I imagined my doctor's sterile white office smelled of harsh bleach or a touch of ethyl alcohol from the hand sanitizer dispensers, 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 who tested positive for coronavirus in late March when the pandemic's presence really made itself felt in the US. I had fled my Manhattan bedroom to stay on Long Island with my aunt and uncle who caught the virus and passed it on to me. Fortunately, I was one of the few who had mild symptoms, including a sore throat, fatigue, and most importantly, loss of my sense of smell.
I first became aware of my anosmia, as doctors call the loss of smell, when I was cutting a clove of garlic. Although my sensitive eyes watered from the allium I'd chopped, I smelled nothing. I desperately grabbed a freshly cut lemon and sniffed with similar results.
The calming scents of fresh ingredients boiling on the stove and soothing my anxiety during lockdown were soon replaced by a new, confusing symptom called phantosmia, an olfactory hallucination of smells that aren't actually there. In my case, choking gasoline or cute baby powder was a phantom feeling that haunted me everywhere I went.
Nine months have passed and I still can't see any smells. And I still have bouts of those hallucinatory scents. Some of my acquaintances who also had Covid-19 have slowly regained their ability to soak up the scents of the city and try food again while I only have three fully functioning senses. I never thought that I would miss the foul smell of garbage and fish that wafts through the window of my Chinatown walk on the sixth floor.
A study conducted by researchers at Harvard University found that the novel coronavirus attacks vascular rather than olfactory neurons in the nose. The virus affects the brain and nervous system, and its effects can lead to more serious deterioration in brain health than initially thought by medical professionals. Some people may never be able to smell at all again.
I remained optimistic about regaining my sense of smell for months. It wasn't until I accidentally started a burner in my apartment and almost started a fire that I finally ran to an ear, nose and throat specialist who was panicked about my new disability and its long-term effects.
When I eat something I often ask if it's seasoned because I get bored with most things, regardless of how they're prepared. The doctor suggested a brain M.R.I. to rule out other factors that could cause odor loss, such as tumors, but I declined. Then he sprayed a numbing solution on my nose, which oozed down my throat. Next, he threaded a tiny camera into my nasal cavity to check for polyps or blockages in my airways and asked me to breathe through my mouth. I grabbed my jeans with damp palms and braced myself.
When he finished the exam, he said there was no evidence of a physical cause for my loss of smell and that he had no real treatment options for me. He spoke of other patients who had experienced the same problem months ago and were still complaining of symptoms similar to mine. He gave me instructions for scent training with no signs of enthusiasm. The instructions said I had to smell four essential oils twice a day: eucalyptus, rose, lemon, and clove to retrain my brain and recognize those smells. Despite my careful adherence to the program, I had no luck with it.
I have always relied heavily on my keen sense of smell. As a recovery addict with code addiction issues, it was my ability to spot the slightest trace of alcohol on my ex-boyfriend's lips after his hidden relapse that eventually gave me the strength to leave. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, there was no way he could stand out from the smell of cinnamon whiskey or the vodka that swirled around him after his seizures.
I miss the good smells the most. I hang around the city and can't relate to all the smells that are so typical of New York. I long to smell black truffles at Lusardi's on the Upper East Side, which always reminded me of the pungent smell of damp earth and sex. The soothing musty smell of old used books on the beach and the smell of wet dog and traces of skunky marijuana swirled past me in Tompkins Square Park, which held me to the ground. I tried to make a list of my favorite scents before they disappeared from my mind. But every day I find new things that I will miss.
Dec. 15, 2020, 12:17 p.m. ET
When I took the ferry from Wall Street to Rockaway Beach this summer, I missed the smell of the fresh sea air. I hope I will never forget the smell of my usual order of my favorite food, Veselka: spicy borscht. I started to wonder if the cave-like venue of the Bowery Ballroom really smelled like sour spilled beer at the rock concerts I once attended religiously. The soothing smell of what I can only imagine is dust and stale air in the natural history museum, and the smell of grass in Central Park, where I've often enjoyed quiet afternoons with a favorite book, is hard to imagine never reliving . While I can still experience many of these things, the inability to invoke 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 hadn't smelled anything for years because of nasal polyps.
"You just get used to it," she shrugged. I am unwilling to accept this loss of the specific, familiar smells of this metropolis, from dirty subway cars to sophisticated restaurants.
I am aware that 300,000 Americans lost their lives to this pandemic, but I have recovered unscathed from the loss of my sense of smell. How selfish it seems to mourn this loss in the face of death on such a scale. I am obliged to move on in my life and honor the dead because I am still here. New York City may not smell like anything anymore, but these streets are still sacred to me.
Suzy Katz is a freelance mental health, culture, and drugs writer.