COVID took my sense of smell (Guest Post)

Image: A spiral-bound sketchbook open to a line drawing of the anatomy of the inner nose.

Past contributor Michelle Lynne Goodfellow was diagnosed with COVID-19 in November 2020. To pass the time during her quarantine, she wrote about her COVID experience.

(CW: disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, bingeing, food restriction)

They say loss of smell is one of the symptoms. Some say it should even be one of the defining symptoms – it’s so specific, so telling of COVID, especially early on.

For me, it didn’t happen until a few days in. Or maybe it happened so gradually, I didn’t notice until I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

I put on my essential oil diffuser for the first time in a few days, but this time I couldn’t smell it. I wondered if I’d forgotten to turn it on after I filled it.

I checked. It was on.

Hmm. That’s weird.

I went to my box of oils, and pulled out the peppermint. Removed the lid. Sniffed deeply. Could I smell it? I smelled… something. I think. 

Here. Try this. I grabbed a bottle at random, and without looking, raised it to my nose.

Oregano? Oregano or… marjoram?

I looked at the label. Lemon. 

Shit. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck shit.

(Which is also what I said when I first found out I had COVID – minus a few shits, and plus a few more fucks.)

You have to realize, I love my sense of smell. Loved. Loved my essential oils so much. This is not good.

I ate my lunch after that. Was taste gone, too? I ate a prune. Tasted sweet, but that’s all. None of the wine-y, rich flavour of prunes. It was like chewing a sweet, nonspecific gummy candy.

The rest of my meal was the same. I could distinguish salty and sweet, maybe a hint of acidic. And that’s all. The food felt like bland lumps in my mouth, where I was used to savouring explosions of fragrance and complexity.

Since then, I’ve realized that I still feel hunger. I still crave food. But the food merely fills my stomach. It nourishes my body, but not my soul. I can barely finish anything. I just don’t enjoy it anymore.

The implications of this feel really vast, to me. Not only do I love to smell beautiful things, I also really love to eat delicious food. (And cook – I love to cook! A big part of that is the scents and the flavours, for me.)

Life is definitely weird, without smell. I thought everything seemed flat because of how sick I felt, but now I realize it feels flat because a whole dimension of my experience is missing.

Most people get their sense of smell back, after they recover from COVID. But not everyone does. I don’t think I’ll be very happy if mine doesn’t come back.

(Content warning: eating disorders)

One positive effect (for me) is the impact on my appetite, and my ability to regulate the amount of food that I eat.

I’ve struggled with Binge Eating Disorder since I was a teenager. COVID shutdown last March (combined with ongoing trauma therapy) triggered a recurrence of my bingeing. Since the beginning of October I’ve been using a mindful eating technique that includes no snacking between meals, but no restrictions on what I eat at mealtimes. I’ve been really successful at eliminating snacking (eating when I’m not hungry), but I’m still working on becoming mindful of when I’ve eaten enough at mealtimes.

(Which is eating-disorder-recovery code for: I’m still often overeating, although not bingeing.)

Since losing my sense of taste, however, I can easily stop eating when my body’s full. I just don’t crave food anymore.

(Still not worth the loss of my sense of smell, though. Just saying. But if I could maybe carry this lesson forward if/after it comes back…?)

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow is a writer, artist, and maker. You can see some of her creations on her Instagram feed.

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