Ten years ago, she—a woman I only vaguely remember—laid herself inside a chamber that promised an escape from her senses.
The chamber might have looked like a colossal goose egg, but I could be remembering a fiction.
She had hoped it might resemble the steampunk tank in Altered States, or the cyberpunk telepod in The Fly. It might actually have looked more like a tanning bed, or a medical device that scans your insides; it was not at all punk.
It was absolutely a dark tank filled a third of the way with saltwater, and in her case, it provided no escape.
I am often unsure whether I am numb or overcome with feeling.
When she was a runner she counted on the high—a shimmering that materialized in her chest and gut, shot up through her scalp, then rained down to her feet—but only after suffering a certain number of miles. Endorphins and cannabinoids, alight like fireworks, smoke in their wake: pain would recede, replaced with brief, compensatory bliss. And then, a lack, a numbness that she mistook for pleasure.
I am often unsure whether I am numb or overcome and I puzzle over the locus of this distortion.
Is it sensory deprivation? Is it depression? Is it adrenal fatigue, as the acupuncturist suggested all those years ago, and which my friend in LA reminds me now to consider? Or is it living through end times, as the millenarians once taught me to believe, with the scientists now in accord?
My hair is rapidly losing its color; I dye my roots every four weeks. At times I consider fashioning myself a Sontag stripe, but I am not ready to go from black to gray, or even gleaming white—to reveal this emerging self. I save her for later.
For years, her favorite cocktail was a Plymouth gin martini with a twist of lemon. Clean, bracing, reliably intoxicating.
Two years ago, our pandemic began, and I was soon infected. Like many others, my brain lost touch with my nose. Lemon was astringent on my tongue but no longer fragrant. Gin was vodka.
Eventually—a month, two months later—I began to sense more than what my murmuring, disconnected tastebuds told me. I could smell and taste again, but with distortion. A gaggle of insecure internet sources congratulated me: my neurons were regenerating.
Which meant: I brushed my teeth with burnt hair. Roasted carrots and fried eggs in coppery sewage. A phantom smell of spoiled milk followed me along my walks in the park. And the fresh pearlescence of lemon morphed into a dour, bitter cousin. Let me try to explain. Wood turpentine. Acetone, without the apple. An alpine lake overtaken with algae.
I cannot be sure these descriptions are apt; those reference smells have also drifted. It has been two years: my memory is faulty and imagination strained.
I sign up for an online wine-tasting course to learn some vocabulary. I try to make sense of what I lost by reading studies. I search for words to describe scents that remain inscrutable.
In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes: “Smell is the mute sense, the one without words . . . the physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak. Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.”
Smell training is recommended for those with smell disorders: hold bottles of essential oil to your nose and call to memory the distinct smell of rose, of cedar, of clove.
That is it. That is smell training. Breathe in and try to remember.
Ten years ago, she made cocktails for a living. She was no mixologist: she relied less on taste and more on memory to make them. She found pleasure in making drinks and pleasure in drinking them, and those pleasures rarely intersected.
What I mean to say is that making cocktails to order is a performance, and she imagined herself quite dazzling on occasion—Leslie Caron on relevé straining a Bijou into a coupe glass. During and after a shift, she drank simply: a neat pour of rye or bourbon, and then another, and then another, and then one more.
What I mean to say is that she did not drink to taste.
A memory resurfaces: she walks down a dark street in Chicago and feels sensical fear. A man walks behind her some ways, but gains speed. She has a gut feeling, as they call it, and the inside of her mouth tastes like metal. She grasps keys like knives at the knuckles and looks around for potential allies. The sight of someone fifty feet ahead walking toward her is a relief, and she turns her face in their direction, belly up like an eager Labrador. At the point of their convergence the lamplight reveals that she had it all wrong: her potential rescuer bares a set of rotten teeth and blood-red gums and hisses words about her body, about what he thinks she could do for him. The man behind her, meanwhile, passes them both by, hurrying himself out of her misapprehension.
Describe the smell of rain. Where do you begin? There is a term you can learn and use if you are struggling with the task: petrichor. You might also learn that the scent of rain is the scent of land and sky.
Commit these facts to memory and call on them when it storms.
Ten years ago she read Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression on the exit ramp off a major depression. Her roots were still black. She ran obsessively for miles and confused numbness for pleasure. She floated in a sensory deprivation tank but felt everything. She had no disordered smell function but drank without tasting.
Solomon writes: “[Major] depression is the stuff of breakdowns. If one imagines a soul of iron that weathers with grief and rusts with mild depression, then major depression is the startling collapse of the whole structure.”
She had a therapist, a very good one who helped her overcome the fallout from her breakdown, one that had left her at sea for three years. She recovered but continued to see him. Eventually she went on Medicaid and requested a diagnosis, which the government required. He gave her one: dysthymic disorder, also known as persistent depressive disorder, also known as mild depression. The very good therapist reminded her of the soft science of diagnoses, some of which are more malleable than others.
Solomon writes: “Mild depression is a gradual and sometimes permanent thing . . . Like physical pain that becomes chronic, it is miserable not so much because it is intolerable in the moment as because it is intolerable to have known it in the moments gone and to look forward to knowing it in the moments to come. The present tense of mild depression envisages no alleviation because it feels like knowledge.”
My equable husband asks me, “Do you ever find yourself addicted to a feeling? Sometimes I feel that way about sadness.” This is a minor revelation, and yes, we have only just married, but you get to thinking that by living enough life you more quickly perceive the suffering of others, especially if it resembles your own.
Then again, he is a poet, a vocation with its own emotional alphabet; confessions of this sort may require some transliteration.
Long before she met her partner, she believed that all that was persistent—the depression that felt like knowledge, the correlated habits and defenses—added up to her preference for solitude. Leave me, world, to my own devices.
That is not it, exactly, no: she believed that she spent so much time alone because she had come to terms with the inevitability of depression. It, she, was loathsome. Her self-awareness was enough to bear; she did not want the burden of anyone’s witness.
Her therapist called this kind of thinking distorted.
Sure. And my martini still tastes like turpentine.
She, a slice of self, can sit firm in my memory.
Yet it is all too easy to forget how a life coheres.
In her essay “On Forgetting,” the poet Kay Ryan writes: “Memories seem to us like messages from a past whose author isn’t quite the self we know. They have a position similar to dreams in the sense that they are visited upon us. They enjoy the respect and special lighting accorded the mysterious.”
Defiantly, Ryan writes in praise of forgetting. In fact, she says, her own memory may be defined by it. “It is hard to say, in my case, what is the cheese and what are the holes: I believe that forgetting may be the cheese, in which there are occasional, suspended chambers of remembering.”
During those early months of loss and mourning, my partner reminded me to do the smell training, and I wondered if, like those prescribed essential oils, I might breathe him in with intention, try to remember his essence. It was disconcerting, knowing that I had lost the ability to do a thing I did not consciously do but knew mattered—smelling the unique scent of the person you love.
Ackerman on smell: “When the olfactory bulb detects something—during eating, sex, an emotional encounter, a stroll through the park—it signals the cerebral cortex and sends a message straight into the limbic system, a mysterious, ancient, and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust, and invent.”
Solomon on memory: “Memory functions and emotional functions are distributed throughout the brain, but the frontal cortex and limbic systems are key to both, and when you affect the limbic system, which controls emotion, you also touch on memory.”
These connections between taste, smell, memory, emotion: yes, it is all very Proustian.
Ten years ago she was assigned Proust in a graduate seminar and she read Swann’s Way fitfully. Predictably, she fought with its length; she was there to immerse herself in the writing and reading of short stories, and while she knew there was also no better place to attempt reading the first 500 pages of a 4,000-page novel, her focus was splintered. She read the passage about the madeleine and lime-blossom tea, about Proust’s notion of involuntary memory, and she thought okay, queen, we get it, get on with it.
She had far too little patience. The structure began to collapse and she ran over upturned roots. She did not yet grieve drinking without tasting and did not know how to forget.
One year of marriage and two years of smell loss: I have spent a lot of time indoors, torpid, gaining weight on the cheese and bread that have retained their warm and familiar smells and tastes.
I have struggled to write fiction, to invent, lust, feel. I wonder: is this depression, my old ball and chain? Is it sensory deprivation? Everyone I ask just waves their hands around at the world, asks me if I have read that Times article that says we are languishing. And this is a new soft diagnosis.
She was working on a novel then, and had placed her protagonist in a sensory deprivation tank; at some point she determined that experiential research was in order. It turned out that these tanks are not rare, even in the Midwest, so she booked herself a session.
Later, she wrote:
Inside the chamber, she waited for her senses to disappear. Her heart, she could hear her heart. It was a beast, noisier than anything else. Except for her eyes. No, they were the noisiest. They were closed but she could hear them rolling and darting beneath the lids. Her body drifted in a six-inch perimeter around her. Her toe brushed the side of the tank and her foot buzzed with sensation. She was floating, but tensing her neck, her legs, unable to believe she wouldn’t sink under the ten inches of water, choke on the salt, drown like a baby in a bath.
She willed herself to relax. Her neck eased back, and the water rose to cover her ears, jaw, and forehead. She led herself through a meditation: she was free, set afloat, gliding for miles. A gondola moving smoothly through an underground canal.
Wreckage at sea. A corpse in the bay. Trash in a sewer.
No, no: reset.
Floating: face-up in an infinity pool at a Greek island resort. The Delphic oracle, fixture of Hellenic society, crown of her head cradled by buoyant water.
Albeit informed by experience, this passage is fiction. The would-be novelist never did learn to relax in that tank and, in fact, left the session early. Her senses never left her. The flotation center had a vegan cafe, and both before and after crawling in and out of the tank, a pungent, yeasty smell made her gag.
I take action. I have packed away the essential oils, but I revisit smell training. I am still an impatient person but I reread Proust: “It is up to my mind to find the truth. But how? Such grave uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is also the obscure country where it must seek and where all its baggage will be nothing to it. Seek? Not only that: create.”
I pour hot water into a mug and cut into a lemon with a paring knife, shearing off a section of the peel; I set it afloat. I inhale deeply and call back a memory.
“I ask my mind to make another effort, to bring back once more the sensation that is slipping away . . . But feeling my mind grow tired without succeeding, I now compel it to accept the very distraction I was denying it, to think of something else, to recover its strength before a supreme attempt.”
A martini glass, rim coated with lemon oil, raised to my lips. This memory materializes, but it is clouded with juniper, and this fragrant alchemy, while brilliant, is an unnecessary detour. I reset.
“I feel something quiver in me, shift, try to rise, something that seems to have been unanchored at a great depth; I do not know what it is, but it comes up slowly; I feel the resistance and I hear the murmur of the distances traversed.”
I take a sip. It is hot water with lemon. My senses insist that I am swallowing a poisonous tincture. I try to recall my grandmother’s lemon poppyseed cake. Lemonade in a pitcher on the porch, just 5 cents a cup I bark to the passing neighbors.
“Ten times I must begin again, lean down toward it. And each time, the laziness that deters us from every difficult task, every work of importance, has counseled me to leave it, to drink my tea and think only about my worries of today, my desires for tomorrow, upon which I may ruminate effortlessly.”
Rumination is an act therapists warn their depressives against: a cyclone of misapprehensions picking up strength and weakening the agent. Repeated again and again, over months, years, a lifetime. Depression may wax and wane, but the mind can settle on past ruminations as false knowledge. Or so they say. No one will convince me that I do not take away something valuable from these bouts of self-loathing and habitual dressings-down.
I have forgotten many of my past selves, and yet their pain is freshly mine, its storm cycle a kind of wisdom: she has intention, she takes action, she spears insecurity, her anxiety begins to rise, she pushes through, she overcomes, she locates weakness, she calls to mind past failures, she curses her belief in recovery, she seeks distraction, she is weak, she is panicked, she seeks escape, she gives in to distraction, she is numb. Or is she overcome with feeling?
Every few weeks the gray reemerges, and I am reminded that I will forget myself someday.
The lemon from my past remains lost, but I have recovered the ability to taste and smell many flavors and aromas—though some remain forgotten or impressions distorted. I don’t want to remember them all: my husband complains to me when our dog farts, and I laugh, celebrating my sensory senility.
Here and there I will experience an olfactory hallucination, what scientists call phantosmia, that goes on and off like a switch. It is no longer sour milk but bread baking in the oven. This is a welcome memory, and I try to savor it even as it fails to linger.