A Moment That Changed Me: A Childhood Head Trauma Lead to Lifelong Anosmia.
I was seven years old when I lost my ability to smell, a disability known as ‘anosmia’, through an accident involving head trauma. Seven is often described as the “age of reason”, but for me this was more like a defining moment in an attempt at Darwinism. My family was living in a dense apartment complex in Sawyerville, N.J. at the time (hello, Bon Jovi!). I was visiting with a girl who lived in the apartment right next to ours. We were the same age, and while we didn’t really get along, her Mother would occasionally babysit me when my Mom had to work. So we sort of endured forced socializing.
I was not a particularly active kid, you were much more likely to find me with my nose buried in a book or trying to have conversations with any adults in the room than you were to find me horsing around with other kids. I had proudly modeled myself on the Wednesday Addams/Daria school of girl-child personality. Sadly, fate decided to buck that trend on this particular evening. I don’t remember whose idea it was to start jumping from a small chair in the girl’s room to get a better bounce onto her bed. It could easily have been either of us. I have no idea why I was actually participating in this appallingly stupid behavior that night, but participate I did. Fully, and incomprehensibly.
I can’t recall the first few rounds of Jump-The-Bed, but I do vividly recall the calamitous moment I jumped off the chair and missed my target. From the chair, I catapulted off the bed instead of landing on it and went face-first into the sharp end of a wooden dresser that was adjacent to the bed. Then in a hail of snot, screams, and blood I landed (also face-first) on the split opening between floorboards on the ground. Blood pouring out of my face was becoming a small lake around my head.
There was a massive scuffle of noise and things looked blurry through my extremely wet eyes, but I could see. I was in utter shock. I wasn’t in pain just yet, I was simply too stunned to do anything but lay there with a million towels and ice that had been quickly put to my face as my neighbor’s mother frantically called mine and then an ambulance was called as well. I remember my Mother coming in and scooping me up in a blanket. I remember the ambulance lights and being hauled off to the ER lickity-split. I can even remember laying in the hospital on a gurney. I don’t remember much after that until days after the surgery.
What I do know is the damage was pretty fierce. I had pierced my forehead, split my nose open and the bridge of my nose had moved *up* my face. Had I hit just slightly more to the left or the right, I would have pierced my brain and definitely have taken a very early dirt nap. I also needed emergency facial reconstruction, which my Mother thankfully insisted was done by a cosmetic surgeon instead of an ER surgeon. As a Nurse herself, she knew that if I wasn’t stitched up carefully and with aesthetics in mind, I would have permanent severe scarring, and she knew that for a little girl of seven, that would have been awful. (Yep, I got a nose job at 7!) So it was a long wait in that hospital while I floated in and out of consciousness; likely given some hefty painkillers because by then I was absolutely feeling the consequences of my Olympic Swan Dive.
The surgery was a success! While I definitely have a bit of a clearly bridged bumpy nose now, you can’t really see any actual scarring unless you look right up into my face and on the sides of my nose. It would take many months to heal, and I remember thinking I looked a bit like The Mummy when I had big white bandages over my nose for weeks in the interim. So I didn’t lose my nose, but what I did lose was my sense of smell. All the olfactory nerves it seemed, had been too damaged in the accident. This changed a lot in my life and continues to affect me to this day.
People often ask me if because I can’t smell, can I still taste things? The answer is yes and no. I can taste certain things just fine. Others, such as meats like pork, turkey or chicken, have virtually no taste. Meat was very easy for me to give up when I became a Vegetarian at 14. Unless I put anything in it, tea has no taste to me either, nor do most vegetables. But other things taste, how can I put this, MORE than they do to other people to me sometimes. If something is just mildly spicy, for me it’s too spicy to eat/drink. If something is mildly sweet to you, it’s probably super sweet to me. (I have a terrible sweet tooth because of this). You can imagine that this has made me, alongside a lot of allergies, an extremely picky eater. I am very sensitive to spices, to bitters. I taste things in extremes. I tend to subsist mostly on cheese and bread nowadays, which I know is terrible. But the alternative is to always be miserable when I eat.
Another issue is people not believing me. I cannot tell you how many people think I’m making up/exaggerating my anosmia. Why on Earth would I make something like that up? Could it be because I already have two other major senses damaged already (I am severely Hearing-impaired and have Stargardt’s Disease; a form of Macular Degeneration I was diagnosed with at 9 years old), and maybe they feel like I had to add on another one, like an unnecessary conversational condiment? I have no idea, but this persistent disbelief has led to some frustrating moments.
I once sat in a teacher’s lounge when I was a middle school teacher. My colleague came in and asked with surprise why I was sitting in there. I mentioned that I was on my lunch break. She just looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. Apparently a rat had died in the lounge overnight and it stank up the entire room to high heaven. My friend asked me how I could sit in there with the stench? How could I not notice it? I calmly repeated to her, as I have before, that I couldn’t smell it. That was the day she actually believed me. This has happened on subways, bathrooms, with garbage, cat litter, babies pooping, etc. It just seems to be a sense people cannot fathom not having, probably because it isn’t nearly as obvious to them as being Blind or being completely Deaf, or having mobility issues. Smell is also apparently one of the hardest things to describe to someone who not only can’t smell, but has no memory of what it was like to. I often try to associate smell with taste or with touch. “It smells like cookies” will make me assume it is a sweet smell. “It is rancid in here”, makes me think the taste of melons that have gone bad, or the taste of sour milk.
The biggest impact of my anosmia is on my memory. There have been numerous studies linking anosmia to cognitive decline and damage to short-term memory. While I am fairly functional considering my several sense-deficits (I managed to get a Masters in Teaching at Columbia University!), I have always been hyper-aware of my poor memory.
I was passionate about theater when I was a kid and acted in all kinds of productions from Shakespeare to stage adaptations of Dr. Seuss books in middle, high school, and our local community theater in rural Southern Vermont. While acting was just a hobby for me (I had no intention of trying to make a career out of it), I had a deep love of and flair for it. But by my senior year in high school I was already starting to forget my lines and was never able to be completely off-book until the week before dress rehearsal.
Chalking it up to growing nerves, which I never had before the memory became an issue, I attempted to still do some theater in college. Alas, when doing a performance of Twelfth Night to a packed audience, I forgot several of my lines, humiliatingly blanking in front of my entire family who had come to see me. It was at that point that I realized I needed to hang up my live stage drama masks for good. My nose had bested me at the stage, no sound and fury needed.
The anosmia-triggered memory issues will likely become a progressively worse problem. Smell is one of the strongest memory triggers for human beings, and it is something I cannot fix. I have done the research. If you lose your sense of smell due to a head trauma, which I did, and not due to a birth defect or *disease, it cannot be repaired.
(*COVID is becoming a rising cause of temporary anosmia. Some folks are finding it doesn’t come back fully functionally if they end up having long-term COVID, which is causing scientists to do more studies on the long-term effects of anosmia.)
To cope with all of this, I use sticky-notes for everything. I have two calendars on my desk: a big paper calendar and a Dry-Erase board. I also have a wall calendar in my kitchen and reminders on my phone. I am still a huge pain-in-the-tuchus to take out to eat. I enjoy watching the theater, but have long since given up the hope of being on stage myself again. I am very paranoid when I see children standing and jumping up on chairs, couches, or beds and tend to fuss and hover around them if they do!
If you don’t know me well, you might never notice this particular affliction. But sometimes, on cold winter nights when I’ve come in from the snow and my pasty Irish face is slightly reddish, if you look very carefully, you can see a discoloration along the bridge of my nose where a dresser once interrupted its airbourne descent to the floor. It changed my life in ways big and small, but it also taught me to become more aware of my surroundings, adapt to make up for what I lost, and to appreciate the life and skills I do have instead of wallowing in the wake of what I don’t.