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Covid-19 is Disorienting

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on

Exhausted. Absolutely, to my muscle fibers, flat out weary. Using every ounce of willpower I could muster, dark roast seemed like the perfect solution to this fugue of fatigue. It wasn’t until I opened my bag of coffee that I fully comprehended what the pounding in my head signaled. I went in for a long inhale as I normally do before grinding the dark, rich whole beans that greet me every morning and nothing. Zero. Not even a hint of the magnificent Sumatra I’d come to know and love.

The memories of what this should smell like clashed with the absence of scent before me. I felt all at once a crushing sadness and an overwhelming bewilderment. I raised the freshly ground beans to my nose again and again in an attempt to get something, anything! Eventually I gave up on the idea of enjoying it. At least it would help me function enough to get to a covid-19 testing site. What I had hoped was just a bad headache and sore muscles from a workout, now screamed covid-19. While impatiently waiting for my water to boil, I went around the kitchen like a possessed treasure hunter looking for any odor. Onion, nothing. Crushed garlic, same as water. Freshly peeled orange…could’ve been a steak for all I knew! I even took a big whiff from the kitchen garbage bin, zilch!

To add insult to injury, once I poured the hot water over the beans there was no aroma beckoning me to drink. I tasted it and almost threw up. Cough syrup. Apparently without your smell, coffee only retains the bitter notes and none of the nuance. I almost cried. Actually, I am pretty sure a tear or two trickled down at this discovery.

Thus it went all day and for many days to follow. I would wake up anticipating something enjoyable, only to fall back into a cavernous sleep, depressed and hungry. I looked on at food longingly for the first few days, trying bites when hunger signaled I should and then eventually gave up wanting anything altogether. I mused this would be a wonderful weight loss tool to capitalize on. In moments of feeling too sorry for myself, I chastised thoughts of hopelessness and despair with thanks that at least we were surviving covid. Sure, every single person in our household of 7 tested positive but at least we could all breathe, without smell, but breathing nonetheless.

Still, I couldn’t shake the sense of a world upside down. Only empty cupboards and hungry kids (and one very particular bunny who only eats bok choy and parsley) sent me out into the world after my release from quarantine. It took me forever. Not only was I still slow physically, but mentally I just couldn’t get it together. What was once an easy task, efficiently and expertly accomplished, spread out before me, complex and mystifying. I found myself stopping every few feet and mindlessly staring at the plethora of choices, wondering what it was I should get to keep my family alive! Eventually I ended up with a cart full of cereal, a couple of roast chickens, frozen food and of course bok choy.

When I wasn’t trying to smell things, I searched online for any information as to when this odorless nightmare may end. Some said a month, others 3 and others were still waiting a year out. The average consensus seemed to be 21.6 days. Though there is no official cure, the internet community had many suggestions on how to regain your smell from essential oil therapy to Hail Marys and everything in between!

The oddest part is, it isn’t like losing a bit of your sense of smell during a cold, I wasn’t even that stuffy. Whereas with a cold you can blow out the mucus and gather hints of what you’re eating, no matter how much I blew and sniffed, my nose could not be forced to engage. This is because it is believed that coronavirus receptors are most commonly expressed in the nasal cavity tissue,which protects the smell neurons. Essentially the virus disrupts your brain-nose connection and makes trying to smell feel like turning over an engine that won’t start or trying to hear under water; an essential part of the world is all of a sudden muted.

Horrified, I then searched for commiseration. Though I found some, it was always tempered by the idea that losing smell was somehow a fair trade off for not dying from covid-19 or experiencing complications that would send you to the hospital! While that may be true, it is also true that losing your sense of smell is like having a piece of you go comatose. So here I am to commiserate my friends. Losing your smell and with it most of your ability to taste is a big deal! Feeling lost, depressed and losing interest in food are all normal, strange consequences of this. I am here to say it sucks and also sucks the life out of you! I get that we are a lucky bunch to have skirted the serious stuff, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying. An essential part of how you orient yourself to the world has been altered, sometimes permanently. Go easy on yourself and mourn.

On a brighter note, as most of my Google research suggested it would, the miracle of smell came back to me in pieces. At 14 days post-diagnosis I got a whiff of the tazo chai I had switched to drinking in the morning since I couldn’t stomach coffee. I also chose chai for its strong spices as all of the articles I read suggested smelling strong scents periodically throughout the day helps you regain nose function quicker and I was ready for any shortcut! Later that same day I peeled an orange and if I just about shoved it up my nasal cavity I could swear I smelled citrus. To my delight, at day 17 post-diagnosis while sauteing onions a familiar aroma wafted up my nose! Day 19 post-covid, I almost jumped for joy when the banana I peeled smelled and actually tasted like a banana! For the past 2 weeks food had fallen into one of three categories: salty, sweet or toxic waste, the last category being particularly surprising as I could never anticipate which food would taste bizarrely metallic.

I am happy to report at 20 days post-covid I am at 90% smelling capacity, coffee is again my morning beverage and the world has regained its color. Eating, shopping for food and cooking it are no longer perplexing chores and all is well in the world! Take heart; if losing your smell has thrown you for a loop, know you’re not alone and it is my dearest wish that smell will drift back into your life the way it did mine! Be well.

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