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Meet Justin: He Did Something Stupid and Lost His Sense of Smell

Meet Justin: He Did Something Stupid and Lost His Sense of Smell

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“Wah Auntie, nice! Very good! Shiok!”

I repeat the words a few more times, changing my tone with each repetition before eventually settling on one that sounds believable. I practise my smile in the rear-view mirror and make a mental note to be extra mindful of my body language. After about 15 minutes and a few deep breaths, I’m ready.

Picking up the bottle of wine, I turn the idling engine off and head for the home-cooked dinner that my friend’s parents have very kindly invited me to.

Approaching the house, I see that the Diwali celebrations are in full swing. The corridor is lined with diyas and their flames illuminate a beautiful rangoli pattern drawn on the ground. As soon as I enter the home, I’m welcomed with open arms by my friend’s smiling mother. She thanks me profusely for the wine and invites me to join the familiar and unfamiliar faces gathered in the crowded living room.

Amidst the story-telling and laughter, I find myself in a rare moment of peace. But it’s short-lived and soon replaced with a sense of dread.

You see, the matriarch has drawn our attention to the large table at the side of the room that’s laden with her afternoon’s labour. She’s outdone herself and the traditional North Indian dishes look phenomenal. She gives a brief introduction of each dish and everyone dutifully fills their plates with everything on offer. As we begin to eat, she looks around the room with expectant eyes.

I break the silence.

“Wah Auntie, nice! Very good! Shiok!”

She turns and surveys me for a moment. She’s smiling but a glint in her eye gives her away. I can tell she doesn’t quite believe me and that she’s unnerved. Fuck. I hate myself for dampening her spirits. As everyone else chimes in with their opinions on how good the food is, I look down at my serving of mutton curry, dejected. She doesn’t know this but she’s not the only one that’s a little crestfallen.

It’s not that I think she’s a horrible cook or that I’m a food-snob. I’ve just resorted to lying to hide the fact that I’m anosmic.

I can’t taste. Not a single thing.

Anosmia, for those of us who didn’t go to medical school, technically means that I’ve lost the ability to smell. But since smell is so closely and intricately linked to taste, I can’t do that either.

Life hasn’t always been like this though. It’s something that I’ve had and am, in some ways, still dealing with.

About a year and a half ago, yours truly decided to channel his inner Takumi Fujiwara (of Initial D) and drift down what in my mind was Singapore’s equivalent of the legendary Mount Akina in the film: Mount Faber.

One small problem though. There was no way in hell I was going to risk my mom’s car in my little endeavour so I settled for the next best thing: a longboard.

You know that small voice in the back of your head which whispers, or in my case yells, that whatever you’re about to attempt is monumentally stupid?

Yeah, I ignored it.

So off I went. Down Mount Faber. On a longboard. Sans helmet.

Speeding down the hill with the wind in my hair, I felt great. The poster boy for large cojones. But as I raced towards a blind corner, for the first time that afternoon, I became acutely aware of my own mortality. Not wanting to get run over and die should a car come the other way, I bailed out.

It was that moment that I knew, I fucked up.

I think it was Jeremy Clarkson who once said, “Speed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.”

He was right.

Obviously, I didn’t die. But what I did get was a first-hand lesson in physics.

I crashed. Badly. And in the ensuing meeting of skull and tarmac, it was a no-brainer. I blacked out.

Me, after the crash.
Now here’s where my memory gets a little fuzzy so we’ll skip to the part where I’m lying in hospital with a slightly altered life.

I remember waking up that same evening with a massive headache and a couple of abrasions. The doctors informed me that I had sustained a fracture of the base of my skull which resulted in blood vessels rupturing, and bleeds in multiple regions of my brain. I was also told that I was being kept under observation to ensure that the intracranial pressure from the bleeds didn’t kill me.

Rrrright. So no biggie then. All I knew was that I was alive and hungry.

Dinner that evening was a decidedly bland affair but I brushed it off. After all, hospital food has never been known to excite the taste buds. It wasn’t until the following morning that I realised something was horribly wrong. I couldn’t taste breakfast too.

Odd, my nose wasn’t runny or blocked. On the contrary, I was breathing just fine. I caught hold of the doctor doing his morning rounds and explained my predicament.

He told me that the impact of the crash had damaged or even completely sheared off the nerves responsible for smell. He also added that if my sense of smell didn’t return within a year, it was gone forever. Slightly panicked, I asked him if there was anything I could do to help.

His reply was cold and matter-of-fact.

“No.”

I must’ve walked around that hospital hundreds of times that day, trying to come to terms with what I lost. I had no idea as to what I was in for but that evening, I got a taste of just how painful my new life could be.

As visiting hours came to an end, I went to hug my mom goodbye, catching a faint whiff of her perfume as she turned to leave. She was a little startled as to why my arms were around her once more. But as soon as I looked for it, it was gone.

To this day, I have no clue if I actually smelt something, or if my brain was simply filling in the gaps with what it knew to be familiar or with what it knew was there. I barely slept that night. I remember the dim glow of the blood pressure machine. I remember staring at the ceiling. I remember the warmth of the tears that rolled down my cheeks.

Me, slightly better, but still looking like shit.
The thing about smell is that you don’t realise how big an impact it has on you until it’s gone. Everyday experiences are now vastly different and I’ve had to readjust my entire life.

Starting with the obvious, my relationship with food has changed completely. My tongue still registers when something is sweet, salty, bitter or sour, but the intricacies of flavour are lost on me. If you want to see for yourself what it’s like when you take smell out of the equation, try this: before your next meal, pinch your nose as you take the first bite.

Food has become nothing more than a biological necessity.

I very rarely get cravings anymore and if I do, it’s for how I remember the dish to taste more than anything else. It’s why I haven’t tried new cuisines in the past year and a half.

I don’t cook as much as I used to as well. From having to ask my sister for help when checking if ingredients are fresh to overcooking meat because I’m deathly afraid of food poisoning now, I’ve lost the confidence to whip up a meal for myself or anyone.  

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are a few silver linings.

With beer tasting like fizzy water and hard liquor tasting like well, nothing, this drinking legend has taken his game to the next level. Also, while I can smell the square-root of jackshit with my right nostril, the left one has improved a teeny bit since the accident. That said, it’s still confused—for lack of a better word—and tastes get mixed up.

The results can actually be quite amusing. For example, fried food tastes like melted plastic and carbonated drinks taste like, wait for it, curry. But the biggest ‘perk’ that anosmia has inadvertently blessed me with is the perfect excuse for getting out of those tiresome discussions amongst friends on what to have for lunch or dinner.  

“Dude, I can’t taste. You decide.” Checkmate.

My day-to-day life has also been subjected to a couple of tweaks. Remember, I can’t smell myself either and it’s left me a lot more self-conscious about the little things, such as the stuff that can’t be seen in the mirror and that social niceties dictate we don’t point out to strangers. Like how my breath smells or if my pits are slightly more fragrant than usual.

I’ve also grown to abhor places in which I have to be in close physical proximity with strangers for extended periods of time. Peak hour train journeys can be intimidating. Every rub of a nose and every sideways glance has me wondering if my embarrassment is warranted.

Finally, I’ve taken to carrying breath mints in my pocket and I always have a spare t-shirt in my bag just in case. But hey, so my backpack’s a little heavier. A small price to pay for being able to use any public restroom on the goddamn planet without crinkling my nose.

Me, looking normal again.
All kidding aside, I think one of, if not the most difficult thing I’ve had to learn how to adjust to, is the loss of smell in relation to intimacy and memory. I don’t know what my girlfriend smells like.

This is great for her. She can fart with gleeful abandon and she needn’t worry about washing her hair every other day. But for me, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. There are times where I wonder if my condition prevents me from connecting with her in some way.

It’s no secret that the brain forms associations between smells, people, and events. It’s why certain scents transport you back to a specific time and place. But now I find myself grasping at straws trying to recall certain memories, especially the ones involving my parents and my childhood.

I shudder at the thought of how I’m going to feel when they eventually leave this earth. I’m honestly terrified of not having enough to remember them by. I’ve compensated by trying to spend more time with them by committing all their subtle mannerisms to memory.

I try not to think about the future too much. Or more specifically, what life’s going to be like after I have children. I’m sure parenting is already going to be one hell of a challenge but the thought of doing it all without a functioning sense of smell is insanely daunting. How are the little ones supposed to understand that their Dad can’t smell or taste?

How am I supposed to look after my child when sometimes, I’m not entirely sure that I’m able to look after myself? What if there’s a fire? Or a gas leak?

Maybe it’s paranoia on my part but it feels as if I have all the questions and none of the answers. I try my best not to dwell on these thoughts though, and constantly remind myself that I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I get to it.

As for the present, my life has pretty much returned to normal. A new normal.

Yeah sure, there’s not a day that goes by in which I’m not reminded of what I can’t do anymore, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t still have moments of sadness. But perhaps the most wondrous thing about being human is our ability to adapt.

I remember an incident that happened a few months after the I lost my sense of smell. I was running late to a meeting with a dear friend and when I finally arrived, he couldn’t help but shout, “What, you lost your sense of direction too?!”

We both stared at each other in shock before bursting into uncontrollable laughter.  

And I guess that’s what life’s about—learning to laugh through the pain.

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Author

Justin Vanderstraaten Contributor