I imagined that my doctor’s sterile white office smelled of acrid bleach or hints of ethyl alcohol from the hand sanitizer dispensers sprinkled throughout it, but I couldn’t say for sure. He asked me about my symptoms and took notes.
“What can you smell or taste?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
I was one of 3,000 people to test positive for coronavirus in late March when the pandemic’s presence began to really make itself known in the United States. I had fled my one-bedroom in Manhattan to stay on Long Island with my aunt and uncle, who caught the virus and spread it to me. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky few to experience only mild symptoms, including a sore throat, fatigue and, most notably, the loss of my sense of smell.
I first became aware of my anosmia, as doctors call the loss of smell, as I was cutting a clove of garlic. Despite my sensitive eyes watering from the allium I chopped, I smelled nothing. I frantically grabbed a freshly sliced lemon and sniffed with similar results.
The comforting scents of fresh ingredients simmering on the stove that had placated my anxiety during the lockdown were soon replaced by a new, perplexing symptom called phantosmia, an olfactory hallucination of smells that aren’t really there. In my case, it was a phantom sense of choking gasoline or cloying baby powder that trailed me everywhere I went.
It’s been nine months, and I’m still unable to detect odors. And I still have bouts of those hallucinatory scents. Several of my acquaintances who also had Covid-19 have all slowly regained their ability to enjoy the scents of the city and taste foods again, while I’m left with only three fully functioning senses. I never thought I’d miss the fetid odor of garbage and fish wafting through the window of my sixth-floor Chinatown walk-up.
A study conducted by researchers at Harvard University found that the novel coronavirus attacks vascular neurons rather than olfactory ones within the nose. The virus affects the brain and nervous system, and its effects may cause a more serious decline in brain health than was first thought by medical professionals. Some people may never regain their ability to smell at all.
I remained optimistic about regaining my sense of smell for months. It wasn’t until I accidentally left a burner on in my apartment and nearly started a fire that I finally ran to see an ear, nose and throat specialist, panic-stricken about my new disability and its long-term implications.
When I eat food, I often ask if it is seasoned, because most things taste bland to me no matter how they’re prepared. The doctor suggested a brain M.R.I. to rule out other factors that could cause a loss of smell, such as tumors, but I declined. He then sprayed my nose with a numbing solution that leaked into my throat. Next, he threaded a tiny camera into my nasal cavity to check for polyps or obstructions in my airways and asked me to breathe through my mouth. I gripped my jeans with clammy palms, bracing myself.
Once he completed the exam, he said there were no indications of any physical cause for my loss of smell, and that he had no real treatment options for me. He spoke of other patients who had come in with the same issue months earlier and still complained of symptoms similar to mine. He handed me instructions for scent training without any hint of enthusiasm. The instructions said that twice a day I had to smell four essential oils: eucalyptus, rose, lemon and clove, to retrain my brain to recognize these odors. I’ve had no luck with this, despite my diligent adherence to the program.
I’ve always relied heavily on my keen sense of smell. As a recovering addict with codependency issues, it was my ability to detect the faintest trace of alcohol on my ex-boyfriend’s lips following his concealed relapse that finally gave me the strength to leave him. Despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, there was no way he could explain his way out of the trace odor of cinnamon whiskey or the sting of vodka that whirled around him after his binges.
I miss the good smells most. I find myself adrift in the city with an inability to connect with all of the whiffs that are so quintessential to New York. I yearn to smell black truffles at Lusardi’s on the Upper East Side that always reminded me of the pungent scent of wet earth and sex. The comforting musty smell of old used books at the Strand, and the smell of wet dog and traces of skunky marijuana swirling past me at Tompkins Square Park that kept me grounded. I’ve tried to make a list of some of my favorite scents before they fade from my memory. But every day, I find new things that I’ll miss.
This summer, as I rode the ferry from Wall Street to Rockaway Beach, I missed the smell of the crisp ocean air. I hope I’ll never forget the smell of my usual order from my favorite diner, Veselka: tart borscht. I’ve begun to question if the Bowery Ballroom’s cavernous venue really did smell like sour spilled beer at the rock concerts I once attended religiously. The reassuring smell of what I can only imagine is dust and stale air at the Museum of Natural History, and the smell of grass in Central Park where I’ve often enjoyed a quiet afternoon with a favorite book is hard to imagine never experiencing again. While I can still experience many of these things, the inability to call upon the scents in my head diminishes the vividness of my memories.
I’m not sure how I’ll ever adjust to this daunting reality. I spoke to April, a friend of mine who hasn’t been able to smell anything in years because of nasal polyps.
“You just get used to it,” she shrugged. I’m not ready to accept that loss of the specific, familiar scents of this metropolis, from soiled subway cars to refined restaurants.
I’m aware that while 300,000 Americans have lost their lives because of this pandemic, I’ve recovered unscathed aside from the loss of my sense of smell. How selfish it seems to lament this loss in the face of death on such a large scale. I’m obliged to move forward with my life and honor the dead because I’m still here. New York City may no longer smell like anything, but these streets are still sacred to me.
Suzy Katz is a freelance writer covering mental health, culture and drugs.