A knock to the head changed Joel’s life.
Here, Joel, tells the story in his own words.
M￼y head pounded and if I moved, the room spun.
It’d been the same for the last two weeks, since I fell in the bathroom.
My heavily pregnant wife, Nerida, 35, had found me passed out, but even after a week in hospital, no cause for the fall could be found.
I’d been sent home with a nasty gash on the back of my head and this raft of annoying symptoms.
‘Just take your time, you’ll be better soon,’ said Nerida, who gave birth soon after.
Despite the cries of our seven-day-old baby, Banjo, and the thought of poor Nerida juggling our other two kids, Hunter, then three, and Harper, two, I could hardly keep my eyes open, let alone get out of bed.
Nerida made me snacks but nibbling on a sandwich it didn’t taste of anything.
‘That’s weird,’ I said.
Sniffing it, I realised there was no scent either.
Whoever heard of anyone losing their sense of smell? I thought.
Later that week, Nerida set up some taste tests to check if I really did have a problem.
Blindfolding me, she handed me a cup. Smelling it, then putting it in my mouth, I couldn’t taste anything.
‘Nothing,’ I frowned.
She handed me another 15 cups with everything from soy sauce to lemon juice. I couldn’t pick a single one.
‘I’m sure it’ll sort itself out,’ I said. ‘I’m so nauseous, everything’s off balance.’
For a while, we left it at that. But a few months later, in July 2017, Nerida was cooking dinner.
‘What’s happened?’ I gasped as the smell hit me.
It was the first time I’d smelt anything in months and it was awful, like chemicals or rubber tyres burning.
The house must be on fire! I thought, rushing to the kitchen.But Nerida was happily at the stove, nothing amiss.
Except for me everything was amiss. Gagging and choking, I had to get out but the smell followed me.
Suddenly, it was like the whole world was on fire.
Outside, the scent of the frangipani tree was like a mass of toxic chemicals.
Later, trying to brush my teeth, even the toothpaste was repulsive.
Over weeks, it just got worse. There were smells everywhere and to my damaged senses they all smelt the same – the stench of burning rubber assaulted me at every turn.
‘I can’t wear this,’ I gasped throwing down clean clothes.
I couldn’t wash my hands with soap and going outdoors became impossible.
In turn, my eating suffered. Everything tasted disgusting.
‘What’s wrong with me?’ I asked doctors and neurosurgeons, but nobody had any answers.
Then, slowly, the smell started changing... Rotting flesh, mouldy food, a soiled hospital ward - and then the overwhelming smell of faeces was everywhere I went. My whole world became hell on earth.
‘I’m sorry I can’t hold him,’ I gasped, handing over Banjo to Nerida.
Even the beautiful scent of my newborn was so distorted it made me gag. Hunting online for answers, someone replied to me in a Facebook group. It sounds like you have parosmia, they wrote.
Researching, it sounded possible. Although rare, a traumatic brain injury, such as the knock to my head, can damage the scent detecting area of the brain causing it to wrongly detect smells.
Contacting various professors specialising in the area, they were keen to run tests on me because the condition is so unusual. And the news wasn’t good.
‘They think I have it,’ I told Nerida. ‘And they don’t know if it will ever get better.’
At last, I had a cause but it was almost worse because there was no cure.
‘How can I live like this?’ I agonised.
No visits to delicious-smelling coffee shops or the beach. We couldn’t invite friends for dinner because everything tasted to me like it smelt – rotting flesh or poo.
By now, I could only stomach cucumber and watermelon. I’d lost 20 kilos and was weak and tired.
I went to a psychologist and a year after my fall, we started managing it better.
Nerida would cook outside when possible and I started researching brain retraining, in the hope I could train my brain to smell correctly again.
Buying some citrus essential oil, I forced myself to smell it, gagging as the revolting stench hit me.
This is citrus, I thought, trying again and again.
I did it with other oils too. Clove and eucalyptus made me feel sick and sometimes I did throw up, but something was happening.
I could detect the smell of strawberries. They didn’t smell how strawberries are meant to but they also weren’t totally repulsive.
‘I think it’s working,’ I told Nerida, excited.
Eighteen months since my accident I’m still very much suffering, but at last I can see a glimmer of hope. It’s hard, but I try to eat normally. There’s no knowing if I will ever fully recover.
Before this I’d taken my sense of smell for granted but now there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to smell Nerida’s perfume or a simple flower properly again.
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