Beauty

“It’s hard to miss people when you don’t know what they smell like”

Posted by
Lucy Partington
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No sense of smell after a cold

From cinnamon buns just out the oven to freshly mown grass – imagine if your favourite smells drastically changed. In a new series, Stylist speaks to people with olfactory extremes.  

Altered Scents is Stylist’s new series which explores a range of olfactory extremes: from people who’ve lost their sense of smell, to others who can smell too much.

Here, we speak to Lucy Farrington-Smith, 27, who lost her sense of smell last year following an infection last year. She doesn’t know if it’ll ever return. This is her story.

“I feel like a fraud when I spray perfume – I can’t smell it so I feel like I shouldn’t be wearing it”

“It was March 2018 when I had a viral infection that would change my life forever. I lost both my sense of smell and taste, but I didn’t think much of it at first because it wasn’t any worse than I’d had before. Then, even after the infection cleared up neither returned. I started smelling strong things in the kitchen or blowing my nose a lot to try and clear it. Nothing worked.

I’ve since been to consultants – both privately and on the NHS – and had lots of invasive treatments, but every person I speak to says they don’t have a cure and it’s either laughed off or I’m told that worse things could happen. Nobody understands the gravitas of what I’ve lost.

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“My sense of smell helps me build up a picture of the world”

It’s been 18 months since I became a diagnosed anosmic and, if I’m honest, I don’t know if I’ve managed to come to terms with my loss, or if I ever will. It’s a bit like grief. I was angry for so long and now sadness happens in waves, especially because fragrance was always a huge part of my life. I could smell things miles off and I always knew my friends by their scent. Now I just feel like a fraud whenever I spray something from my perfume collection – I can’t smell it so I feel like I shouldn’t be wearing it. The bottles sit on a shelf in my bedroom gathering dust. They’re worthless to me now.

Even showers and baths are devoid of any sensory relaxation and to not know what a new body wash smells like is weird. That’s why I tend to stick to what I know, although I feel like my memory of smells is starting to disappear.

I can’t really remember what flowers smell like anymore, and I struggle to conjure the smells up in my mind so I try and find pleasure in other places, in the more experiential side of things – I still have sight, hearing and touch at my disposal and they’re all heightened now – so I try and drink in everything relating to those as much as I can.

I’ve found it can be difficult to build a connection with somebody when you don’t know what they smell like. It’s hard to miss people, too. I can’t just take a T-shirt home and sniff it, so I savour moments and value experiences more than ever before, and I draw on those when I need to. My friends still forget about it though and sometimes they’ll hold their wrist to my nose and say things like, “Smell this, you’ll like it.” 

I’ve got past the point of replying now and I’ll just stare at them. It’s especially frustrating when people say things like ‘This smells like nothing you’ve ever smelled before’ and I’m just like ‘OK, but how can you get that across to me?’

There’s also a safety element that I didn’t even think about until one of my housemates accidentally left the gas hob switched on while I was sat in the kitchen. I had no idea it was unsafe until they came back in the room and smelt it. Gas alarms exist, but the thought of not being able to smell if something life threatening is happening is scary.

I’ve suffered from depression as a result of my condition, and despite trying to get support for my mental health, counsellors say they can’t help me because they don’t know much about the condition. I shy away from social situations because they always revolve around food or drink, so smell and taste is part of that. It’s a condition that’s not as surface level as it seems and a lot of people say things like, “At least you’re not blind” or “At least you can still hear,” but anosmia is still a life changing thing. I’m still disabled. 

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“Everything I put in my mouth tasted of burnt leaves and mould”

I’ve found there is strength in numbers, though. I volunteer at a charity called Fifth Sense which supports people affected by smell and taste disorders. 

Writing about my experience and knowing it’s helping others has helped me tenfold. There’s also the benefit of being able to clean anything – I have three cats and nothing phases me now. It sounds a bit trivial to say that’s an upside, but there has to be. 

You always have to find a positive in everything.”

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Images: Getty

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Lucy Partington

Lucy Partington is Stylist’s beauty editor. She’s obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she’ll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.

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