Smell? What Smell? For Karen Ravn, anosmia presented unique challenges in her life


By Karen Ravn

I brought my three pugs to the vet the other day for their yearly checkup.

I was expecting compliments for keeping them in such good shape — pugs can get a bit pudgy if given half a chance — but what I heard was, “Their teeth are very bad. They need cleaning. Some will have to come out.”

“Oh, no!” I said. “I had no idea.”

“Didn’t you smell their breath?” the vet asked.

Well, no.

No, I didn’t.

I was born without a sense of smell. I can’t smell roses or chocolate cake or sweaty socks or dogs’ bad breath. I can’t smell anything at all (which means I’m not exactly the target audience for scent marketers).

As far as anyone knows, congenital anosmia, as it’s called, is a rare condition. But it’s a hard condition to diagnose, so it’s hard to pin down exact numbers.

For a while I didn’t know I had it. People would say, “Ooh, I smell pizza!” or “Yuck! What died?” I assumed smelling was one of those things I’d understand when I got older.

For a longer while after that, I tried to keep my anosmia a secret. I knew it meant I was different. I was afraid it meant I was not too bright.

'I figure it helps explain some other weird things about me.'

But these days I don’t mind admitting it — I figure it helps explain some other weird things about me.

At birth, I weighed 11 pounds. Or maybe it was 12. Apparently, I was an excellent eater before I was born — back when I had to take whatever my mother gave me.

The minute I entered the world, though, I started turning my nose up at everything. The pediatrician told my mother not to worry. Lots of babies are picky eaters, he said. But I was the worst, my mother said. The worst baby she had ever seen.

  • Read more about Karen Ravn’s incredible life here.

It was spring of my fifth-grade year. It was sunny and nice out, no smog, and a friend and I were walking down the street in our Southern California town. I don’t remember now where we were going, but I remember what we were talking about. Orange blossoms. My friend was saying how good they smelled.

And I was agreeing. I was saying, “I think orange blossoms are my very favorite smell.”

But inside I was thinking, “How does she do that? How does she smell orange blossoms?”

For a little while, I had this theory. You know those hidden pictures — ones where if you look at it one way, you see a vase, but if you look at it another way, you see two lovers kissing? I decided something like that was going on with smelling. I simply didn’t know the trick. I just needed to learn the trick.

When no one was looking, I’d try holding smelly things really close to my nose and then breathing in really deep. Once I even tried this with a piece of lutefisk. (You probably have to be Norwegian, like my father, to ever go to the trouble of eating lutefisk.)

But most of the time — and this may seem strange — I didn’t think very much about not being able to smell.

This is how my mother found me out. When I was in high school, I used to go into my room and shut the door to do my homework, and from time to time — not often, I’m sure — I would take a break from my homework to do other things. One day, for instance, I conducted a clever scientific experiment.

I brushed all the eraser shreds on my desk into a pile, and then I put the shreds on top of the light bulb in my lamp to see what would happen. What happened was the eraser shreds burned up.

It was a cool thing to watch, so I made some more eraser shreds and burned those up too.

I was in the middle of repeating the whole eraser-shredding scenario all over again when my mother stopped by to say “Hi.” What she ended up saying instead was,

“What’s that horrible smell?”

“What smell?” I said, which was a big mistake.

'Nobody would voluntarily sit in a room that smelled like that. Nobody normal"

I guess my room smelled like a junkyard full of burning tires. And apparently nobody would voluntarily sit in a room that smelled like that. Nobody normal.

After my mother found me out, she took me to the doctor. He tested me on various smells, and said yes, it was true, I couldn’t smell any of them. And he said it was too bad, but there was nothing he could do for me.

But then he did do something for me. He explained how not having a sense of smell must affect my sense of taste.

Before that, I had no idea that anything was wrong with my sense of taste. I think I’ve heard that some colorblind people don’t know they’re colorblind until they get tested.

They have no way of knowing what they can’t see since they can’t see it.

My taste buds function just fine. I can taste sweet and sour and bitter and salty — and, presumably, umami, although I admit to not knowing what that is.

I assumed that what I tasted was all there was to taste. But apparently not. Since I’ve been researching smell, various experts have told me that anywhere between 75% and 90% of flavor is smell.

This is good to know. But flavor is not my problem with food. My problem with food is partly with how it looks, and mostly with how it feels in my mouth. I would say that anywhere between 99% and 99.9% of all the foods in the world make me gag.

Spaghetti, lasagna, tacos, burritos, casseroles, cream-of-anything soup, salads, peaches, strawberries, artichokes, pie, omelets, mashed potatoes — just about everything. I’ve talked to lots of experts now, and I’ve learned that many, if not most, congenital anosmics have a strange relationship with food. Very often, texture is the biggie, the be-all and end-all of whether a food can even be tolerated, just the way it is with me.

(In my little group of atypical people, I’m really quite typical, it turns out.)

Being an anosmic isn’t like being a lawyer or politician, but people do make anosmic jokes sometimes. When I was in graduate school, my roommate had a boyfriend who spent a lot of time at our apartment. He was a very nice person, which is why I think the following was a joke.

I was talking with him one day, and he asked about my non-sense of smell. “Isn’t that dangerous? What if there’s a gas leak?”

(By the way, he had a point. People who don’t have a sense of smell have a greater chance than other people of being injured in a fire or getting sick from eating food that’s gone bad.)

This fellow had a solution to the gas leak problem. Every time I entered a room, he suggested, I should light a match.

I’ve also learned that not everyone can make as many allowances as anosmics — this one, anyway — tend to need. One time, I was at a restaurant with a guy I liked. The first time at a restaurant with anyone is always an ordeal, something to dread. In preparation, for several days I’d been practicing a new way of swallowing food.

'I also had to look as if nothing unusual was going on'

I’d been practicing it on foods that I could eat anyway — nice, dry foods. No point trying the nasty ones before I had to. The technique involved getting the slimy gushy stuff straight to the back of my mouth and swallowing it without letting it touch the sides of my mouth, which meant, of course, not chewing it.

It was sort of like sticking a pill down a pug’s throat, except I had to play both my part and the pug’s part — and I also had to look as if nothing unusual was going on.

That night I planned to try my new technique on the slimy, gushy food at this lovely Italian restaurant, my date’s absolute favorite.

I managed to do it. Once.

Any more attempts, I decided, would be pushing my luck, so I fell back on the standby technique I’d been practicing all my life, moving food around my plate strategically so it looks like there’s less there than I started out with.

Perhaps I wasn’t as good at that as I thought. The guy did not call back.

Not many people are born like me, but quite a few lose their sense of smell at some point — temporarily because of a bad cold or permanently because of a head injury, viral infection or just age. (The good news about congenital anosmia? I have one less faculty to worry about losing.)

I think if I’d had a sense of smell and then lost it, I’d miss it. As it is, there’s nothing to miss.

I do wish I knew what a smell is, though. I’m very curious.

This story was originally published by the Los Angeles Times in 2007. Reprinted with permission.

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