For over two years, Lee Mayimele couldn’t taste or smell anything. She explains how this gave her a new perspective on life.
Losing her sense of smell and taste
Ten years ago, we travelled down to the coast for the Comrades Marathon. My husband’s a runner and has completed 10 marathons, so we make an annual trip out of it to support him. That year I was pregnant with our first-born, so it was an exciting time for us.
During the race, I was standing at the halfway mark waiting to cheer my husband on as he passed. I was feeling really well, happy and on top of the world. But that’s when life decided to throw me a curveball. I suddenly collapsed and was rushed to a nearby hospital. Luckily, the doctor confirmed that the baby and I were both healthy and said it had probably been a sudden dip in my blood pressure. After I was discharged, my cousin – whose husband was also running that year – drove me back to our hotel room so that I could lie down.
That fainting fit really came as a surprise to me, because I’d always enjoyed good health. In fact, I’d never had any operations or been in a hospital before. I’d never even taken antibiotics!
Back at the race, there was no way to inform my husband of what had happened, so he was very perturbed by not seeing me at the halfway mark or finish line. When he found out about the incident, he rushed to the hotel to be
with me. Later that afternoon, my cousin made me a cup of tea. From the first sip, I realised I couldn’t taste it, nor could I smell anything at all.
I’ve always loved eating. I often joke about it and tell people that I have the curves to prove it! But on the first Sunday
lunch at my mother’s house after that marathon, my huge family – five siblings, their significant others and their kids –
were all passing around bowls of food at the table. ‘Taste these prawns,’ one person would say. Then someone else
would jump in, recommending: ‘Wait, wait! You must have it with some of this wonderful garlicky lemon!’ The pleasure
they were getting from their meal was apparent in their faces, much to my mother’s delight. However, my prawns and hummus tasted like paper. My mom’s famous lemon butter had no zing. My lamb curry had no aroma at all. It was one of the most frustrating feelings I’d ever experienced.
The following two-and-a-half years were really daunting. I was miserable. There were many things I missed out on, like the smell of my newborn baby’s skin or the familiar smell of frankincense at church, which had always calmed me and helped me get back to my centre. I longed to taste a mulberry straight off the tree, just as I had when I was a kid. And, God knows, I yearned to taste my coffee in the morning. I’m a 5am riser and the smell of my first cuppa had always given me the kick I needed.
As time went by, I was forced to accept the situation and make a decision: I could either allow myself to succumb to despair, or take matters into my own hands and get busy living.
Turning a corner
I may have lost two of my senses, but I still had my good health, a wonderful home and family, irreplaceable friends,
an awesome career and countless other blessings in my life that I couldn’t take for granted. I refused to wallow in self-pity. So I started keeping a gratitude journal – and that was when things began to shift into positivity for me.
In 2012, we moved to Amsterdam, where we stayed for two-and-a-half years. Once we’d settled in, I asked myself:
‘What really makes you happy?’ The answer was: writing. So I immersed myself in that. I’d spend days riding around on my bicycle, find a pretty little spot in a café, a museum or on a park bench and simply write. That’s how the idea for my book came about.
As soon as I shifted my focus from my loss to the activity that gave me the most pleasure, everything else fell into place – including the very gradual return of my ability to smell and taste. I always use the analogy of baking a cake and standing at the oven, constantly watching it and waiting for it to rise. You don’t really see any progress until you take your attention off it and focus on something else. Then, in no time, your cake rises beautifully. That’s how it felt to me. I was obviously grateful the first time I pulled a face again while eating a grapefruit, but I didn’t call the whole family to crack open a bottle of champagne, light fireworks or make a big deal out of it. I also remember walking into
my house one day and shouting: ‘There’s a dead animal in here!’ In fact, it was the very unfamiliar smell of my baby’s soiled nappy. (In hindsight, being saved from that smell was probably the one good thing to come out of my sensory loss!)
The medical term for Lee’s condition is anosmia, which describes the partial or complete loss of the sense of smell. Luckily, in Lee’s case, this was temporary. People with anosmia also lose their sense of taste and therefore often lose interest in eating.
Looking back, I’ve learnt to be grateful for what happened to me, because being deprived of smell or taste taught me to listen better and really experience things from a different perspective. Just as blind or deaf people compensate for their conditions by developing super-sensitive other senses, I’d learnt to rely more on the senses I still had in order to interpret the data and signals I was receiving in my environment. Our sense of smell, for example, tells us about much more than just good or bad odours. There are layers of more complex things like pheromones telling us when we’re in danger or attracted to someone. I needed to ‘ctrl-alt-delete’ what I’d known my whole life, reframe and heighten my other senses to process that data through them.
This was when I received a bonus I hadn’t expected: I eventually tuned into my intuition. I began to get a ‘sense’ about situations and people before I even entered a room. Of course, that ability had always been there – we all have it – but it’s only when we’re forced to rely on it that we truly access it. I began to trust my gut more and respond when
something just felt ‘offish’ about a place or person. That inner radar helped me let go of situations which no longer made me happy and, instead, focus on pursuing the things which led me closer to my purpose: writing and sharing my stories, as well as coaching and mentoring others.
The collection of short stories and essays in my book are about the little things which – if we take the time to experience them holistically – are really the big things in life. It’s written in simple language and the themes are
universal ones of self-mastery. By focusing on what I already had in my life, I found that the list of things to give thanks for was endless. There was something new to appreciate every day. I created the second part of the book, The Gratitude Challenge, with that in mind. In it, I challenge readers to practise at least 10 consecutive days of thankfulness. That’s all it takes to develop a continuing awareness of gratitude. Readers simply pick one line from
the book and reflect on that thought for the day. I wanted to share my experience of the wonderful way this has helped me shift my focus and prosper.
COMPILED BY NOLWAZI DHLAMINI PHOTO: ROBYN DAVIE