Back in Jamaica, when Trudy-Ann Lalor and her siblings caught a cold, their mother burned Seville oranges over a fire in the backyard, cut the charred skin and gave them given the hot and juicy pulp with sugar, to eat with a spoon.
It always made them feel better. Maybe it was the comforting aroma of citrus, the flavor and warmth of the fruit, the dose of vitamin C. Maybe it was the sweetness of the attention itself – the fact that someone loved you so much, she took the time to prepare an orange for you in this elaborate way.
The family never had to explain anything to anyone, until last December, when Ms Lalor’s 23-year-old son Kemar Lalor posted an explanatory video of the remedy on TikTok, ensuring to people that he would fix a problem. decreased sense of taste.
The smell and the taste are inextricably linked, and the video quickly went viral, as millions of foreigners began to burn oranges on the open flames of their gas stoves. Some were delighted. They called it a miracle. Others laughed at it, calling it an unnecessary joke. Many left angry comments when the orange did not perform as advertised, although Mr Lalor attributed this to poor execution – not completely burning the outside of the citrus, not eating the pulp while it was. still hot, do not add enough sugar.
I found the orange remedy to be a pleasant kind of exercise, a fun distraction. But it didn’t magically return what I lost after getting Covid in December. After my sense of smell wore off, I became depressed and disoriented as all the foods I loved became unrecognizable, turning into a series of unappealing textures.
Much of what we think of as taste is actually smell – volatile molecules passing through the retronasal path, filling every detail of a strawberry beyond its basic sweetness and acidity, developing its pleasures. . Without the information from our 400 odor receptors, which can detect millions of odors, food flattens out.
When I called Mr. Lalor, he was packing goat curry and roti to go to Big G’s 241 Jerk Chicken, the Jamaican restaurant his family runs in Etobicoke, Ontario. I told her that I was still struggling on some days, that the healing process was strange and non-linear, that I had tried the orange remedy but nothing was restored overnight. He was sympathetic, but held firm.
“Try again,” Mr. Lalor said. It had worked for his mother and for him, he explained, but added that they had never been tested for Covid-19, so he couldn’t be sure that was what they got. . “Keep trying every day!”
While some people experience loss of smell as they age, or after a head injury or viral infection, for most people this happens temporarily, when volatile molecules floating in the air cannot enter their areas. odor receptor – a stuffy nose, in other words. .
But during the pandemic, millions of people lost their sense of smell in an instant. “It was like a light bulb was out,” said Dr. Pamela Dalton, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “One moment they could smell, and the next moment nothing could smell.
I noted this moment as it happened to me, walking into the shower at my home in Los Angeles. At first, I mistook the lack of aromas for a new scent, a curious scent that I couldn’t identify – was it the water itself? stone tiles? – before realizing it was just a blank, a cushion of space between me and my world.
Although there is no “on” switch to bring the smell back, Mr. Lalor’s advice to keep trying, to try every day, was correct. Scientists agree that there is no cure for anosmia, but they also agree that the daily, repetitive sniffing of a few aromas can be helpful, as a kind of therapy for an injured nose and brain.
The general technique is known as odor training, and for millions of people with anosmia it has become as common as brushing teeth before bed or grinding coffee beans in the morning.
“This is the only type of treatment for post-viral olfactory dysfunction that has been shown to have a positive effect,” said Dr Dalton, who strongly encouraged daily conditioning, but also warned: ” You will be bored.
A typical scent kit might consist of four essential oils, but you can use a charred orange or any other specific aroma that has emotional value to you. The second I lost my sense of smell, I turned to the kitchen, opening jars of whole spices, pushing my face into clumps of fresh herbs, hovering over the open caps of bottles of fish sauce. .
For three weeks, I constantly sniffed things, things that I liked, but I couldn’t pick up anything at all. When I first smelled something again, it was so unpleasant it made me gag: the stomach stench of rotten milk.
Whether you realize it or not, your nose is constantly alerting you to a potential danger out of sight – smoke, gas leaks, chemicals in the air, spoiled food, sewage. Bad smells are good, in that they are loaded with vital information about your surroundings that helps you stay in shape.
“Even though the olfactory system can tell us where there are good food sources and safe places, it is ultimately a sense of danger,” said Dr Dalton, who was not surprised that a whiff of spoiled milk was my reintroduction to smell, and even encouraged me to add “bad” smells to my training. “It’s a warning system.”
On the other hand, certain smells are vital for the quality of life, to access memories and emotions, to feel close to people, to connect with nature.
I think of the sweet smell of my nephew’s head when he was a baby; from my parents’ house when there is a lasagna in the oven; hot, dry mugwort when my dogs get the scent up. I think of the smell of French fries mixed with chlorine pancakes on a summer day by the pool, and I don’t know how to remember those little and wonderful moments without their scent anchoring me.
“The loss of smell is largely a loss of pleasure,” said Chrissi Kelly, founder of AbScent, a non-profit group for people with anosmia in the UK.
When Ms Kelly lost her sense of smell after a viral infection in 2012, no one recommended smell training as a possible therapy. But she read scientific research, including an article by Thomas Hummel on how repeated, structured exposure to odors could increase sensitivity.
She learned the technique herself. And then she taught others.
For many Covid survivors with anosmia, Ms Kelly has become a kind of mentor, creating a tight community online, accompanying people with new anosmia through training sessions and encouraging us, without setting unreasonable expectations on us. Anosmia presents itself differently for everyone and there is no set schedule for odor training.
“I never use the word recovery, because I think it’s misleading,” she told me, when I asked about my own recovery. “The loss of smell is an injury. You are recovering from an illness, but an injury can leave you with lasting scars. “
Scent training isn’t magic, but it is a way to eventually form new neural pathways, slowly redirecting yourself if you feel lost.
Before speaking with Mrs. Kelly, I had imagined a scent training on the theme song of “Rocky”. I closed my shiny tracksuit and jogged in place past various ingredients, correctly identifying them one by one as strangers gave me a thumbs up. Sesame oil! Black peppercorns! Marjoram! It was a casual edit and a total fantasy.
In fact, the process of sitting down and sniffing – quietly concentrating on recording aromas or aroma fragments – is lonely, tedious, and mentally exhausting.
To get newcomers practicing smelling smell, Kelly suggests starting with rabbit sniffles, or “tiny little sniffles that bring air to the scent slit.”
On FaceTime, she walked me through a ‘scent conscious’ session, while I held a pot of cloves under my nose and quickly sniffed a bunny, ready to share my thoughts with her. “OK, so don’t judge yet,” ordered Ms Kelly, before I could tell the cloves sounded muffled, like I was listening to them through a glass pressed against the wall.
“With people who have lost their sense of smell, I think it takes longer for the receptors to work and feed the brain,” she explained. “So make sure you are patient and keep listening.”
It is impossible to talk about smell without resorting to analogies and metaphors, and “listening” is one that comes up often.
Recognizing a scent when you are in practice can be like picking up a fragment of a familiar song from a passing car, latching onto the short sequence of notes you recognized, and having it named right on the top of it. tip of the tongue. .
Seconds later, and you remember it was from the summer of 2015. You heard it that night, sitting on your friend’s front steps. You sang it at karaoke, at least once. Ugh, what was it again?
With my next scent, Cardamom Pods, Mrs. Kelly asked me to imagine looking down a deep well. So deep that when you drop a stone in it, you don’t know when it will hit bottom.
“You strain your ears to hear the sound of the stone hitting the surface of the water, and that’s what I want you to do now, imagine you are waiting and waiting and waiting.
In the meantime, I received little bits of cardamom messages – something floral, something mellow but almost minty, something like the freshness of sun-warmed citrus. It came in pieces, like a series of clues, but then I smelled the cardamom clearly, completely.
“A big part of scent training is about giving people confidence,” Kelly said.
Every aroma I could detect again was more precious, intense and illuminating, even my dog’s fishy breath. While it wouldn’t be more than a few weeks, I considered ending the daily conditioning when I could smell the foods I was eating and cooking faster, and more accurately – the heartwarming tickle of garlic hitting l oil, cinnamon-eucalyptus. of fresh curry leaves, crumpled between my fingers.
But some days my sense of smell is distorted and everything in my orbit smells bad – day-old cigarette butts, heavy and chemical. Some days the glow of what I got back is muted, or slower and harder to get to.
Odor training doesn’t end when you start to feel a few smells again. It begins.