Life without a sense of smell
Duncan Boak is the founder of Fifth Sense, the charity for people affected by smell and taste disorders. He lost his sense of smell as the result of a head injury in 2005. Sarah Page is a photographer who was born without a sense of smell. In the run up to their participation the ‘The Hidden Senses’ event, part of the Being Human Festival, Duncan spoke to Sarah about her perspective on a part of life that she has never had access to…
DB: Ok Sarah, I’m going to start with a question that I find myself asking people a lot. It’s generally a starting point for people with a sense of smell to start thinking about a sense that they may have taken for granted. For you, however, it’s going to be very different. What does the sense of smell mean to you?
SP: For me it was a goal, perhaps for many people it is too. The absence of the sense of smell had detached me psychologically from a part of humanity and as I grew older it became ever more apparent. There was nothing I wanted more than to appreciate smells the way others could. Then in 2012 I connected with a new tight-knit community; Fifth Sense. For the first time ever, I no longer felt alienated. Suddenly there were people like myself and people who were here to help.
In the absence of smell, I found a community, a sense of purpose and something to learn and to pursue creatively. It’s no longer a goal but a part of me I have finally accepted and turned into a positive part of my life.
DB: I lost my sense of smell 10 years ago, and it changed the way I connect with the world around me, as it does for many people who go through a similar experience. So there’s life before, and life after. If I think back far enough I can remember smells from childhood. I can always remember coming home from a holiday with my family, and going into the house for the first time in two weeks and thinking to myself ‘ah, we’re home’ because of the familiar smell (that sounds terrible – we didn’t live in an tannery or anything – but I sure people reading this will appreciate that one’s own home has it’s own unique smell). Your childhood, though, was devoid of smell. When did you start to become aware that you were missing out on a whole level of experience, and how did this realization come about?
SP: Listening to conversations about smell was like trying to decipher a foreign language. ‘So what does a rose smell like?’ I’d ask. My family hadn’t taken me very seriously as I was so young, but eventually something clicked and they took me to see a GP at the age of 5, only to be told ‘there’s nothing we can do’. Those words made me feel like I had been given an unachievable task that was somehow easy for anyone else and that made me feel extremely inadequate from such an young age – I couldn’t learn it, buy it, work for it nor develop it.
DB: As you know, crucial to Fifth Sense’s long term goals is our mission to educate society on the importance of the sense of smell to our lives. How do you think your experience, and those of our many members can help with this?
SP: Our experiences can play such a vital role in educating people and enforcing how important it is to appreciate all our senses. I feel a good starting point would be to start at the very beginning – teach the sense of smell, Anosmia and it’s psychological and physical effects to children. It’s really important from an early age to understand our senses and to have a healthy attitude towards disabilities and all health issues in general. This way the next generation can have a better start in life, the support they may need, rather than feeling alienated like many of us know too well.