The ocean smells of a layer of wet sand that has dried in the night, that cracks and buckles under bare feet. It smells of blood that’s drawn from walking too close to a sharp coastal grass. The ocean smells of a blast of cold air that tightens the skin, of salt-caked lips, of the slap of tarmac on the drive home.
But, more literally, I’m told it smells of sulfuric seaweed and crushed shells and microscopic bacteria and fresh wind. Whatever that means. For decades, I have known those smells only through mimicry. I have read them in other people’s poetry, or stood beside someone as they described them in their rapture. I have never smelt them myself.
Every morning during lockdown, I drove along the beachfront within my allowed five-kilometre radius. I paused by the water, parked between painted lines at the top of the cliff, and climbed out. The wind beats at my face. I grabbed the wooden railing with both hands and threw back my head, searching for some sense of the familiar, pointlessly inhaling deep lungfuls of odourless ice.
• • •
A few months before the first Melbourne lockdown, I ghosted my psychologist of ten years and sought a new one. I felt my progress had stagnated. Bored and lonely, I was retreating into old fears and dangerous habits. My doctor, who loves it when people make good choices for their wellbeing, excitedly wrote a referral to a clinic nearby. I scoured their website for information about the person whose name I’d been given. ‘Specialities: Anxiety, depression’, it read. Psychosis. Trauma. All the words I needed.
I went to her rooms and sat in the chair. It was a psychologist’s rooms chair: black vinyl with small cracks where other patients’ sadness had wounded it. This is the kind of thing I thought about, the echo of everyone else who had sat there. It was a small room made from temporary partitioning board. There was a desk and a pot plant and several boxes of apologetic tissues.
That day I was determined to be well again, exhausted by years of anxiety and depression. I described the pertinent parts of my past: traumatic birth, worried child, sad teenager. I described a pair of psychotic episodes I’d had 20 years earlier, and the lingering sense I had of being trapped behind a curtain of unreality. I watched her face for clues about how insane I was. She took notes, circling and underlining as she went. When I left, I couldn’t quite remember the sensation of having been there, flickering between past and present, but I liked her. She was direct, firm. Unlike my previous psychologist, she was absolutely unwilling to let me get away with nonsense.
I didn’t tell her about my sense of smell. Surely irrelevant.
• • •
In my childhood, Mum always wore Dior’s Poison, a perfume the company’s website describes as ‘provocative and mysterious’ and ‘the ultimate fragrant weapon of heightened seduction’, words that are surely not olfactory experiences. She kept the purple glass on her bathroom vanity. Small and bewildered, I would sit on the closed toilet and watch her get ready for her day: blow-dry her short hair, a quick flick of mascara, glasses on, a spritz of Poison.
For her birthday a couple of years ago, my sister and I decided to order Mum a new bottle. She hadn’t worn it for years by then—it has a certain 1980s-lawyer vibe that doesn’t fit with contemporary floral and woody cigar scents—but we thought it might show her how well we remembered. How, when we were little, we curled into her and breathed this in.
When the perfume arrived, I took off the lid. I sprayed it a couple of times onto my wrist and inhaled deeply. Nothing. I breathed again, expecting to be transported to that gaudy bathroom in 1989. But there was no recall, just the odours of my own skin (which are: creases where my wrists have been resting against a keyboard; the stress of planning dinner for another night; worry). If I did smell Poison, I couldn’t connect it to any memory.
Still, each episode of trying and failing seemed isolated. The smells were weak or unremarkable, or I had a sinus infection, or I was plain tired. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I realised it was more generalised: a sensory block.
This is a pee story, I’m sorry. We had come home from somewhere and walked in the door and my partner had immediately dry-wretched. Green, he went looking for the source of his pain. On couches, under cushions, in clean washing baskets. I had no idea what had riled him up. The house seemed the way it had when we left (cluttered, haunted). Then ‘Ugh!’ He was yelling, pointing at a damp patch on the rug. ‘Can’t you smell that?’
I put my face right up to the spot. I knew it should have been vile. I wanted to be disgusted. I sniffed and sniffed, knowing ‘cat piss’ ranked high on the list of things never to be close to on purpose.
‘No,’ I said finally. ‘I can’t smell it at all.’
We tried other odours. Natural gas from an unlit stove. A wood fire. A paper fire. Chicken left on the bench overnight. A carton of milk from last week.
Nothing. Just the approximation my brain had made for empty air.
• • •
I’d done a lot of therapy in the preceding two decades, talking about the firm grip of anxiety on my throat or being pinned to the ground by malaise. Trauma therapy was different. Instead of dwelling on how I was feeling now, we looked directly at the many maladaptive ways in which my brain was operating. We started with Schema therapy, which works on the cognitive patterns established in childhood. It says, here are the lies you understand to be true about yourself, because someone has taught you to believe them.
In my second session, my new therapist gave me a questionnaire. More than a hundred questions to dive deep into my past: I am good at understanding people and helping others; I am fearful that people will betray and hurt me. I circled my answers, pushing hard against my solar plexus to stop the panic rising.
The next week, she told me I had scored high in a number of key areas, which apparently was not cause for celebration.
‘You’re self-sacrificing,’ she said, going through her list. ‘You have the enmeshment schema. An underdeveloped self. It means you don’t have good boundaries with people in your life. Probably your parents.’
I thought about how I’d already called my dad twice and it wasn’t even 10:30. ‘Hm,’ I said.
‘You’re afraid to be on your own in the world.’ She turned the paper so I could see it. ‘You generally tend towards shame and negativity.’
‘Oh,’ I said. I told her I thought I was pretty optimistic, under the circumstances.
She hrmed and pointed. ‘You’re overly negative, but you feel good about what you’ve achieved in your life.’ I tried to say again that I didn’t think overly negative was really that fair, given I spent part of every day living outside my body. ‘And, you have an anxious attachment style.’
‘You’re afraid of abandonment.’ She said this as though it’s not the most terrifyingly true thing there is. ‘You think everyone is going to leave you.’
• • •
In my first memory of deep, unabating sadness, I am three years old. My dad commuted interstate every week for work. I was like a dog, without object permanence. Each time he left, I thought he would never come back.
In my parents’ bedroom there was a portrait of him that one of their friends had painted, propped against their wardrobe. It was a nude. Having a nude of your dad is a weird thing, on reflection, but it was abstract. A few brown and orange lines with white space between. To the average visitor it probably looked nothing like him but the artist knew my dad so well that he had captured the way his beard shaped his face.
On Sunday nights, when Dad left for the airport, I would sit, cross-legged, in front of the painting and just cry. Mostly I remember this as being the correct way to feel about a person being gone. I stared at that painting on purpose, to evoke a sense of loss and longing. It was important to me to feel grand and enormous things.
I remember the way that room smelled. The warm carpet under the sun, Mum’s hair-sprayed perm, the hiss of the gilded frame. And being there alone.
• • •
A great deal of research suggests ‘a linkage between the neurobiology of olfactory function and anxiety-fear systems’.1 Smell is the only sensory modality with direct access to the amygdala, the part of our brain that drives fear responses.2 Olfactory inputs are also projected to the hippocampus, the structure responsible for episodic memory (remembering specific tiny movies about our lives).
Why is that important? Childhood trauma can change the physiology of these parts of our brains. The amygdala tends to be smaller in people with trauma disorders, and the hippocampus can also be damaged by psychiatric disorders. When this hap- pens, these brain structures are less capable of processing—interpreting—information, such as sensory inputs. Research has found that ‘hippocampal damage impairs odor–place associative learning, and temporal order memory for odor information’.3
When your brain is compromised, perceiving and understanding smells can be much more difficult.
We are programmed to use our senses to keep us safe, triggering subcortical mechanisms in our brains to give us a fight or flight directive. We taste poison. We feel prickles and claws. We hear the footfall of a stalking predator. ‘Blunted affect’ and numbing are common responses to trauma. We can disconnect sensory inputs from their memories, removing the connection and therefore the potential memory triggers. Anosmia—the partial or full loss of sense of smell—can be triggered by trauma.
This kind of disconnect is common. Many serious mental illnesses—including the ones I have, which is a good handful— involve dissociation, where a person feels disconnected from time, place, reality and/ or themselves. It’s been happening to me since I was a little girl, sliding in and out of space-time, engaging a fear response that would protect me from whatever was too scary.
Dissociating sensory input can be a brain’s natural response to insurmountable threats. If we’re not in the world, the dangers can’t touch us. If we can’t smell them, they don’t exist.
I have been able to smell some things. There is a specific purple cold medicine given to children with runny noses, and it smells of metal and syrup and marble-hard lollies. I have taken the lid off my partner’s old coffee grounds and almost choked on their peaty roughness. I can smell the exquisite earthy sweetness of good chocolate.
Last year, when they moved my grand- mother out of her hillside house and into a nursing home, her belongings were dispersed, and she sent to me the jewellery box that had played ‘Sakura’ on her dressing table. I wound it, click-click-click. I touched the mother of pearl, inlaid in mahogany. Then I opened the lid and the music tinkled,
and inside was her gold watch with its fine chain and delicate clasp. I lifted it to my face and smelt it—the movement of the hands and their quiet murmuring, the cool glass face and the click of the metal links—which is to say, I remembered her.
Others are less clear. Is it an actual smell or just a guess? Can I sense it now or in my memory? Can I smell a storm rolling in, or do I just recognise the way my hair bends beneath its electricity?
• • •
Being plummeted into COVID lockdown did wonders for my therapy. Suddenly, we had 20 subsidised sessions, and we could do them online without wearing pants. I switched from seeing my therapist once a month to once a week. I worked hard. I peeled back the layers of my skin and talked sternly to the throbbing flesh beneath. I learned how to think about self-forgiveness, even if I didn’t yet know how to do it.
After my sessions, when I walked into the bright, socially distanced sun, I felt stirrings of happiness. One night I was at my kitchen table while my partner and daughter made dinner. I sat amid the orchestra of pans and drawers, not knowing what they were cooking, focused probably on the micro-transactions in some phone game or tweeting miscellaneous nonsense.
Then, ‘Garlic,’ I said, with surprise, looking over. ‘Are you cutting garlic?’ My partner was driving a knife through a small clove, turning it into thin slices. ‘Garlic,’ I said again, the sensation lingering. An old part of my brain was stimulated by this input: savoury, warm. A sticky sweetness, a memory of Christmas around the table of my Italian aunt. I filed its smell in a new library. Garlic.
‘I can smell things,’ I told my psychologist in our next session, which was at that stage via a laggy rectangle on my computer.
‘Not everything. But some things. I know what garlic smells like.’
‘What does it smell like?’
I scrolled through the inputs my brain had captured. ‘Sticky.’
‘Is that a smell?’ she said. ‘Heat.’
Using language to describe a sensory experience requires a fuller engagement with that experience, something that can feel impossible from inside the muted halls of psychosis. I juggled these words, uncertain. I felt like the world’s worst sommelier, selecting descriptors at random, trying to wrangle a brand-new input.
‘Do you think it’s related?’ I asked her. ‘Like, to being happy?’
She smiled, pixelated. ‘Are you happy?’
A rush of warm water in my veins. Untangled nerves, muscles. Landing gently each morning like a cat. Not still, as I had expected, but open and switched on.
‘I think so,’ I said. That was new, too.
Compulsory mask-wearing—something I did willingly, like getting vaccinated— mimicked my usual senses. I wandered in the world without fully taking it in, as I had always done. But it wasn’t exactly the same.
I came home one evening from my allocated hour of outside time, and even through my mask was hit by the most wonderful sensation. I didn’t immediately recognise it as a smell—my olfactory system being an underused muscle—or know exactly which part of me should process it, but it shocked me into recognition.
I had a sense of tomatoes, onions, plant matter. I could smell it from the street. I knew I could smell it because I hadn’t thought of it yet—the smell had triggered the memory of stirring a pot that morning: the bolognese I now had slow-cooking on the stove inside. It seemed miraculous.
I gulped it in great long breaths. When I walked into the house, it hit me like a wall. An extra dimension. In my newfound gladness, a battle won against a fractured early development, I had found a chance to experience things for the first time.
Anna Spargo-Ryan is a Melbourne writer. Her new book, on life with complex mental illness, is forthcoming.