the paper down. “I know this must be uncomfortable, but I have to ask these things.” He straightens his legs, the dog-tooth wiggling. I trace the pattern again, quickly this time, as if my eyes were ghosts running to catch Pac Man.
A silence swells between us. I keep my eyes moving.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what to say.”
I breathe in. Thick air fills my lungs.
“I’ve never seen this in someone so young. I can refer you to a specialist–” he turns and presses some buttons on his keyboard. The sound is clumsy. “OK–” he turns back to me. “It’s a 250-day wait.”
My eyes stop chasing and I burst into tears.
I had no idea what anosmia was. As I write, Microsoft’s dictionary doesn’t recognise it, asking if I want to change to ‘Damiano’ (which Google ironically tells me is the first name of an Italian chef).
One of the first things I did was search ‘anosmia’ on Instagram. I was surprised - under one-hundred iterations showed up, the grid full of faces and cups of coffee. I clicked on one. I clicked on another, then another. As I read the captions, I realised I hadn’t found one-hundred pieces of hope; I had inadvertently found people complaining about lack of sleep, due to their ‘anosmia’.
I threw my phone on the floor and cried – something of a recurring theme since diagnosis.
Anosmia is the loss of the sense of smell, either total or partial. [Fifth Sense, 2015] It’s symptomatic of a head trauma, commonly surfacing as a result of a car crash, although it can be a confusing by-product of a very ordinary cold gone bad. It’s not a clear-cut disability – most GPs and specialists struggle to pin-down causes or ways in which to recover lost senses. I was told I had two years (then, “it’s probably not coming back,” as a specialist politely told me). If you do recover, you’re unlikely to get your full reach, and warped functions return – phantosmia – detecting phantom odours that aren’t there; dysosmia –where smells return but are distorted; or parosmia – where most, if not all, odours appear burnt, rotten, or fecal.
I have lost all ability to smell – and with it, my ability to taste has vanished too. But I feel it’s taken more than that. I’m distanced from conversations and social situations; I’m jealous of anyone who still has their senses; I avoid seeing friends where I know food or drink will be involved.
I remember one year my parents bought an artificial Christmas tree. I complained “it wasn’t Christmas because there is no Christmas tree smell,” and desperately wanted a pine-scented spray. I used to tell my mum off for wearing an amber perfume because it “was too strong, and smelt horrible.” I knew straight away if they’d been painting the house as soon as I walked in the front door, despairing at what else had turned white in my absence. Now it’s all gone. I cry when I think of Christmas, because it’s always going to be scentless. I miss the smell of coffee, the smell of my perfume, knowing if I smelt clean or if the gas was turned off.
Awareness needs to be raised. I don’t know what the answer is, but if my senses aren’t coming back, I want to use my experience to further research. If nothing else, use this as a reminder to cherish everything you have whilst you have it, because one day, something that once was second-nature to you might be taken, and there’s nothing you can do to get it back.