I lost my sense of smell and taste on March 20, 2020. Our whole household, including my husband and two daughters, had been sick; we’d all gotten better, though I’d taken the longest. I was finally no longer achy, finally no longer debilitatingly exhausted, finally back on my feet. We hadn’t gotten tested for COVID — it was still the early days in the U.S., and none of us was sick enough or an obvious enough candidate to warrant it — so instead of being scared, I was impatient. What the heck?! I’d already been really sick for five days, and had started to feel better when exhaustion tackled and pinned me like an invisible linebacker. When I finally emerged from the dogpile, I was unscathed — or so it seemed at first. Losing one’s sense of smell and taste is uncanny. I imagine if one goes suddenly blind or deaf, the realization is immediate and overwhelming. But when I lost my taste and smell, it took me a while to realize something was off.
I can’t remember the exact progression, but I think it started dawning on me in the shower: usually the scent of the body wash and shampoo kind of melds into the steam and permeates the atmosphere, but I wasn’t picking up on it at all. I found that odd. It’s one thing if you’re stuffed up when you’re sick — then it’s understandable not to smell and taste — but usually the shower clears you out so you can get at least a whiff, and at that point I was actually breathing just fine. It really hit me when I couldn’t taste anything. Like, at all. I could feel the temperature and texture of the food and drinks, but no matter how prepared my neurons were to fire in the proper combinations for whatever was on my plate, nothing happened. It wasn’t the dramatic darkness or silence of how I imagine going blind or deaf — though maybe it’s just as uncanny to see a wave crash at the beach and hear no accompanying splash — it was just an eerie absence.
At first, it didn’t worry me, or even bother me that much. It even had benefits: we went for a walk in the woods with my mom-in-law and her dog, and while everyone else gagged and groaned when the dog did its business, my olfactory experience was entirely unmarred. It almost seemed like I’d gained a magic power — until the morning of March 22, when I came downstairs into the kitchen where my husband was grinding coffee, breathed deeply to try and catch that bracing smell that signals a happy morning to me, and got nothing.
“I really wish I could smell and taste again,” I said to him, and as if I’d spoken on cue in some TV drama, he flashed me the screen of his phone without even looking at me. “Lost Sense of Smell May Be Peculiar Clue to Coronavirus Infection,” The New York Times told us. I’d been tackled again, blindsided this time. I sank down to sitting on the floor, my heart racing, and for the first time in the whole trajectory of this illness I felt afraid. The funny thing was, by the time I got scared, I was in the clear: at that point, all symptoms were gone, I had my energy back. I had everything back but my smell and taste, which one could rightly argue were small changes compared to what so many had already lost. But that revelation hung there like a specter, a clammy-cold tangible absence announcing in retrospect what I’d contracted without knowing it, its impact lingering beyond its life.
A friend of mine has a habit of saying, “Taste is in the mouth.” It’s another way of expressing the more usual “there’s no accounting for taste,” but without a sense of judgment. It’s more physical, less cerebral; it gives a greater sense of visceral personal reaction. Taste is so immediate and so evanescent; how do you explain what something tastes like? Oranges taste like, well, oranges; whatever words might bring us close to accurately describing the taste, they’ll never fully convey it, because we each experience orange-ness in our own way. Some people’s senses sparkle with delight when that taste hits the palate, like all the lights and bells in the pinball machine, while for others it’s just fruit. Regardless, we’ve probably all experienced that jolt of joy when — whatever anyone else might think of it — something we find delicious lands our taste buds.
This taste pleasure is a core form of enjoyment, one that many of us experience at least a bit of every day, whatever our circumstances. Whatever else is happening, we can take a break and savor the flavors we have access to. If that food is eaten in good company, it’s even better. There’s a reason every holiday and life event in every culture has specific foods associated with it, right? Not only is it delightful to gather around a table (or a campfire, or a picnic blanket … ) and to nourish the heart while nourishing the body, but specific flavors and scents also signal the season. For me, chocolate cake or yellow cake with buttercream tastes like birthdays; Thanksgiving is cranberry sauce and roasted squash and apple pie; Hanukkah is fried potatoes; and Christmas moves between peppermint, cinnamon, hot cocoa and sugar cookies. I move through the year going flavor to flavor. Taste is in the mouth, and I’ve developed a whole library of tastes for myself in there: morning tastes, weekend tastes, holiday tastes, comfort tastes, pick-me-up tastes…. I hadn’t realized just how much taste keeps cadence in my life and orients me, until I lost it and was cut adrift.
The fear I felt when I saw that headline gave way to relief, and relief to a kind of no-nonsense knowledge. I’d had COVID-19; we probably all had. We could never be sure, because we hadn’t been able to get tested, but my loss of smell seemed to clinch it. If we’d all escaped without passing it on to the grandparent generation and with my sense of smell and taste as the only casualty, we could count that as a huge win. And besides, my smell would come back like normal soon, right?
Of course that question is a setup. Of course it’s not back. I couldn’t taste my birthday cake in late April, couldn’t stand the flavor of charred veggie burgers in July, had to rely on memory for the zing of cranberry sauce in November. I guess you could say it’s getting better: I now have some sense of smell and taste, but even that is not what you’d call normal. It’s not that some things smell like themselves and others remain “invisible” or whatever the equivalent is; some things taste and smell enough like how I remember them that I recognize them, and others have been strongly altered, almost always for the worse. It’s destabilizing — more so, I think, than when I couldn’t notice anything at all. In that total absence my imagination could fill in the gap with what I could remember. Now, a conquering phalanx of new sensory configurations has overlain different filters on so many of my familiar foods that I’m starting not to remember what was what. All this new unpleasant noise is drowning out the spectral cadences of flavors I used to crave.
Take coffee. I’d give anything to go back to simply missing its smell. Now, the scent of coffee — or really, the scent my brain perceives when coffee is around — revolts me. Coffee now smells like a combination of decaying pond plants, burning garbage, and human shit.Except that even shit smells different to me now: less acid and deeper, more hollowed out. It still smells very bad; it’s just a different frequency of bad. Now, when my early-bird spouse grinds and brews coffee in the morning, instead of being carried happily in on the smell to greet him and the day ahead, I take cover. Like the loss itself at first, I thought it was no big deal. But as the months drag on, these subtle redirections of response to stimuli are sending me down an uncertain and frightening path.
I don’t want to rush into the kitchen to say good morning to my early-rising love. Or, I do, but there’s something holding me back. I have to plunge into pervasive unpleasantness in order to give him a hug; if he’s standing near the coffee pot, I have to try not to gag while I kiss him. I used to love to cook; I thought it was the quarantine-induced fog that had dampened my motivation, but now I wonder how much of it is this chasm between the ingredients and my experience of them. I’m vegetarian, and now almost all cooked vegetables taste actively bad to me. That makes it hard to get up the drive to cook. Onions and garlic are the worst — the whole earthy, bitter range smells and tastes rancid, or like how I imagine moldy dirt would taste — and while I still cook with them because my aesthetics cannot conceive of certain recipes without them, it makes me retch.
Most of the planet is feeling moderately depressed at best, and because lots of us are trying to keep up “normal” lives in a weird situation while knowing that things are so acutely awful for so many, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all in a crisis. I’m starting to realize that the biggest harm of my situation is not any active unpleasantness, but in the instinctive recoil I’ve now developed. When I start downstairs to say good morning, a whiff of pond muck hits me and at the top of the stairs and I hold back. Just for a second or two, but in that short moment, my balloon of joy deflates a little, I put a little wall between myself and experience. Or when I’m cooking, it only feels like going through the motions. Even when inventing new recipes in hopes I might enjoy something, it’s like I’m on autopilot, performing rote tasks that have little or nothing to do with me or with the parts of me that experience joy or love. Food is nourishment, but it’s also a vehicle and product of joy and love. Think of holidays, birthdays, of soup when we’re sick and treats when we celebrate. What happens when food is sapped of its joy conveyors? Or, perhaps even worse, when flavor becomes sinister and treacherous?
We splurged and got these fancy cherry tomatoes because isn’t it nice to have some bite-size sunshine these days? I bit into one at dinner and it went off like a grenade in my mouth. It tasted to me like someone had injected skunk musk into it. I felt bewildered and betrayed. I know: betrayed by a tomato?! But yes — or, no: betrayed by my taste, by my sense receptors, by an insidious rejiggering of stimulus-response, by a flavor bait-and-switch. I saw a cherry tomato; I remembered even if unconsciously the yum of cherry tomatoes; my whole system prepared itself for the cherry tomato experience (I’ve heard that just looking at a food sends signals to the specific array of taste buds, salivary glands, and digestive fluids needed to process that particular item). There was cherry tomato-ness at first, but then the skunk-musk took over and I spat it out like I would recoil from a slap.
I now have a growing list of flavor traitors. Celery? Ugh. Carrots? Meh — and meh is pretty good these days. Peppers? Forget it. Have you ever gotten a little taste of Novocaine that dripped from the dentist’s syringe? That’s what peppers taste like to me now. That, plus soap. Not a winning combo. Lots of things taste like soap, including sometimes water (and no, I didn’t accidentally get soap in my glass; it’s happened even with bottled water, and no one else thought theirs was laced with Palmolive). Peanut butter tastes like crap — literally. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, taking a bite of dark chocolate seems now like the baby chimp trying to hug its electric-wire mommy. I don’t just want a snack; I don’t just crave a treat; I need some comfort, some joy, and I no longer know where I can or can’t find it, so I keep turning to what used to be, what should be, a reliable source, even though I keep getting zapped. Like that poor little chimp, I feel my desire to thrive waning; I wonder if I’ll waste away.
Thousands of people worldwide are dying of COVID-19; many more continue to unconscionably die of starvation. My problem is far from lethal and, on a global scale, so very small. Its benignity and smallness are hiding its ill effects on me, though: I’m eating less, and less well. I feel nervous and defensive, like mealtime is going into battle with a covert enemy. I’m withdrawing from family moments, walling myself off from experience. I’m alone in my particular perceptions; nothing looks or feels or seems different to anyone else in my family. It’s so odd, so eerie, and kind of sad. I know I won’t die from it; I will keep eating, if only mechanically, to alleviate bodily hunger, not to savor or enjoy. To be deprived of a huge realm of ready enjoyment — not only that, but to never know if former sources of joy will turn on you and give instead a jolt of revulsion — is a pretty muted way to go through days and weeks and months.
For a while, I was either doing OK with my smell and taste aversions or, like someone with cataracts, not noticing the relative increasing grayness … until my dear husband yet again incinerated a batch of tofu bacon. If you eat pork bacon, you probably have no reason to try the veggie version, but it hits all the necessary bacon notes of crispy-chewy and smoky-savory, and it’s pretty good. Or, it was. Now it tastes like someone sprayed my allotted pieces with Febreze — and that’s when it’s cooked to my taste. When it’s burned, I don’t know what it tastes like and I don’t want to find out, because it smells like turpentine-infused burning feces with overtones of something cloying and sickening, like rotting flesh or when beans go really bad. I’ve never enjoyed the scent of burnt tofu bacon, which I know because my husband regularly and through no fault of his own burns it to a blackened mess. It goes from crisp to incinerated in seconds (I don’t know what it’s made of, but a chemistry teacher could probably do a cool lab on combustion point with it).
On the day in question, my spouse was trying to be extra-vigilant because he knew how sensitive I’ve become to that smell in particular, and we’d just had an incident with some overcooked popcorn that had nearly reduced me to tears. He got the tofu bacon to his exact preferred done point and turned off the toaster oven. That damn tofu bacon kept cooking with the oven off until acrid smoke started curling itself out of the crevices and into my damaged olfactory bulb. I ran from the house with my shirt covering my nose as if someone had thrown a stink bomb, slamming the door on my way out, not from anger but from frustration. I was in exile from my family’s Sunday brunch. They were inside, and I was outside, and they knew I didn’t like the smell but they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t come sit down. Not didn’t want to; was unable. Unable to enjoy. Unable to join, unless I forced myself to lean my senses against the electric fence in the form of a pleasant weekend meal. That pleasant weekend meal didn’t seem like a booby trap; it looked so nice, so inviting through the kitchen window. I know what brunch used to taste like; I know what it can feel like. Now, it’s hollowed out and studded with flavor mines, and while that doesn’t really matter in the greater scheme of things, a life is filled with tiny moments, and when many of those are absent or unfavorably altered, that life changes course. But no one else can see or notice that I’m veering. Taste, after all, is in the mouth. That’s so intimate, so hidden, dark and closed off, untranslatable in its personal perception.
It was only then, when I stood outside shaking like I’d escaped a gas fire, that I looked up from keeping my head down to try and just get through this and found myself on a fast-melting ice floe, drifting slowly but steadily away from a mainland of shared delight.