A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Mexico. Leer en Español.
Being stuffed up and unable to smell when you have the flu or a cold can be pretty brutal. Imagine going through life like that. People living with anosmia, the loss of one's sense of smell, do just that. It can be temporary or chronic; in some cases, people are born with it, and in others, it becomes more pronounced with the passage of time.
VICE talked with Valeria Torres, a Mexican woman who lives in Paris and who is completely unable to smell anything, about what life is like with anosmia. We asked her how she became aware of her condition, what foods she enjoys, and if there are any advantages of a life without smell. She also told us about her greatest challenges, and what she’d most like to smell.
VICE: How did you realize that you have anosmia?
Valeria Torres: From a young age, I knew there was something strange about me, but there was one day that was key. My father and I were in a bakery with all these freshly baked goods. I could feel the thickness of the air, and my father said, "What a wonderful smell the bread has, right?" I breathed in as deeply as I could, and I couldn't smell a single thing. Even after that moment, it was a couple of years before my father completely believed in my lack of a sense of smell. That's when [doctors] started examining me for possible anosmia.
How can you be sure that you don't smell bad?
I use all types of perfumes; I love the sensation of feeling fresh and clean. Not being able to smell anything means that I take extra effort with my personal hygiene, but also with my inner circle—friends and family—who are now accustomed to my constant questions about the smell of my clothes, my hair, and whatnot.
With respect to deodorants, I'm only confident in the ones that my dermatologist sends me. When it comes to perfumes, my mom helps me choose them. I'll be drawn to the design of the bottle, but she's the only person who makes the final decision about the scent.
Is there anything that you can smell?
Nothing in particular, no. But if there are strong smells—whether good or bad—I feel like the air becomes denser for a few moments. There was a time when I tried a nontraditional acupuncture practice in which they injected me with some vitamins to stimulate my nerves. I don’t remember the name of the place, but there was a second when I could actually distinguish a scent. It was an indescribable scent and, at the same time, totally ephemeral.
What’s the most dangerous aspect of anosmia that you’ve experienced?
I’ve encountered a couple gas leaks. With one of them, I was alone, sleeping on the second floor of my house, while on the first floor there was gas leaking from my stove. I didn't realize it at all, but I do remember that, in that exact moment, I really wanted a cigarette. Call it fate or coincidence, but I could never find my lighter. A bit later, my parents showed up, and, scared, they screamed at me not to use any type of flame. They were able to smell the odor. I've also gotten food poisoning from spoiled food that, as far as I could tell, was in otherwise perfect condition.
What’s the most delicious thing you’ve eaten in your life?
Without thinking twice, my grandmother’s chilaquiles. Not having a sense of smell also affects taste, which is why it’s hard for me to choose a dish or a moment in particular, but my grandmother’s chilaquiles are the winners, hands down. To eat, I choose very general flavors and texture plays a big role in my enjoyment of food.
What would you like to be able to smell?
I'd love to be able to smell a cool evening in any calm part of the world, accompanied by a fruit tea, a book with old pages, and a cigarette.
Do you feel like your other senses are more developed?
Sometimes there's no point in comparing certain senses, but, for example, with sight—ever since I was little I played this game where I tried to read the farthest letter, and honestly, I could do it. So in that sense, yes, my vision is a little more developed.
If you could substitute your sense of smell with another sense, what would it be?
Of all the five senses, smell is the one that most people—myself included—have the least fear of losing. I enjoy the rest so much that I can't imagine trading one for another.
Is there anything you enjoy about not being able to smell?
It has its small advantages. There are times when the city reeks, and when I go for a walk with my friends, they're all suffering, and I'm the chillest one in the group.
What's the most striking thing about not having this sense?
In literature, and for some people too, it's hard to describe the scent of an object without comparing it to the scent of another one. It's really difficult to not use adjectives that refer to something else that I don't know, but the few people who've managed to describe a smell to me have done so by referring to feelings, emotions, and metaphors.
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