A WORLD WITHOUT SMELLS
by Lars Lundqvist at Smashwords
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© 2017 Lars Lundqvist
photo: My Good Images/Shutterstock.com
for teaching me
those that can smell
One - I am anosmic!
am not alone!
up with anosmia
your child anosmic?
can you be sure?
an anosmic parent
absurd world of smells
Two - Life with anosmia
sense of taste
blessing and a curse
and other dangers
Three - The anosmic world
there cures or aids?
but less beautiful
missing what you miss
you for reading this book!
Prologue—for those that can smell
to give up one of your senses, which would you choose? Sight?
Hearing? Touch? Not very likely. So if the choice stands between
smell and taste, what would you choose? Most people probably choose
the sense of smell, possibly thinking that they would not want to be
without the taste of food and that smells are not that important in a
modern society. But do they really understand what they would miss
without a sense of smell?
The sense of smell is somewhat
like an undercover sense. You seldom notice it, but it is
continuously working, informing you about your surroundings. Often
you do not even think about it. Imagine a summer morning. You are
lying in your bed, eyes closed, listening to the morning sounds.
Through the half-open window you suddenly hear an engine working
somewhere and at first you cannot identify what it is, but then you
realize that it probably is the neighbor who is mowing his lawn. You
hardly noticed the whiff of freshly cut grass but it was enough to
let your brain draw the correct conclusion. Next, you smell coffee
and realize that someone has already begun making breakfast.
Even before you open your eyes,
your sense of smell has given you information about your
surroundings, and not only about what is happening in your bedroom,
but also about things occurring elsewhere, like the neighbor mowing
his lawn and somebody making coffee in the kitchen. Smells tell you
that someone is baking bread, that spring is in the air, that it is
time to change the baby's diaper, that bread in the toaster is
getting burnt, that your neighbor has lit his grill, that dinner is
on the stove. The sense of smell can carry information from far away,
about things that are beyond hearing or sight. And most of all, what
you perceive as taste is actually mostly smell.
But what if there were no
smells? Imagine that summer morning again, lying in your bed. You
hear the engine working but there are no smells to help you identify
what it is. You have to get up and look out the window to see the
neighbor mowing his lawn. And there is nothing to inform you that
someone has started the coffee machine, until you go down to the
kitchen and see it.
Try to imagine the world you
know, with all its familiar things, but without smells. If you have
ever had a really bad cold you probably know what it feels like when
your sense of smell does not work properly. That gives you an
indication what it would be like to lose your sense of smell. But
what if smells had never existed? How would that have changed your
perception of the world, and how would it change your everyday life?
For a small group of people that
is the way the world is. I am one of those. I was born without a
sense of smell, so to me smells do not exist and never have. I live
my life in the midst of your world, without you noticing that my
smell-free world is very different from your smell-centered world.
And sometimes our worlds collide, especially when I have to adapt
myself and my life to all your rules about smells.
In this book I will try to
describe my world without smells, and what it is like to live in a
world where everyone else perceives a dimension that does not exist
in my world.
I am anosmic!
from the beginning.
Have you heard the word before?
Probably not. Anosmia comes from the Greek words an
meaning "without" and osme
meaning "smell". Together they mean "not having a
sense of smell". Everyone knows that blind means that you cannot
see, and deaf that you cannot hear, but there is no simple word for
"not sensing smells". Not even those who are anosmic
usually know that their condition is called anosmia and neither did
Anosmia is an invisible
condition. You quickly notice if someone is blind or deaf, but how do
you notice if someone is anosmic? It does not show on the outside, or
in the way we anosmics behave. An anosmic communicates in the same
way that everybody else does, eats the same food, and appears to
function just like anyone else.
There are two kinds of anosmia;
acquired, which means that you lose your sense of smell at some point
in life, and congenital, which means that you are born without the
I am a congenital anosmic so I
have lived my whole life without a sense of smell. To me it is
natural that there are no smells. It has always been like that. My
world has always been without smells and I usually do not think at
all about smells.
So what was it that triggered me
to start looking for information about anosmia at the age of 57 and
made me write this book? Strange as it may seem it was the absence of
Everything started with my wife
going away over the weekend to visit a relative while I stayed at
home taking care of our horses, cats and the dog. On Saturday
afternoon, around five, I was sitting with my laptop doing something,
when it suddenly occurred to me that it was like a normal weekday
when I was working from home, except for one aspect. My wife would
not come home from work and say something about stuffy air or some
bad smell in our house. Good!
What? Where did that "Good!"
My reaction surprised me, to say
the least. I had never thought that comments about smells had
bothered me, but my own reaction made me realize that they obviously
did, in a way that I had never really understood. So I began to
analyze things that had happened in the past, things that had been
said over the years, and how I had handled different situations
involving smells. And I suddenly realized that although my wife, my
children, my siblings, my parents, everyone close to me, rationally
know that I have no sense of smell, they do not know what that
actually means. They do not understand the ultimate consequence of
living in a world without smells and how I really do not understand
anything about smells. But what really shocked me was when I realized
that I myself had never really understood this either.
It all ended with me sitting on
the floor, crying. It was partly because I finally admitted to myself
that I really did not understand anything about this thing called
smell, but perhaps even more because I realized that no one else
could understand how it felt to be so totally cut off from a whole
dimension of the world that everyone else was experiencing. And most
of all, the feeling of being completely alone about this. How could
others understand anything about something I hardly understood
I had been living with this for
57 years, and had always joked about it, pointing out the advantages
of not having to smell anything bad. I had never really admitted, not
even to myself, that there were problems as well, disadvantages, and
that absence of a sense of smell is a disability.
When I had finished crying, it
occurred to me that there must be others without a sense of smell. I
could hardly be unique. There should be information somewhere. So I
started to search the internet.
was that my condition had a name: anosmia. The second surprise was
that there was almost no information in Swedish on congenital
anosmia. I thought that books about the topic should exist, or
official information on the internet, but I found almost nothing in
Swedish. There were a few articles about anosmia in some local
newspapers, but usually about acquired anosmia, about people who lost
their sense of smell as an adult. In the very few articles about
congenital anosmia it was usually presented as a funny curiosity, and
never taken seriously.
So I wrote to the National Board
of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen), the government agency in
Sweden that falls under the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.
Its responsibility is to "ensure good health, social welfare and
high-quality health and social care on equal terms for the whole
Swedish population". I asked for information about "isolated
congenital anosmia," which means that you are born without a
sense of smell but otherwise healthy. The answer from their
"Information center for Rare Diseases" was that "We
have no separate information on isolated anosmia". Next, I wrote
to the "Swedish Disability Federation," the umbrella
organization in which 39 disability organizations co-operate to be
the "united voice of the Swedish disability movement before
government, the parliament and national authorities". I thought
that maybe they would have some information on anosmia? The answer I
got was "Have you tried the National Board of Health and
Congenital anosmia obviously
does not exist in official Sweden. One might wonder why.
When I could not find any
relevant information in Swedish, I began searching for information in
English instead, and suddenly I found a whole new world. There were
all sorts of web pages on anosmia, and many blogs. Some active, some
inactive. I found associations, mailing lists, and finally the
Facebook group "Congenital anosmia".
I can still remember the initial
feeling when I joined the group. It was the first time I got in touch
with other congenital anosmics:
"Wow! Others like me!
Finally! People who understand what it is like to be anosmic!"
And above all, "I am not
The discussions in this group
really has helped me in my attempts to understand my own anosmia. I
found answers to my questions, tips on web pages and articles on
congenital anosmia, and could compare my experiences with those of
Suddenly I had somewhere to
share my thoughts about anosmia. A place where my experiences were
not seen as unusual or abnormal, but quite normal and ordinary. I
read what others had posted, read their comments, asked questions,
commented on others' posts, and so on. The feeling of relief was
enormous. I was in a state of euphoria for several days.
While searching the internet for
information on anosmia I made a list of problems, advantages and
disadvantages in my everyday life. I read about the sense of taste,
tried to learn about the sense of smell and different kinds of
problems that could occur. After a while I decided to organize all
the information in a more systematic way. The end result was this
book. It became a way for me to understand and accept my own anosmia,
and to come to terms with the realization that I have lived my whole
life in a world without smells.
What is it like to live with
anosmia from birth? How does it affect my day-to-day life? The
easiest way to describe it is to tell you about an ordinary day, and
to show you when I am reminded of or affected by my anosmia.
normal day in mid May. The snow melted early this year, so the grass
is already green, but the buds of the birches are still sleeping.
Spring flowers have just emerged in the flowerbed beside the porch.
The alarm clock wakes me up just after 6 AM as usual. When I enter
the kitchen my wife mentions that we forgot to take the garbage
outside the previous evening, so there was an unpleasant smell in the
kitchen when she came down. I answer "Okay" and drop the
garbage in the dustbin outside, when on my way to pick up the morning
newspaper. On my way to the postbox I notice that the grass and the
driveway looks wet. It seems it rained during the night. When I am
back in the kitchen I serve myself a bowl of cereal with milk, but
notice that the Best-before date of the milk expired yesterday, so I
ask my wife to smell it, to check that it is okay. After a quick
breakfast I go upstairs to take a shower, and get a comment in the
passing from my wife, telling me to change my towel. The one I have
been using does not smell very nice, so I toss it in the laundry
basket and pick a new one.
Driving into town we listen to a
local radio station, and I think about the work to be done during the
day, when my wife suddenly says that she smells something burning. I
wonder if it has to do with the car, but as we keep driving the smell
disappears, so my wife guesses that we passed a farm where they were
At work we have morning coffee
around 9 AM. A co-worker mentions a smelly lunch box left in the sink
since yesterday. I didn't notice, of course, but my colleagues make
faces and say it's disgusting.
For lunch I brought leftovers
from Sunday dinner. Standing at the microwave oven a colleague
comments about someone having had salmon for lunch, and how heating
it in the microwave makes the whole lunch room stink. What? How can
nice food stink? To avoid a complicated discussion I ignore the
In the afternoon, when we gather
for a coffee break, someone asks about a weird smell in the corridor
outside the labs. Another colleague explains what it is, emphasizing
that it is harmless.
After work and coming home, my
wife says "Leave the door open, it feels stuffy". When I
answer "What?" she says "It smells".
After dinner it is time to go
down to the stables to take care of our horses. The stable doors are
wide open although it is chilly outside. One of the other horse
owners says she left the doors open because of a thick smell of
urine. My wife also comments on it and asks me if I really can't feel
it. But no, I don't sense anything unusual in the stables. The air is
the same as always, the same as outside the stables, or out in the
yard, or in our house, or at work. Air can have different
temperatures, and different humidity, but apart from that air is
always just air.
We take the horses inside, groom
them, and ride a tour around the village. My wife says there is a
smell of smoke, and after a while I see a small column of smoke. One
of the villagers is burning last year's grass and twigs. We
eventually return to the stables and leave the horses indoors for the
Returning to the house I leave
my boots outside because I know my wife wants me to. From what I have
heard they smell strongly when coming directly from the stables.
Just before bedtime I remember I
worked up a sweat while riding and taking care of the horses, so I
take a shower before going to bed.
My ordinary anosmic day is over.
between us, congenital anosmics, and persons with a functioning sense
of smell probably is that we never spontaneously think about smells,
except as an abstract phenomenon when someone comments on it. I do
not wake up in the morning thinking "Wow, I still can't smell
anything". When I wake up, I think about anything except smells.
This particular day there had
been twelve comments that made me think about smells. They were about
the garbage in the kitchen, the milk, my towel, a smell of something
burnt while driving to town, the smelly lunch box, someone heating
salmon in the microwave, a smell in the corridor, bad air in our
house, smell of urine in the stables, smoke in the village, boots on
the porch, having worked up a sweat.
How often I think about smells
on any given day depends on my surroundings. If no one says anything
about smells during the day, I usually do not think about it at all.
Twelve times, like on this particular day, is probably more than
average. Then there are days when it is mentioned all the time,
especially during spring and summer, when there appear to be smells
everywhere. But comments about flowers and other things that smell
nice often pass me by unnoticed. It is only when I have to react to
the comments that I really notice them, and that usually means bad
smells. Others sensing nice smells does not really matter to me.
Maybe you noticed that "using
deodorant" was not in the list. Does that mean I do not use
deodorant? No, I do use a deodorant, but doing that is part of my
morning ritual. Strange as it may seem, this is not something that I
immediately associate with smells, because to me the deodorant does
not have a smell. Nor is "using clean clothes" on the list,
for the same reason. As a kid I was taught that I have to change
clothes, so when I put yesterdays t-shirt in the laundry bin I just
follow routine. It is not because it smells of sweat because I
actually do not know if it does. I do it because it is what you do.
You wash clothes that have been used.
Neither "spring flowers"
nor "wet grass and driveway" were on the list of things
that reminded me of smells, for the simple reason that I was alone.
No one mentioned how the flowers or the grass smelled. I saw the
flowers and the wet grass, but I do not associate either flowers,
rain or grass with smells.
In the end it is very simple. If
someone mentions smells, especially bad smells, I notice and think
about it. If no one does, I seldom think about smells or my anosmia.
And even when I think about smells, I do not think about the smells
themselves. I think about the abstract phenomenon 'smell'. The milk
in the morning is a good example. When I noticed that the Best-before
date had expired and asked my wife to smell it, I did it so she could
decide if I could use it, not because I wanted to know what the exact
When I started writing this
chapter, my original plan was to have my wife describe the same day
from the perspective of someone who can smell, to list all the
instances she noticed smells, and then to compare her and my list. It
sounded like a good idea, from my perspective. What I forgot was that
a person who can smell senses smells all the time, and usually
without consciously thinking about it. It would be like asking a
seeing person to keep a list of all the moments when she thinks about
using her sense of sight and comparing that with a list of occasions
when a blind person is reminded of her blindness. I am sometimes
reminded about not having a sense of smell, but a person who has
always had that sense is never reminded about having it, because it
has always been there. We are literally living in two different
worlds and they cannot be described in the same way.
But how did my anosmic life
back at my early childhood, I have no memories of thinking about
smells. I do not remember wondering what smell was, or thinking I was
missing out on something. I do not even remember people talking about
smells in my day-to-day life. I assume that my parents and other
adults mentioned smells every now and then, like they did when I got
older, but the only thing I remember is that I early on saw it as a
kind of game, something people just said. When someone audibly
farted, everyone else protested, vigorously displaying disgust, and
so did I! I thought it was the sound everyone else was reacting to,
so I mimicked their behavior, not understanding that there was more
than sound involved.
When my parents read me books
with stories and fairy tales, smells were sometimes mentioned, but
also magic, gnomes, trolls, and other things that do not exist. In
the animated movies I loved to watch, animals often sniffed at
things, or tracked something, the way I had seen real cats and dogs
do. I think I just accepted the fact that animals could smell things,
but human comments on smells were only a part of the play, a fantasy,
not about something that really existed.
So I just tagged along and said
the same things although I did not know what they meant. I do not
remember exactly when I realized there was something I did not
understand when my family and friends were talking about farts and
stenches, or the scent of flowers, but I was probably about 10-11
years old when I finally understood that there actually was such a
thing as smells, and that others could sense them, like when dogs
sniffed things. Still, not being able to smell did not seem to affect
my life in any way. Smells seemed unimportant, especially as no one
noticed my inability to smell. However, I do remember two occasions
when the grown-ups possibly should have reacted and wondered if
something was different.
The first occasion was an
ordinary afternoon when I was seven or eight years old. I was outside
playing with my best friend at the time, the girl next door, when her
mother suddenly called her in to have dinner. I waited outside until
she had finished so we could continue playing. We kept playing for
another hour or so, and then finally said, "Bye" and
parted. When I got home my mother was angry because I had once more
forgotten to come inside to have dinner. She was tired of always
having to remind me of eating. Did I not get hungry? Did I not think
about dinner when my friend went inside to eat? Did I not smell
dinner? My answers to all those questions were "No". To
teach me not to miss dinner again she would not heat the food again,
so I would have to eat it cold. I remember thinking that this seemed
fair and it really did not matter. After all, the food tasted roughly
the same irrespective of being warm or cold. I do remember that my
mother was a bit surprised that I ate the cold food with the same
appetite as if it had been warm.
The second occasion happened
during a summer holiday at my grandparents' farm in northern Sweden.
One day all the adults were about to eat "surströmming,"
fermented herring, a traditional dish in northern Sweden. The fish
has a very salty and somewhat acid taste, but most of all it smells a
lot. A lot! Most people find the smell appalling, to say the least.
Many even claim that it stinks, smells revolting, like rotten fish,
and so on. From what I have heard, children usually react stronger to
the smell than adults do, and sure enough all the children fled
outdoors, except me. I stayed inside with the adults eating the fish,
and I loved it. I remember the grown-ups asking me if I did not think
that it smelled horrible, and that I truthfully answered "No".
Looking back I wonder why no one reacted enough to repeat the
question and tried to understand why my reaction was so different
compared to the other children.
Thinking back I remember not
understanding at all what they were talking about. At the time I was
still too young to understand that the others had a sense which I did
When I was eleven my family
moved. This meant new school and new friends. By then I think I knew
that there was something called smell, which others could sense. But
I do not remember thinking about it and definitely not understanding
it. Others mentioned it every now and then but as it did not exist to
me it did not matter, so why bother?
I got a new best friend, a boy
living in the house next to ours. We played every day, all kinds of
games. We were mostly outdoors, playing soccer or street hockey, or
playing various games in the nearby forest, but we also played a lot
in my room. Afterwards, when he had gone home, my mother would enter
the room and open the window, politely telling me that it sometimes
smelled of "young boys" and that she actually preferred
that we did not spend that much time indoors. I remember not
understanding at all, especially as the way she said it suggested
that it was mainly my friend who was responsible for the smell. After
all, I slept in there and that never was reason to open the window.
Another memory is when I was in
my early teens and my mother suggested that I should start using
deodorant. As far as I remember I only said "Okay" because
I already knew from commercials that people used it, so I simply
accepted that I too had to do that. I do not remember thinking about
why I should do it. I think I just saw it as another one of those
incomprehensible things that grown-ups did and which was part of
I gradually learned that I could
not smell, but not knowing what it meant, I did not think about it. I
guess my mind was on set other things, things that existed and
mattered. It took another few years before I understood that my
parents did not know that I was anosmic. So one day I told them.
you assume your parents are all-knowing, so it was not until I was in
my early teens that I broached the subject. They were surprised, to
put it mildly, and hardly believed me. When I persisted they claimed
it must have happened recently. Surely they would have noticed if
their son did not react to smells? Looking back it is not at all
strange that they never noticed anything. Anosmia was completely
unknown back then. It still is, not even talked about in children's