When I Lost My Sense of Taste to Covid, Anorexia Stepped In

With flavor gone, my old eating disorder came roaring back.

The day after my family and I were diagnosed with Covid-19 last September, I made myself a cup of coffee. I had been awake most of the night with chills and hoped I’d find comfort in its familiar aroma and warmth.

I lowered my face to the surface of my mug and inhaled. Nothing. I started searching for smell wherever I could. In the bathroom, I untwisted the cap on one of my perfume bottles and couldn’t detect its jasmine fragrance. I brought a candle up to my nose, but it was scentless.

When I sipped my coffee, all I could sense was its warmth. I started to make breakfast for my 4-year-old daughter and my 3-year-old son ­— maybe there I could find something with taste. I put a strawberry in my mouth and could feel its seeds but couldn’t detect its sweetness. I bit down on an almond-butter granola bar, sinking my teeth into the sadness of a reality I didn’t want to face.

I was diagnosed with anorexia at age 12, the year after my mom died. She’d been sick with metastatic breast cancer for three years, and even when it spread to her bone marrow, her liver and her brain, I was still convinced she’d get better. It’s what my family had told me, and so I believed it to be true. Until it wasn’t.

When she died, I felt as though life had become out of control. Pretty quickly, I realized that I could not impose order on the larger world, but I could control something that had always been in my life and always would be: food. And so began a three-year stretch of multiple hospitalizations and a 17-month-long stay at a residential treatment facility.

Now, at 35, after 20 years in recovery, I’m far better than I’d ever thought I’d be. But some days, my mind still flirts with anorexia. The disorder secretly seduces me, satisfying my affinity for control and order. It always lurks in the background and I have to make a concerted effort to keep it cornered.

Without taste, I was triggered. Anorexia beckoned me, reminding me that I could shed even more weight off my already slender frame if I skimped here and slacked there. When I would make my breakfast in the mornings after losing my taste, I’d forgo frothed milk in my coffee, opting to drink it black instead. I’d put one and a half slices of cheese on my grilled cheese sandwich instead of two and a half. I’d start to place granola on top of my yogurt, but uncomfortably familiar questions would stop me.

Do you really need to eat that? Why waste the calories?

Without taste, food became a formality. It was merely sustenance, and so I settled for the bland, bare minimum. Chewing felt like a chore, and every bite took effort I didn’t want to expend.

I was craving comfort. After days of not eating enough, I decided to seek it in a food that I used to love eating with my mom: ice cream. I ordered a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Glampfire Trail Mix and as soon as it arrived I dug my spoon into satisfying chunks of pretzel, chewy marshmallows and crunchy fudge-covered almonds. I couldn’t taste a thing, but I detected texture. I liked the act of digging my teeth into something that took work to chew. I liked hearing the crunch of the almonds, and swirling the softness of marshmallow in my mouth.

I found myself relating to one of Ben & Jerry’s founders, Ben Cohen, who has very little sense of taste and no sense of smell. When he and his partner, Jerry Greenfield, were developing their signature ice cream in the 1970s, anosmia-stricken Ben advocated for chunks. He became the texture taster, the one who would determine if teeth could be satisfied even when the tongue could not. After three small spoonfuls, I put the ice cream back in the freezer, not allowing myself to have any more.

There are often competing forces at play in my recovery; the healthy side of me that recognizes I need to eat more and wants to indulge in foods I enjoy, and the old eating disorder that tells me I shouldn’t.

The next day, family friends dropped off a homemade broccoli and cheese casserole, coloring books for my kids and a dozen bags of groceries filled with food we like to eat: cinnamon raisin bagels, red grapes, smoothie mixes and more. I wanted nothing more than to enjoy the home-cooked meal, which looked like something my mom would have made. I ate some of it, but not enough.

As our symptoms subsided and our two-week quarantine ended, I started to see the effects of eating too little. I could see it in my slightly sunken-in cheeks, could feel it in the contours of my hip bone, could hear it in my stomach, which groaned in the dark of night. I took a photo of myself and recognized I was too thin. My husband noticed, too. He reassured me that my taste would come back, and he reminded me of how much traction I’d lose if I let myself get stuck in the setback.

Over the years, I’ve had to change my perspective on what it means to be in recovery. I used to strive for “full recovery” — a life without slip-ups or setbacks — and would always feel like I had failed whenever I faltered. Now I frame my thinking around what I call “the middle place,” that sticky space between sickness and full recovery. I make it my goal to continuously progress through that space — for myself, for my family. Recovery is about recognizing that I’m in control of my choices, even when anorexia comes knocking, pleading for another chance. During Covid, I opened the door a crack, but eventually closed it.

My sense of taste was gone for about five weeks, and once it came back I started to regain my footing and, eventually, the pounds I had lost. Taste first showed up one morning when I was eating a banana; soon more flavors re-emerged.

And then one Sunday afternoon, I ate creamy tomato bisque and felt and smelled and tasted every single spoonful. There was the warmth, the savory tomatoes, the bliss of basil.

I finished the soup and was still hungry. So I got myself a generous side of crackers and Gouda cheese, which I ate with unfettered enjoyment. For the first time in five weeks, I finished that meal feeling full.

If you need help with an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline can be reached at 800-931-2237. For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Textline.

Mallary Tenore Tarpley teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is the associate director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. She is writing a memoir about her childhood experiences with anorexia.

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