Towards the end of March, I was still going to work as normal in my hometown of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I had been feeling bad, but I thought it was a sinus infection as I get those with the change of seasons. Then, on Saturday April 4, I was sitting in my backyard with my family by our fire pit. The smoke was going right up my nose, but I just couldn't smell it. My neighbour is a nurse, and she told me that she thought I had COVID-19 and that I should get tested. So on the morning of Monday April 6 I got tested. And sure enough, I had COVID-19 and I had the flu.
As there weren't many tests available, I was told to behave as if the whole family had the virus. So I called into work immediately and then we hunkered down. I had a foster daughter with us at the time, and my son and my husband we all quarantined for two weeks. The kids fortunately didn't get sick, but my husband partially lost his sense of smell as well.
Two months later, I still didn't have my sense of smell back, but I started to smell burning toast. I was a little concerned as there are some suggestions that it's a sign of having a stroke. But I ended up smelling toast for about a week. Then the smell transformed into that of burning French fry grease. That might not sound so bad, but when you smell it for 24 hours straight, it makes you nauseous.
It smelt like it was coming off my clothes, that scent was just sitting in my olfactory system constantly, giving me headaches and nausea. Shortly after that, my family and I were on a pontoon boat and my brother-in-law spilled a little gasoline. Perhaps it hit a nerve, because for the following three weeks, I could only smell gasoline.
Before contracting COVID-19, I had no idea about parosmia. It's a condition where the individual experiences distorted scents and it is a side effect some people have experienced after contracting COVID-19. My sweet husband actually sat for half a day and found the AbScent Parosmia and Phantosmia Support group on Facebook. AbScent is a U.K. based charity for people with smell loss issues. There were thousands and thousands of people in that group who were experiencing symptoms similar to mine. But at first I resisted getting support, because I felt like I could handle it on my own.
However, around two months ago, the gasoline smell was morphing into a rotten meat smell. Still now, the scent I smell all the time is rotting meat. Plus, food in general tastes rancid to me. The disortion of taste—called parageusia—is another known side effect of COVID-19.
The only way I can describe it is that one day I woke up and coffee smelt rancid. Everything from chocolate to cucumbers, herbs and fresh cut grass, they all started smelling and tasting different, and not in a good way. Most times I have to bite something and wait, and either spit it out or continue to power through it.
I love Mexican food. But onion, garlic and a lot of the spices used will taste rotten to me. Tacos are something fun we used to do as a family, and that's now off the table. My husband and son could eat it by themselves but it smells up the house. And cooking smells now don't dissipate for a couple of days for me. I have to walk around with these different oils by my nose to neutralize the smell, or hide out in my room, run an air purifier and put on a diffuser.
So I joined the AbScent groups and I was able to learn a lot from the people there. Mint tastes revolting to me, similar to how cat food smells when you open it up. Before joining the groups, I was brushing my teeth and powering through it to get it done. Then I saw someone had suggested a coconut and lime toothpaste. I bought two packs of it right away and now I'm able to brush my teeth again.
I did meet with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor over Zoom, and she told me that if my normal sense of smell doesn't come back in a year then it's probably not coming back. That's not what you want to hear. Although the ENT didn't recommend or know much about smell training, it is something that AbScent and various scientific studies have started to look into, and I have been using scented essential oils at least twice a day.
Although I don't have an official diagnosis, all my symptoms are aligned with parosmia and parageusia. I did speak to my doctor after I first started experiencing the bad smells, because although I don't normally experience depression, I was in bed for at least a week when this began. Many people in the groups I have joined seem to be experiencing depression. My doctor and I video called and I was prescribed a very small dose of an antidepressant. That did help, I was able to get out of bed and started exercising.
I was also losing weight very rapidly around that time, because for a while I was having trouble ingesting even 700 calories a day. And that's not the way you want to lose weight. I have been able to eat more thanks to the groups. I would see a recommendation for certain crackers and someone mentioned marshmallows. Although they didn't taste like marshmallows to me, the flavor was sweet and not bad. Then that changed about two weeks ago. Now they taste sour.
On the evening of September 25, a girlfriend came over, and we sat at the fire pit so we could socially distance. I had bought a really, really good California chardonnay and I opened it, took one sip and said: "That's the worst thing I've ever tasted!" It was so bad.
It coated my mouth like butter. I initially thought it tasted like butter because it coated my mouth, but it was probably more like oil that had gone bad. It tasted bad enough for me not to have opened another bottle of wine since. I don't know what red wine tastes like and I'm not going to try and figure it out.
When this first started I would get angry at everyone around me, but now the biggest concern for me is the change. People used to joke about how heightened my senses were. I was that person who everyone called "Nosey McNoserson." I miss that. And I miss the subtle scent of giving my husband a hug and smelling him.
So there's a heartbreaking side to it, though I don't want to go on about my poor miserable life, because it's not that bad. I'm sure eventually someone will look into the long haul effects of COVID-19 more deeply, but at the moment most scientists are busy trying to get a vaccine. I know there are people suffering with COVID-19 more severely right now, and there are those who have had something similar to what I'm experiencing for years.
I don't know what will happen in the future, but that morning when I got out of bed following my depressive period, I decided I would have to make this my new normal. I immediately wrote an essay about my experiences and posted it on social media. I felt empowered by that. It felt like I had a say in my own life.
I started a YouTube channel and I started my own Facebook group called "COVID bounce BACK" for other people who are COVID "long haulers". I wanted to know what we're going to do from now. What if this is it? What if I never get to smell my son's hair again or my husband's neck? And if this is it, I'm going to find other people and give them a support group and try to empower them.
I'm about to turn 50, and so I'm trying to turn it around and do the best I can with what I have. Hopefully I'll also be able to give someone else a little inspiration.
Chanda Drew lives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, with her husband and son. She has started a Facebook group COVID bounce BACK to help other people who are suffering from ongoing effects of the COVID-19 virus and a YouTube channel ChanCan.
All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.
As told to Jenny Haward.