This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Temporarily losing your sense of smell is a tell-tale symptom of the coronavirus, but Sabrina Hentzgen lost hers for good after a traumatic brain injury. Since then, she’s been living in a world where cooking and eating is no longer enjoyable, and she misses the salty scent of the ocean. Here, she talks about how the condition affects her daily life.
When my four-year-old son hugged me in the hospital after the accident, I knew something was wrong. I lay my head on his shoulder and breathed a big sigh of relief, but when I took a breath in, I couldn’t smell his familiar scent. He smelled like nothing.
I was in hospital with a broken nose. Nothing too bad, I just fell over the vacuum cleaner at home and banged my head on the edge of the table. But I kept feeling worse and worse. Four days later, they found a haemorrhage in my brain.
I was on sick leave for four months and had a hard time finding words for things that I knew very well, just like when someone has a stroke. All this improved over time, but one function of my brain remained heavily damaged.
I later found out I couldn’t taste or smell anything because I have anosmia. It’s a condition that affects up to 5 percent of people in the UK, and comes on either with age or after an accident. Smashing my head on the table tore off my olfactory nerves, which convey sense of smell, so sensory stimuli can no longer reach my brain.
Many people get their sense of smell and taste back after losing them, but considering it’s been a year since the accident and I haven’t seen any sign of improvement, I have little hope.
Since then, I’ve been living in a neutral world. My life has completely changed. I used to have a strong sense of smell – I could even tell which region a particular truffle came from while I was pregnant.
This problem affects me in so many ways. We moved to the Baltic Sea, but I can't smell the salty water anymore, nor summer rain or freshly mown grass. Certain smells live only in my memory.
I also struggle with my sense of taste. Nobody asks me: “How do you like the food?” just, “How’s the consistency?” That’s why I eat vegetables with crunch, and waffles, because they feel fluffy on my tongue. I don’t eat much meat because the texture is weird without the taste. I drink Aperol Spritzes because I can sense a bit of bitterness.
I still try to cook, of course, but it’s not the same. I sometimes make pasta with tomato sauce because I used to love it so much. I get excited by the taste, but when I put the first spoonful in my mouth, there’s nothing there. A little bit salty, nothing more. It’s depressing. Beef fillet with broccoli and potatoes used to be my favourite dish, but I don’t want to eat it anymore. I'd rather save myself the disappointment.
The problem can be dangerous at times. Once, I forgot some meatballs in the oven and my kitchen nearly burnt down. I often feel a bit paranoid, especially during the summer. I’m constantly thinking: ‘Gosh, do I smell sweaty?’ I feel like I need to scrub myself more in the shower, and I miss that sense of freshness. How am I supposed to know if I’m clean?
My son helps me every day. I went to a perfume shop recently and asked the consultant to match me with a scent that smelled like me. After I told her about my problem, she sprayed some perfume on a sample, gave it to my son and asked: “Does mum smell like this?” That was very sweet.
What I didn’t anticipate is how much this condition would affect me on a psychological level. I just don’t feel like myself. I’m in therapy to try to work on these feelings. It’s difficult to deal with such a sudden loss.
I recently received a an official diagnosis for my anosmia, which was a relief. Having the condition in writing makes it easier for people to recognise it and not question it all the time.
If there was a doctor that could help me, I would go see them – but there isn’t. I used to look up experts, and google how I could get my sense of smell back. Now, I've just come to accept it.