Life

The World in My Nose

After COVID stole my ability to smell, I found a solution that reawakened my senses—and much more.

A stylized image of a man smiling while he holds a bowl of a spice labeled za'atar up to his nose.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Hamza Ishqaidif/iStock/Getty Images and Deagreez/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The uncanny feeling came on suddenly one morning. I got up out of the bed in the room where I spent my teenage years—and where I have been staying in my parents’ house in between apartments, waiting out the quarantine era—to take a shower. Immediately, I noticed the usually fragrant shampoo and body wash smells were missing. I stuck my nose into a bottle and filled my lungs to the brim with air, two or three times in a row. I came up with nothing.

Advertisement

Overnight, my nose had become a useless appendage. I had tested positive for the coronavirus in late October, just before the U.S. presidential election. Besides some basic flu symptoms and a strangely increased heart rate—which may or may not have actually been pre-election anxiety—I was spared the most wretched effects that have tortured so many people. But just a few days after my diagnosis, it seemed I was experiencing one particularly vexing symptom: the total loss of my sense of smell.

Advertisement
Advertisement

As it turned out, the inability to smell wasn’t something that affected most of my day. I went through the motions of daily life—now mostly spent indoors—without noticing much of a difference. But that made the shock of the sense’s absence even more profound when it hit. Either while preparing a meal, during a sweaty workout, or in the shower, it felt like someone hit an off switch on part of my brain, leaving a profound emptiness in a place that used to process sensation. It was disorienting, and I felt slightly alien in my own body.

Advertisement

Some of my sense has gradually returned two months later, but it is far from back to normal, which is common. Researchers believe the process could take several months for some, and others might not ever fully regain their senses of smell. So much is still unclear because of how little understood COVID-19’s long-term effects are. By my completely unscientific approximation, I only have about 60 percent of my sense back. That might sound relatively promising—or horrifying, depending on your temperament—but my progress plateaued after about a month. And the feeling of limbo since has been almost worse than the original loss, because it implanted in my head the scary idea that I might not ever fully gain my sense back.

Advertisement
Advertisement

So, last month, I gave in and began searching for the most popular ways to regain one’s olfactory abilities. The best solution the internet seemed to offer was aromatherapy, the catch-all term for the use of certain smells to help with a range of things, from improving one’s mood to increasing productivity. It basically involves sniffing essential oils from plants or other sources. But where does an essential oils novice start? Scrolling through the well-manicured websites that market them with an attractively minimalist, Instagram-ready aesthetic was confounding. Some oils were a few dollars, others were upward of $50 for a small bottle. I wondered if what sometimes worked for anosmia (the scientific term) caused by the common cold or smoking would translate to COVID smell loss. Lemon and orange oils sounded nice, but would they be effective for me?

Advertisement

I soon came across a British charity called AbScent, which works to help people regain their sense of smell after various ailments. The AbScent starter pack consists of rose, lemon, eucalyptus, and clove oils. But in one interview, the group’s founder admitted that the oils are completely interchangeable. In fact, you don’t even need to use essential oils at all. She said that shoe polish, coffee, or spices can work just as well.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Should I be huffing shoe polish or oranges? The answer wasn’t clear. So in keeping with my current arrested development at home, I reached out to the dad of one of my best friends, John Glendinning, a biology professor at Barnard who studies our sense of taste, which is deeply intertwined with and affected by our sense of smell. He gave me the best piece of advice I’ve received through my bout of COVID so far: Forget the oils, and instead smell every single spice in your kitchen cabinets twice a day.

As it turns out, my parents have a lot of spices. And so a hallowed ritual was born. I pull a chair up to the kitchen island that houses my parents’ spice drawer and settle in. Each time I open the drawer, I take a few seconds to review all of the spices, which are arranged alphabetically, from an adobo blend to za’atar. Then I dig in, taking my time to get through all 40 jars and packets spread across three interior racks.

The sniffs per spice ranges from one to several. Some are more potent, like cumin and pepper. Some are less so, or don’t have much of a smell at all, like marjoram or ground celery seed. (I have also learned that just about any spice can lose its smell if it is a few years past the expiration date—I’m sure you’re great, marjoram.) I leave the best few—in my opinion, the warmer varieties like cardamom, clove, and nutmeg—for last, like a fine dessert.

Advertisement

Beyond the possible medical benefits, my regular spice-sniffing exercise has turned into something more. For those 15 minutes, I am not working; I am not reading the news on my phone; I am not doomscrolling through Twitter; I am not being “productive” (read: checking my email, learning Spanish on Duolingo, checking my email again). The process has proved more enjoyable and rewarding than any meditation I have ever tried. Sometimes when I close my eyes while sniffing, I’m transported to India or Lebanon or Mexico, on a sensory tour of multiple cultures and culinary ideas that has taken my brain far beyond the confines of quarantine in New Jersey.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Jars of spices lined up along three shelves.
The author’s parents’ spice rack. Gabriel Friedman
Advertisement

And it really does work. I feel especially nice and alert to smells right after the exercise, although the effects can fade after a half-hour or so. Smell has a direct line to a part of our brain that is responsible for emotion and memory, a power that not even taste has. That explains why I’ve also had many flashbacks while sniffing the spices. When I smell the adobo, I’m sent back to college, a time when that was the only spice mix I used in my cooking. When I smell cinnamon, I sometimes remember the time I tried and failed to successfully incorporate it into a Middle Eastern chicken marinade when I was trying to impress a girlfriend.

Advertisement

As I have progressed with my sniffing over the past few weeks, I have gotten better at recognizing the specific smells, and I have also begun to let my mind wander to think of recipes and ways to use them. Sometimes my parents will see me sniffing and join in, and it becomes an impromptu family gathering. This is as weird and wholesome as it sounds.

Whether my full “nose” will return remains an open question. But this experience has already made me feel better about transitioning from my quarantine world to the real one later this year, God willing. For so many of us who have moved back into our parents’ houses right now, it’s been easy to feel like we’re regressing to our teen or childhood years. We’re surrounded by the tangible memory of it all, in the form of trophies and family photos and yearbooks and old sweatshirts. It’s hard to keep up your independence and identity.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My parents’ spice cabinet has been, ironically, an escape from all that. I’m not sure where my mom and dad acquired all these scents, but I cannot say I remember eating them in my childhood or in my months here before I got COVID. The little journeys I’ve taken have instead reminded me of life beyond home, the people I’ve met and the tastes I’ve acquired and the experiences I’ve had. My new spice bottle friends helped me regain the part of myself that I’ve developed out in the world through my 20s—if not, just yet, my sense of smell. For now, I will savor the sniffing.

Advertisement