Hearing Too Much, Smelling Too Little
By Sydney Johnson & Natasha Piñon
An attempted recording of the strange sensations of synesthesia and anosmia.
Hearing Too Much
By Sydney Johnson
It feels a bit like hearing your own heartbeat pounding against your chest while standing in an empty room, or being dunked in water until the only thing you can focus on is your breathing, my attention to audio does. It is attention-consuming. I almost hate it.
We were driving; my mom, my brother and I. I don’t remember where we were coming from, but we were driving back to our apartment in my mom’s car, and for the first time in a while I was sitting in the front seat and my brother was sitting behind me watching YouTube. (Now that he’s big enough, my brother rushes to call shotgun everytime we drive, and I let him. Not all the time though, that wouldn’t be proper sibling behavior.) The radio was on, which it almost never is except when my mom is listening to business radio. My mom was on the phone with her cousin, my Uncle Wonde, but she wasn’t talking, she was yelling like she always does on the phone and I was trying to tune it out like I always do.
It didn’t work.
I could hear her perfectly, screaming into the phone speakers talking to my uncle, and the longer she talked, the more my skin wrinkled on my forehead. Then, almost as if I had angered the universe, my brother began to cough over the noise of the loud, loud YouTubers playing on my mom’s phone. Covered in denim, my legs began to itch, and I started to become more aware of the keys in my back pocket.
My mom’s yelling grew louder, my brother coughed more frequently, his YouTubers screaming through the phone speakers got even more excited.
I put in my earplugs.
I played music like I always do, like I do when I can’t distract myself with five different forms of media to stop myself from thinking. It always works, it’s why I do it all the time, except this time the blaring in my ears rang like sirens and I could hear every other song in that car like it was ten times as loud. My brother was still hacking his lungs up, my mom was still screeching into her phone, and the radio was still going on about investments and everything else that they do on business radio, and I was still stuck in the too small car with all of the too loud noise.
I broke down.
There is always noise. I have good ears, scarily good ears (probably because my vision is horrible, and it gets worse constantly), so when there is noise I will hear it. I hear the rumbles of cars on the highway on the other side of my wall, I hear my mom talking to herself across the house, I hear the high-pitched sounds my family can’t hear, and I even hear sounds that aren’t even there. So, there is always noise, but sometimes there is too much noise, and I can hear it all. My brain can’t take it. Too many inputs and not enough room to store it all.
My mom doesn’t know what’s happening. She hasn’t seen me cry out of seemingly nowhere in her life, and nothing out of the ordinary (in her eyes) has been going on in the car. She slowly moves her phone down, away from her ear, turns her head, and looks at me: plain staring. It takes her a second to see the tears on my face and the uncomfortable seating position I’m in, knees pressed against my chest, elbows locked around my legs, plugging my ears.
She gets worried.
She mutes herself, reaches her arm out to me, and asks, “What’s wrong?” With my knees pulled to my chest, making myself smaller, with tears in my eyes and a wobbly voice, I respond, “It’s too loud. There’s too much going on, and I can’t—and Jordan is coughing and that’s making me nervous because of COVID and you’re screaming on the phone and it’s too loud.” I took a breath, and then another, and then another. I can’t talk while I’m crying.
She looks at me, unmutes, tells her cousin (my uncle) that she’ll talk to him later. She hangs up, and I don’t see it. I’m not looking at her, I’m not looking at anything. I’m trying to gloss over my eyes and pretend nothing exists.
But my earplugs are out and I can hear my brother coughing and nothing, nothing had ever felt so mind-bogglingly horrible. It’s as if my universe was traced by the outline of my body, and all of the noise of the world was pricking through, poking my skin. My head was tight, and I was so small and there was so much noise. And my mom was no help.
She kept asking me what she could do. And I told her: turn off the radio, stop screaming, give Jordan earphones, make him stop coughing, give me water, and she did, but I was so out of it, and she couldn’t, can’t, stop my brother from coughing if he needs to cough and I was still so incredibly small. This went on for a while, but eventually I could breathe. But only because my mom made me go on a walk.
Fresh air helps. It helps me breathe, and it makes my universe expand just like it does in space, and I was a little more free. Existing among all of the noise, not trapped by it. And when I walked the dogs barking, it all seemed normal. And the birds in the air calmed me and the walk did too.
I walked back to the apartment, steps reverberating down the hall, and when I opened the door it slammed onto a cabinet.
I’m always scared of when it’ll happen again. When I won’t be able to hear anything but the sounds of the perfectly normal world screaming around me.
Sydney: I’m in a box, and I know exactly how I got there but no one else does.
Sydney: The box is empty. It’s white, perfectly square, and about the size of a kitchen. The walls are white but the lines where they meet each other are black, and it makes me feel like I’m in a cartoon. I’m in a sick cartoon.
Sydney: I’ve been here before. So I know it’s not long before the box fills up with infuriating and fear-inducing creatures and objects and sounds. Sounds that make me want to rip my ears off until I can hear every single sound on the planet.
Every single sound.
Sydney: I was just in a car. My brother was coughing and watching YouTube, and my mom was scream-talking on the phone with my Uncle, and in order to escape all of the noise, which was admittedly a bad idea, I put my earbuds in and blasted music until I ended up in this box.
Sydney: Now I’m standing in the middle of the sick box, feeling like a cartoon character designed to be the audience’s play toy or comedic relief (think Tom from Tom and Jerry), and suddenly clowns and flower bouquets start falling from the nonexistent sky. Clowns with crazed grins on their faces, clad in terrifying costumes of pink and green (coincidentally the color combination that my mom despises because of some silly sorority rivalry), flower bouquets painted in the most offensive neon colors like my brother’s wardrobe. Popcorn machines that smell like pure, disgusting, American butter. Palm trees that sway with no wind. Mounds of Jolly Rancher wrappers lay piled on the ground, sitting next to melted jolly ranchers that coat the floor like an ice skating rink. Beetles the size of computer mice fly around me like they’re orbiting, and Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” blair over speakers that I can’t even find. And still, the walls remain a mocking white.
Sydney: The other times I’ve been in this box also sucked. Here’s an example:
Sydney: A car sat parked right next to me on my right. There was only one parking space in the entire box, I tried to move, and the car alarm went off. And it went off, and went off, and went off. I was losing my mind. I ran around the box, trying to find the key, but there was no key. I tried to open the car door to stop the alarm, but the door wouldn’t budge. Then, I sat still, wondering if the reason why the alarm was going off had to do with my movement. I sat still until night time, or really when the walls turned black, and then another car appeared. There were now only two parking spaces in the entire room, I was sandwiched in between them, and for whatever reason, the cars were not able to move, and both of their alarms were going off. Conveniently, being in between car windows at night time is one of my worst, most realistic, and most experienced fears, so when I accidentally looked into one of the cars, trying to free myself, and saw a furby staring right back at me, I freaked out.
Sydney: Now, you’re probably wondering what this box feels like to me. It feels like sensory overload. And when my hearing starts to act up, because my ears ring and plug with no incline and I have incredibly good hearing all at once, the box appears. And I get stuck.
Smelling Too Little
By Natasha Piñon
In a fitting twist for the weird time warp of our current era, the story of just how I experienced the pandemic — the blankness of days; the sterile, disjointed feel of communicating through screens — begins not in March, or any logical time frame, really, but instead back within my childhood memories, when I was shoving my entire face into a cluster of hydrangeas, trying to extract some kind of meaning from the dullness.
It wasn’t the day that I realized I was born without the ability to smell — that wouldn’t happen for years, weirdly, during a stilted conversation with an ENT after breaking my nose — but it was in that quiet moment that I began to grasp the nature of my lack, bobbing my head back up to greet my brother and mom with a placating, “Oh, that smells great!”
At eight years old, I didn’t yet have the language for describing the white-gray static, the true nothingness that tumbled around my head every time I was prompted with that innocent question: “Do you smell that?” I assumed everyone else existed in a vacant state like mine. In fact, I assumed smell — as a sensation, as a concept — wasn’t even a real thing at all. Smell was nothing. We were all just pretending, right? Maybe it’s a bit like when we assume, as children, the distinct tempos and rhythms of our hometowns are the universal standard, only to one day venture out to find a world brimming with “hometowns,” each one universal for its own inhabitants. In any case, it wasn’t until I was 16, following the aforementioned nose-breaking, that the singularity of my own experience started taking shape:
- “I don’t know if this is important, like for your notes or whatever, but I should also mention that I can’t smell.”
- “Ah, right. After you got hit?”
- “Oh, I meant like…ever.”
The ENT I was speaking to was…shocked, to say the least. As I put the pieces together for myself, I started telling people close to me, a delayed disclosure that always led to a million follow-up questions: “What about taste?” “Like, you can’t smell anything? Anything anything?” Eventually, an aunt, a cousin, and an uncle all chimed in with their own stories of un-smelt diapers, body odor, and freshly baked cookies. Turns out, I wasn’t alone. Congenital anosmia, or the lifelong inability to smell, actually ran in the family.
That comforting jolt of “you too?” recognition sustained and relieved me for a number of years. All the while, I never could have anticipated the avalanche of empathy that 2020 would bring. Once it was discovered to be a COVID-19 symptom, anosmia was suddenly on the map. News stories erupted about people abruptly losing their smell…only to soon learn they had COVID. Friends, coworkers, and family members shared their stories of smell loss; cover stories were dedicated to the long-overlooked sense. Even in my own work, I reported a story about a once dormant Facebook group for people experiencing anosmia that suddenly had to cope with an influx of new members as more and more people around the world experienced smell loss because of COVID.
And outside of its direct connection, anosmia was a weirdly apt metaphor for the dull horror of our pandemic era. Both experiences shared a sense of isolation; an indescribable lack; an emptiness in the mundane; a pounding grief for some unrealized possibility. That’s probably why I kept thinking back to that disjointed feeling, before I knew I couldn’t smell, as a way of capturing the loss and sterility of everyday life throughout the pandemic. Even now — as hope beckons, as vaccines are administered, as daily life begins to reopen — it’s hard to say what we’ll collectively remember about this grim epoch. Like everything throughout the pandemic, uncertainty abounds. We still don’t know. In my more joyous, clarifying moments, however, I think back to how I’ve felt whenever I talked to other people who couldn’t smell, whether during the pandemic or before. Briefly, I was cocooned in the golden hum of recognition, comfort, and connection — and sometimes, that feels like enough.
Early on, we found out we both had unique sensory conditions: Sydney has synesthesia, or when one sense is understood through another, and Natasha was born without the ability to smell, also known as congenital anosmia. As the pandemic upended routines, we wanted to document snapshots of how these distinctive conditions appeared in our everyday lives.
Sydney Johnson is a long time reader, inquisitive writer and student. She loves listening to and making music, her houseplants and the visual and written arts. Her goal as a writer is to have the ability to guide her readers into understanding even her most complex thoughts.
Natasha is a journalist, living in Brooklyn and working at CNBC. She previously wrote for Mashable, Ms. Magazine and the Southern California News Group.