I thought I had phantosmia for awhile once. I had to look it up to see what it was called. Phantosmia is the name for olfactory hallucinations, or to quit using two-dollar words first thing on a Monday morning, smelling something that isn’t there. I was cleaning offices at a job I had previous to the one I have now. One particular office always had a strong odor or something intended to be agreeable and calming, but it was overpowering. And for hours or even a day or so after I kept thinking I would still be smelling it. I looked up olfactory hallucinations, two awesome words and learned an even cooler one.
Phantosmia it turns out is usually the result of a head injury and not schizophrenia so I was somewhat relieved. But a little disappointed too, that my dull life in church facilities wasn’t to be stirred up with excitement and fuss. I realize of course that serious afflictions are not to be longed for, deep down I’m sure that I didn’t want to be diagnosed with any serious illness. I just wanted a little excitement.
Last Monday I was in my back yard while my youngest son played in a pool. I sat in an old lawn chair holding a broken umbrella over me to keep off the harsh morning sun. I heard an impact from the street and turned around. Then a car appeared in front of our house skidding fast, taking out our front fence. Then it struck a tree and stopped. I was on my feet and hurrying through the house to the front yard right away. I told Prajna that there had been a car accident and to call 911, then I was out the door and to the wrecked car.
The car was against a tree and surrounded by low-hanging branches. A passerby helped me clear them and I saw through the driver’s window. Someone was looking out at me with huge, frightened eyes. And I saw blood. I also saw the inside of the car filled with the cloudy gas from the airbags.
“Stay in the car,” I ordered. I opened the door and the smoky gas began to drift out. The driver was a woman in her 30’s. Her face was injured from the airbag. Then the smell hit me. The car was a late model BMW with several airbags that had all deployed. The inside of the car was still filled with the airbag propellant, and the smell was like nothing I had ever smelled before. Other people who had stopped opened up the rest of the car doors. I looked and there were no other passengers.
I talked to the driver. She stared back at me mutely as if just waking up from a deep sleep, but with wide, puzzled eyes. I told her she had been in a car accident and that she would be okay. I told her my name and asked hers, she didn’t answer. She held up her right arm and looked from it to me. It was also injured probably from the airbag. Then a policeman arrived. I stood back up and told him what I knew, single occupant, conscious but not responding and no sign of any serious injury. Then I backed off to let him do his job.
The police see things like this every day. They are prepared to deal with the victims but don’t need to mind the witnesses who don’t see this every day. I kept wishing there was more I could do, but I knew better than to get in the way and spend most of the rest of the morning watching. I gave a report of everything I saw to the police later on as well as a reporter from the local newspaper.
For the rest of the day I was discombobulated. I knew that I was flying on an adrenaline high. My pulse raced and I had trouble sitting still. I kept seeing the injured driver with blood on her face and mouth. Most of all I couldn’t stop smelling the airbag propellant, that sweet-burnt chemical smell. I used to always associate the smell of hot engine coolant with car accidents, now I had a new smell for that.
I felt ashamed to be having this post traumatic stress. I thought that I should have just gotten over it. But I kept thinking “what if” questions. What if the car had burst into flame? What if the driver had compound fractures or not been breathing? What if there had been children in the car? What if she had hit a pedestrian? What if it had been a time that my kids were walking to church and she had left the road on the other side of my house where my kids walk? And along with the questions I could still smell the airbag propellant.
First responders like police and fire and soldiers can struggle with PTSD, I felt I had no right to. And after a few days I was able to calm down. Now it’s been a week and I can only smell the airbag gas if I imagine it first. I feel like I’ve gotten over it almost where writing about it is just re-hashing a tired subject already.
The last thing I keep turning over in my head is this difficult question: Did I wish for the incident to be more serious? How selfish is it of me to wish for that? Did I want more excitement? It feels similar to when I wished I did have some weird affliction making me smell things that weren't there. Did I want to be a hero and pull the victim from a burning car while the news photographer took pictures?
Of course I didn’t want someone to be more hurt. And I’ve shared some thoughts I feel like I should be ashamed of. I am truly glad that the driver was not seriously hurt. I think I know better than to wish for something more horrific in my front yard, there is enough of it in the rest of the world. It took less than a week for me to get over it and I want to be thankful that it was all that happened. Drive carefully everyone.