Mother loses sense of taste after son’s death

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Charisma Pryor lost her sense of taste after the death of her son. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Charisma Pryor’s food doesn’t taste right anymore.

She loved to cook and share meals with her son Raymond — a big, strong guy with a healthy appetite.

When Raymond, 25, was shot and killed in April 2016, her sense of taste seemed to die with him.

The condition, she’s come to realize, is a side effect of post-traumatic stress disorder that took root not long after seeing Raymond’s body covered by a bloody sheet.

Food no longer tastes good. Even staple dishes like barbecue, spaghetti and short ribs.

“It’s almost like wood,” said Pryor, 48, a licensed social worker who coordinates care for individuals on dialysis.

Her senses of taste and smell withered along with her appetite after Raymond’s death. But she tried to carry on as normal.

Untouched groceries spoiled in her fridge. She lost 20 pounds.

She recognized what was happening to her while attending a support group meeting for mothers of murdered children. The group is called Purpose Over Pain.

Charisma Pryor (left) met Lisa Butler, both licensed social workers, at a support group meeting. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Charisma Pryor (left) met Lisa Butler, both licensed social workers, at a support group meeting. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Lisa Butler was there, too, looking for subjects to feature in a documentary, “What’s Left Behind,” she was making about the mental trauma of losing a loved one.

Butler’s knowledge on the topic runs deep. Her work as a licensed social worker has centered around conducting behavioral therapy with Chicago Housing Authority residents who suffer from trauma associated with losing loved ones to violence.

Pryor and Butler’s connection deepened upon realizing both had attended the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

“I just put two and two together,” Butler said of hearing Pryor’s story. “Trauma has so many differing impacts on people and biologically, it just made sense to me.”

“Her symptoms are pretty classic except for her loss of taste,” Butler said, ticking off other symptoms of Pryor’s PTSD: trouble sleeping, short-term memory loss, difficulty accomplishing what used to be perfunctory tasks, and the urge to get in bed and stay there.

To cope, Pryor has been exercising a lot and meditating. Food is still a necessity, not a joy.

Pryor eats out a lot, and knows not to complain about her food.

She recently ordered from her favorite pizza spot. “I ate it. Horrible,” said Pryor, who lives in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood.

She carries energy bars and protein bars in her purse.

“Usually when I’m hungry enough, like, I should say, weak enough, I’ll eat a bar,” Pryor said.

She received counseling for six months after Raymond’s death and attends four separate support groups.

She hasn’t ruled out seeking medical help, but hopes that time will heal what’s broken.

Pryor’s struggles didn’t surprise Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist who runs the Chicago-based Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation.

“We know that when people become depressed, there’s a reduced ability to smell. The more depressed they are, the less they’re able to smell,” he said. “And about 90 percent of what we call taste is really smell.”

“And it seems now that food reminds her of her child . . . it becomes very psychologically challenging to enjoy food,” he said.

Hirsch, who is not treating Pryor, said the symptom was common among Vietnam and Gulf War veterans he’s treated.

Dr. Selwyn Rogers, who will head up the University of Chicago Medicine’s trauma center when it opens next year, was touched when he heard Pryor tell her story a at a panel discussion about how violence effects mental health.

“Psychologically, she’s just not in a place of healing yet,” Rogers said. “Food has no taste for her. That’s powerful. It shows you the power of the mind. We’re talking about a mother here who’s in her 40s, what if it’s a kid who’s in her teens, or 5 or 6 years old, how do they cope?”

Butler said the issue gets little public attention and research.

“Past the 30-second (news) clip, you know, folks just kind of zone out, like, ‘OK, well, it happens every day.’ So we’re desensitized to it,” she said. “We have now thousands and thousands of people in Chicago who are walking around with PTSD.”

At the time of his death, Raymond was engaged to be married and had a 4-year-old son and worked as a forklift driver. Pryor believes the shooting — which happened in the 6500 block of South Western Avenue — stemmed from a dispute with a friend. No one has been charged with the murder.

“The heartbreak is still there. The longing is still there,” Pryor said.

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