Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The bipolar nose

There aren't many certainties in life, but there are a few things I know unequivocally. One of them is that if a medication has a rare side-effect, that's the one I'll get. When it comes to psychotropic medications, though, I get side-effects that aren't even listed on the patient information sheet.

As I mentioned before, there was a point in my treatment when I had to change almost all of my medications. this included going off of SSRIs. Rumor has it that if you do that slowly, you won't notice a thing. There are legions of dizzy, barfing people who will tell you that's a lie. there are also people who will tell you that SSRIs are not addicting--these people work for pharmaceutical companies. A former friend of mine--who happens to work for one of the companies that makes one of the SSRIs that made me very, very sick during withdrawal, showed her support by saying, "It's not withdrawal; it's just a step-down reaction." You say tomato, I say, fuck you.

As I was going through the long, slow process of detoxing off of an entire class of medications, I started to realize that I could smell things. The people around me swore I was imagining phantom smells. They speculated that maybe the medications were confusing the olfactory signals in my brain. that was a short-lived theory as we all realized that the things I smelled were real, but so subtle that they were undetectable by the normal human nose. As the weeks went by and my brain became even more muddled, smells became the almost unbearable bane of my existence. I thought, This must be what it's like to be a dog--except I cannot filter out those smells that are meaningful. Can smells be meaningful?

The overwhelming plethora of everyday smells in the world did not help my nausea at all. At home, I was plagued by a mysterious petroleum-like smell that I could not identify. After weeks of trying not to gag while I watched TV, I found the source: It was a black Kong dog toy that my husband could only smell if he held it up to his nose. It had been sitting about eight feet away from my chair for weeks.

I mentioned this bizarre symptom to my doctor, and he frowned a bit as he said, "May, that's not a side-effect of this medication." I insisted that it was, and then I reasoned that it must be a side-effect of withdrawing from the drug. The doctor looked skeptical and said, "Noooo. I've been working with these medications a long time, and I'm pretty sure an acutely enhanced sense of smell isn't on the list of reactions." He was wrong. I know it.

At the time this was going on, I bought some teak-type outdoor wood furniture, including a bench for the front porch. The wood comes unfinished but with strict instructions to oil the furniture as soon as it is assembled and in place. The Nyatoh wood required a two-day treatment of five coats of teak oil that had to be rubbed in by hand. I got out the can of oil, some new cotton rubbing cloths, and gloves. As soon as I uncapped the can of oil, I knew I was in trouble. The first rush of odor coming out of the can made me gag.

I started to oil the bench, and I had to hold my breath. The oil smell was making me dizzy, but mostly, it was making me feel sick just because it so powerful. I couldn't understand how people built furniture and worked with this stuff on a regular basis. My husband came outside to see how it was going. I was clammy with distress sweat and I had taken a break about halfway across the front yard. "The smell of that stuff is killing me. It should come with a warning."

My husband looked puzzled. "What are you talking about? It's just teak oil, right? I'm standing right here and I don't smell anything. I mean, I smell it, but it's not noxious or fumey or anything. Are you sure this is what you smell?" I was turning a nice shade of green that almost matched the lawn.

It took me hours to finish the bench because I couldn't bear the smell of the teak oil for more than a few minutes at a time. I swore I would never do this task again.

Nature has a way of making us go back on our word. The bench stays outside all year, we live in a dry, sunny climate (ha!), and it was time to try oiling again. On Monday, I got out everything I needed and hoped I could stomach the smell. I opened the can of oil. fine. I poured oil onto the cloth. Fine. I started saturating the wood. Still fine. As I worked, I realized that the oil had a very mild, almost pleasant scent. I had no problem at all getting the job done, and I was able to breathe normally throughout the entire process.

It made me realize that my olfactory senses had, in fact, been jarred into freakish hypersensitivity by the neurotransmitter storm SSRIs had set into motion. It took a couple of years, but eventually my nose went back to its normal, usually somewhat stuffy self.

Never underestimate the weird power of a differently-wired brain and the nervous system that goes with it.


Spilling Ink said...

I have that same nose! And for me it is business as usual and not a side effect of anything. My ears are too much, too. The sensitivity of both waxes and wanes, but is always a bit too sensitive for comfort. May, you are not going to believe this, but - sometimes I can smell when people have a contagious illness. Not all people, only women and children. I don't recall ever smelling it on a man. Sometimes I can smell it before the person even has symptoms of whatever it is they are coming down with. Guess what I think I may be smelling? Yes! I think it is the smell of the person's immune system kicking up a notch to try to fight it off. I thought I was the only person in the whole world who could smell this, but I'm not. My brother-in-law can smell it, too! We were both totally shocked that someone else could smell it, too. Isn't that weird? It gets weirder. You know how people are used to their own smell? You know how most people say they don't really smell a certain thing if they are used to it? Well... I can smell my own immune system when it does that, too, but mine smells different and I can only smell it on the palms of my hands. The smell seems to come from the neck area on others, so I am assuming mine smells different because my neck area is literally right under my nose and I am probably too used to my own scent to be able to smell it since I'm sure it doesn't happen suddenly. And I have no idea why I am telling you this. Sometimes I think I should keep the really weird stuff quiet.

p.s. SSRIs are evil. At least for me. Poison.

May Voirrey said...

Me being able to smell myself and what I smell like to me is a whole other issue. It's also another situation where nobody else can comprehend what the hell I'm talking about. Only my border collie understands.

I can't say I can pick up the change in ions when someone's immune system is kicking up, though. But, if Chinese healers can accurately diagnose health problems just by hovering their hands over a person's body to feel chi, then why wouldn't the other senses work this way, as well? Maybe you are just highly aware, like Counselor Deanna Troi on Star Trek. She was the doctor whose empathic abilities were her real claim to fame. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deanna_Troi