busyfood.net – Depression and Anxiety Stole My Sense of Taste. Here’s How I Got It Back
Eight years ago I tried to cook my way out of another impossible situation. My dad had been diagnosed with cancer and was struggling with chemo-induced nausea. His voracious appetite, once a thing of family lore, had vanished. With naive optimism, I loaded butter and cheese into his scrambled eggs, hoping the decadence might spark interest and sustain him. As I watched him push the eggs around on his plate, I found that I could no longer enjoy eating either.
Of course, no amount of cooking could change the outcome. My dad passed away and, in the wake of his death, I struggled to regain my footing in the world. I sought comfort in therapy, swimming, anxiety meds, and holistic remedies. Six months later I graduated from college—my first milestone without my dad. The one thing that kept me from falling apart during the ceremony was a road trip Genevieve, Annie, and I had planned, driving from California to Washington State.
While hiking in a redwood forest, we discussed our hopes for what lay ahead: dream careers, families, and homes. That I’d been able to think about my future after such a devastating loss seems, in retrospect, like a miracle. But these friends had always weathered the worst with me. As 2020 wore on, and almost all in-person interactions disappeared, I dreamed of exploring the coast with my friends. And though I couldn’t recall when exactly I rediscovered the joy of eating after my dad died, I suspect it happened on that road trip.
During lockdown I needed to recover the pleasure of food on my own. I turned to my usual mental health strategies to ease my depression and anxiety. When that didn’t rekindle my joy in food, I tried to shock my taste buds into submission with wild card snack suggestions from friends (dill pickle potato chips, cheeseburgers, chocolate milk). Nothing seemed to work.
Then, on a foggy December day, before my county reissued a stay-at-home order, Annie and I met for a hike. I told her how, since that day on my deck, I’d been having trouble experiencing any pleasure from cooking and eating. As we followed a trail under the towering redwoods and fragrant eucalyptus, we discussed a working theory: the same way you can’t tickle yourself, perhaps you can’t surprise your own palate when you’re doing all the cooking.
Once we reached the parking lot, Annie retrieved a jar from her car. “I have a new taste for you,” she said, offering me a spoonful of something golden-hued and gooey.
I closed my eyes and let the sugar crystals dissolve on my tongue. I’d never tasted anything like it—luscious, sweet, and slightly spicy, like the first bolt of lightning in a summer rainstorm.
“Turmeric and black pepper honey,” Annie said with a grin.
Walking back to my car, I thought about that West Coast road trip and all the stops we made along the way, for ice cream cones, wild berries, smoked salmon, and pizza by the slice. I was still reeling from my dad’s death, yet I’d managed to restore some part of who I was before, in the company of my friends.
Grief is never linear. But with the passage of time and the communion of close friends, pleasure can and will return. As I drove home I thought about Annie and the surprising taste she’d introduced me to and the hint of joy that seemed to imply for the future. I thought of all of us reunited, the new foods we’d try, the exciting restaurants we’d visit together, out there in the world beyond my deck.