• February 26, 2024

Depression and Anxiety Stole My Sense of Taste. Here’s How I Got It Back

Eight years ago I tried to cook myself out of another impossible situation. My father was diagnosed with cancer and was struggling with chemical nausea. His voracious appetite, once a family history thing, was gone. With naive optimism, I loaded butter and cheese into his scrambled eggs in the hope that the decadence might arouse interest and support him. When I saw him pushing the eggs around on his plate, I found that I was no longer happy to eat either.

Of course, no amount of cooking can change the outcome. My father died and after his death I tried to get my feet back on the world. I sought solace in therapy, swimming, anxiety medication, and holistic remedies. Six months later, I graduated from college – my first milestone without my father. The only thing that kept me from falling apart during the ceremony was a road trip that Genevieve, Annie, and I had planned that drove from California to Washington State.

As we hiked in a redwood forest, we discussed our hopes for what lies ahead: dream careers, families, and homes. That I was able to reflect on my future after such a devastating loss seems in retrospect to be a miracle. But these friends always got through the worst with me. As 2020 went on and almost all personal interactions disappeared, I dreamed of exploring the coast with my friends. And while I couldn’t remember exactly when I rediscovered the joy of eating after my father died, I suspect it happened on this road trip.

During the lockdown, I had to regain the pleasure of eating myself. I turned to my usual mental health strategies to help alleviate my depression and anxiety. When that didn’t rekindle my joy in eating, I tried to get my taste buds up for grabs with wildcard 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, Annie and I met for a hike. I told her that since that day I had had problems enjoying cooking and eating on my deck. As we followed a trail beneath the towering redwoods and fragrant eucalyptus, we discussed a working theory: Just as you can’t tickle yourself, you may not be able to surprise your own taste buds with doing all of the cooking.

When we got to the parking lot, Annie got a glass from her car. “I have a new taste for you,” she said, offering me a spoon of something gold-colored and sticky.

I closed my eyes and let the sugar crystals on my tongue dissolve. I had never tried anything like it – luscious, sweet and slightly spicy, like the first lightning in a summer rainstorm.

“Turmeric and black pepper honey,” said Annie with a grin.

As I got back to my car, I thought of that west coast road trip and all of the stops we’d made along the way to buy ice cream cones, wild berries, smoked salmon, and pizza in a row. I was still wavering from the death of my father, but with the company of my friends I had managed to restore part of what I was before.

Grief is never linear. But over time and with the community of close friends, the pleasure can and will return. As I drove home, I thought of Annie and the surprising tastes she had imagined and the hint of joy that seemed to be the future. I thought of the reunion of all of us, the new foods we would try, the exciting restaurants we would visit together, in the world beyond my deck.

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Jack

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