Living with long covid

Eliza Heaton

Food brings everyone together. Sharing a meal with family and friends means recounting embarrassing memories, gossiping about whatever petty drama seems relevant, and raving about how yummy the meal tastes. Eating and enjoying a variety of different foods is something that every human has in common, and we often take it for granted.

 I know I did.

 

Like many people my age, I was ignorant and complacent when it came to COVID-19. I did not always follow the proper protocols and social distancing rules enforced by Duke University, as I was desperate to socialize in a college setting. I knew that COVID-19 can be a deadly virus for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. But, as a relatively healthy teenager in college, contracting COVID was inevitable and would have little to no affect on me. 

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When I woke up on January 27th, 2021, I felt an odd sense of relief as my sore throat, lack of smell, fatigue, and eventual positive COVID-19 test declared me ill. I could finally get it over with! Ten days of solitude where I could catch up on work, sleep, and eat whatever I wanted. A mini vacation, if you will. How was I to know thatCOVID-19 was about to change my life forever. 

2 months passed, and I still had not regained my sense of smell or taste. One day, I was sitting in the car eating Chick-fil-A with my friends and I noticed that my meal had an odd, rotting smell to it. I tried to ignore it and struggled through, refusing to declare my anxieties aloud for fear they would become real: Was food always going to taste this awful? Day by day, my sense of smell distorted even more and I became helpless. 

Every type of food tasted like burning plastic or soap. I simply didn’t know how to fix it. I even tried the TikTok burnt orange method by eating a charred tangerine in an effort to get my taste back to normal. I dreaded meal time and lost my appetite completely. I had to distract myself as I ate to avoid thinking about how awful it was, which led to meals lasting for hours on end. Eating is such a social activity in college, and yet I found myself shutting out my friends to avoid talking about my relationship with food, or lack thereof. 

This was all food that tasted like burning rubber

Anxiety flooded my system and any mention of food caused my stomach to turn. I stopped eating consistently and became an angry, impulsive version of myself.. I remember looking in the mirror one day in late April, realizing that I did not recognize the body before me. The skinny, pale mess reflecting back, with dozens of unanswered messages on her phone, was slipping into dangerous patterns of starvation and isolation. I called my parents and insisted that we see a specialist when I returned home from college to solve the mystery that was plaguing my life. 

Skip to June, 5 months post-COVID infection. I found myself sitting in a specialist’s office in New York City. I broke down in tears as he validated my condition with a name: Parosmia. In an effort to recover an initially wiped-out sense of smell, the nose can experience a distortion of scents. The doctor told me that it would take about a year to heal, but even then he was not sure. 

I left the appointment unsatisfied and scared.

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More burning plastic

When something so simple and natural is no longer a part of your reality, one experiences the five stages of grief that accompany loss: 

#1: Denial. I spent the first few weeks with my distorted smell convincing myself and others I was fine. I would suck it up as I struggled through Hibachi dates, ice cream outings, and more. I would tell others I was happy because I convinced myself that my smell was returning post-COVID, not admitting that what I was experiencing was not normal. 

#2:  #2: Anger. I recall countless phone calls with my parents during lunch and dinner. I would scream into the receiver using self-pitying words such as “why me” and “I do not deserve this,” trying my best to wrap my head around the situation. I resented the way my friends talked about approaching dinner outings, rolling my eyes as they proclaimed how much they craved Mexican or Asian fusion flavors. Didn’t they understand I was suffering? How dare they be so selfish with their words! 

#3: Bargaining. I met with doctors over Zoom, begging them for any kind of relief. I said I would pay any amount of money, get any kind of surgery… anything to escape the anxiety that food gave me. 

Some soap

#4: Depression. I still feel I am in this stage. Some days are better than others, but I can’t help but slip into depressive episodes every so often. Entering WU on some days, I am hit with a wall of sadness as I struggle to pick which food to choose. The nostalgia that comes from familiar smells and flavors has been ripped away from me, and this is a truth that I cannot ignore. When I am around friends and distracted, I can forget that I live with parosmia. It is when I am alone with my thoughts, scrolling through social media feeds filled with yummy food pictures and videos, that I struggle most with dealing with this disorder. 

#5: Acceptance. I am now 8 months post-COVID and I find myself approaching this stage on my best days. I began olfactory training in May. As recommended by specialists, I sniff 4 oils for 30 seconds each twice a day,  in an effort to retrain my brain’s association with the basic scents. I have not seen it significantly help me in any way, but I have full faith in these oils and the healing properties they possess. By using these oils, I have accepted that I have parosmia and I must actively try to overcome it. I have  been tracking my progress through journaling, listing foods that I proclaim to be “parosmia safe”, or those that I can eat without struggle. I hope that one day I can look back on these entries and laugh about this time in my life. For now, I can do nothing but wait. 

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