Ashes and anosmia

June 15, 2009 | My Jottings

“Hello. My name is Julie, and I’m anosmic.”

“Welcome, Julie! We’re glad you’re here.”

So goes the bad dream running around in my head these days about an imaginary AA meeting (Anosmics Anonymous), now that I have been officially without a sense of smell for months. I have been trying to figure out the correct noun that would go with the condition anosmia but can’t seem to find it online. Am I an anosmic? Am I an anosmatic? Maybe I’m an anosmian. Whatever the word would be, there seem to be an awful lot of folks out there with this same condition (pronounced a-NOZZ-mee-uh) and I’m not really that interested in joining in the sharing at their online communities. I’m not sure what they would have to say to each other once the “I’m so sorry you lost your sense of smell” pleasantries were dispensed with. Would their conversations on their message boards sound like this?

“Guess what I didn’t smell today? Roast beef cooking in the oven.”

“I know that one, honey. I was unable to smell the roses yesterday.”

“Did you have a nice weekend? What did you not smell?”

“Yes, we had a good time. We went to the movies and I couldn’t smell my popcorn.”

“Today, I did not smell a rat.”

And so on.

People are so kind to frequently ask me about my loss of olfactory function. I appreciate that my maladies are on their minds – it’s part of turning into an “older” woman. I need the practice in being able to vocally outline all the things wrong with my aging body, because when you pass the magical age of fifty, some chemical in the brain kicks in (possibly called pathetisone) that convinces you the rest of the world desperately wants to hear in detail about all your aches and pains and age-related malfunctions. It’s a rite of passage for quinquagenarians all over the planet.

For example, yesterday I fell headlong getting up off the couch. Banged up both my knees, which are already complaining continually. Landed on my turned-under right hand in such a way that made me cry and think one of the little hand bones is cracked. I’m trying to decide if an x-ray is necessary, whether or not my hand will heal without a cast. I’m right-handed, so I really do not want a cast on my right hand. A bunch of Ibuprofen and a compassionate husband’s prayers have enabled me to take a wait-and-see stance.

When my daughter Carolyn was here in the evening she could easily see that I was running on fumes and said “Mom, are you okay?” and I blurted, “No I’m not. I hurt my hand and I’m tired and I’m a bit overwhelmed and…blah, blah, blah Ginger, blah blah Ginger blah blah.” Probably at that point the same area of her brain lit up and pumped out a chemical that makes her think, “Oh, here we go, now that Mom is getting old she wants us to listen to her talk about all the things going wrong with her aging body. Time to mosey on home…”  (This chemical produced in younger women’s brains is called adiosenol.) 🙂

But I digress. I do have something to share about my anosmia. And it might just be hopeful. Prior to this last month, I was not able to smell anything. Bleach, perfume, savory foods cooking, spouse flatulence, muddy dog…pretty much everything was just a blank. I won’t go into the emotional ramifications of this unwelcome condition, because I have already done that here.

Lately, though, I’m smelling something. Something I haven’t smelled in decades. It’s wet, stale ashtray. About sixteen hours a day, I smell this faint, unpleasant odor that reminds me of my childhood, and it’s pretty bothersome.

I grew up in a home where my father smoked cigars and my mother smoked cigarettes, pretty much non-stop. They were nice people who loved me and they were both very accomplished and well-loved, and my mom was a fanatical housekeeper, but this was back before the aggressive anti-smoking campaigns began. A vivid memory I have must have been when I was a toddler. I can remember reaching up to the kitchen table to grab a Sweetheart cup from In-n-Out Burgers. I tipped it into my little toddler mouth and it had some slightly melted ice, a tiny bit of leftover Pepsi, and a whole lot of ashes in it. Someone had used it as an ash tray and I had taken a mouthful. I remember spitting it out and someone cleaning me up. But that taste. That ghastly smell. Stale, wet ashes. I grew up absolutely detesting the smell of any kind of smoking, and my aversion hasn’t abated over time.

And this is what I’m smelling now. All the time. The only thing is, there are no stale, wet ashes anywhere. It’s a phantom smell.

So I went online a few days ago to see if I could learn anything about this disagreeable phenomenon, and lo, I found something. It was on an anosmia message board. Someone with anosmia had written in complaining of the same thing I’m experiencing – the constant, irksome smell of wet ashtray. This person also said the ashtray smell turns into a burnt coffee smell at times. The respondent told the person that this was a good sign, that when the olfactory neuron receptors decide to regenerate (which is extremely rare, as my ENT told me when I was diagnosed), people often smell stale, wet ashtray. The respondent said to be patient, and that it was a hopeful sign that smelling ability would return.

This person, to my knowledge, was not a doctor. I have no idea if what they wrote was factual. But I grabbed on to that thread of hope and am still carrying it around with me. Wet, stale ashtray smell might mean that something good is happening! It might mean that in time, I will again be able to smell my grandbabies’ skin, my husband’s neck, a roasting chicken, some freshly laundered sheets, some peonies…and also have full taste restored.

I also know that none of this might be true. But I think today I’ll believe that out of the smell of ashes, something new will come. If that ever happens, you’ll easily recognize me from afar, because like a bee goes from flower to flower, I’ll be the fifty-somethingish woman flitting around from item to item, joyfully inhaling their different fragrances and thanking God for all the wonderful, exhilarating scents He has created for us to enjoy.

From Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,

To proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,

And provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.

May God bless your week.


  1. Rob Franck says:

    I haven’t read your blog in two weeks, Julie, and it was nice to see what you’ve been up to. I’m back to work this week, as much as I’m able, anyway, and reviewed your posts. Very interesting. I liked the Oprah story. That Philippians passage is a great one to memorize and live out. Another great passage to memorize is 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. It gives a good perspective on the things we face. I’ll pray for your smelling ability as I remember. Mike is in my prayers every day. Some time soon I’m planning on taking him to a Duluth Huskies baseball game. Talk to you soon.

  2. Rob Franck says:

    Oh, one thing I forgot to mention–my sense of smell has definitely improved since having that tumor taken out of the back of my throat. Not that I would recommend that kind of thing for you, but …

  3. Sharon says:

    Perhaps you are actually a phoenix, meant to rise from the ashes?

  4. Jessica says:

    I’m not sure if I should say “Congratulations!” or “You poor thing!” And it’s bothering me that I can’t think of a single thing to do to help you.

  5. Deb says:

    Cling to that thread of hope Julie and I will pray that whatever is tethered to the other end smells magnificent and that it’s aroma will fill you with joy!

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