A 38-year-old sea swimmer, canoeist and yogi, I wasn’t fearful of covid-19. I thought I’d get it out of the way, and any suffering would make up for the immunity conferred. After all, I knew people who had come through it in less than two weeks.
I suspect that I contracted it in March, in the lead up to lockdown when I felt run down and exhausted with a distinctive headache. But it was on Easter Monday the next month that I realised I’d lost my sense of taste and smell. The next week was just like any case of flu: aches, fatigue and a headache. I drank fluids and stayed on the couch. I was able to knit and attended a couple of Zooms, although I tired easily.
On day seven, things got scary. I was unable to move, then woke in the middle of the night slicked with sweat, my rib cage iron bands. Panicking, unable to breathe and with the bathroom floor swimming in front of me. Having visions of dying alone. I grappled uselessly for information online, before giving up and calling 999.
Paramedics arrived, gave me an ECG and concluded that while my respiration wasn’t great, oxygen levels were okay. A decision was made to leave me at home, with a friend calling me every hour to check I was conscious. I live by myself and will never forget the fear that I might ‘slip away’.
“I couldn’t walk far or remain upright for long, but I kept trying, assuming that I would soon be back to full health.”
That moment was sobering. I posted about it on Facebook and was flooded with generosity and offers of help. Home-cooked meals and care packages arrived. Friends delivered groceries, neighbours took out my bins. I was overwhelmed by the support, it was comforting to know people cared and having the practicalities sorted meant I could focus on recovery.
I spent a couple of weeks resting and was keen to get back to working and socialising, but improvement was slow. I was exhausted, my chest was tight, voice hoarse and breathing laboured. I couldn’t walk far or remain upright for long, but I kept trying, assuming that I would soon be back to full health.
Then one night I went to sleep relaxed after meditation, but woke at 2am with crazy tachycardia. I rang 999 again and, this time, was admitted to hospital. My heart rate was three times the normal resting rate and the pain in my chest felt like I’d been stabbed. I spent the night in the ‘Red Zone’ – the designated ward for Covid-19 sufferers – in an uncomfortable plastic chair. Once blood tests showed I hadn’t had a heart attack and my chest x-ray was clear, the doctor told me that I had likely had a panic attack.
I didn’t realise this was possible whilst sleeping, but it was plausible. Night time was the worst: difficulty breathing led to gnawing anxiety which could easily overspill into panic, once having to stop myself from running, screaming into the street.
The doctor simply said I needed to go back to work “as soon as possible”. Desperate for normality, I resolved to follow his advice. But one day of trying to function at work cost me a week in bed, grounded by fatigue. The grim reality is that “recovery” from Covid-19 is not a straight line but, for me, the jagged tooth of a crocodile jaw began to dawn. I had to surrender all plans.
As a business owner, having no idea when I could pursue new financial opportunities was worrying. Within my already limited lockdown world, not being able to make any social plans, totally dispiriting.
As time went on and the care packages and visits began to dwindle, my sense of isolation deepened. Being unable to plan for the future, I became increasingly depressed. Days were mind numbingly similar, characterised only by my weird, ever-changing symptoms: chest pain, ear ache, brain fuzz.
Family and friends couldn’t understand. It’s hard to explain how it feels to be trapped in a malfunctioning body and mind in the same four walls for weeks on end. People expect you to get better, expect ‘progress’. When my mental and physical health degraded to such an extent that I could no longer care for myself, a friend stepped in to perform the basic tasks that I was unable to – putting out the bins, changing the sheets, cooking. At this point, when my dignity started to disappear, I reached an all-time low.
“I’m in a kind of purgatory, somewhere in between surviving and living.”
Now, into week seven, I’m looking back at lockdown as a twilight haze, suspended in time by the virus whose “long tail” continues to plague me. I’ve tried to engage in ‘active recovery’: avoiding alcohol, taking vitamins, eating vegetables and doing breathwork to clear my lungs. I’ve abandoned attempts at exercise; any time I exert myself, I go backwards. On a good day, I’m operating at about 30% capacity.
At the moment, I’m in a kind of purgatory, somewhere in between surviving and living. All of the things that made lockdown bearable – swimming, exercise, a structured working day – are no longer an option. All I can do is continue to practice patience.
I’m aware that I’m part of a growing minority. I’m in a WhatsApp support group with members in their 30s-50s at various points in the journey – some further along than me. It’s been helpful to share practical tips and have emotional support. But still, I’m afraid. When will I get better? Or is this my life now? Will I ever bounce back?
The scariest thing is we have no answers. Covid-19 is a new disease that science is pedalling to catch up with. All we have right now is rhetoric about people who have ‘recovered’, applauding those who haven’t died.
But what about us? The lost ones, trapped in the gruelling long tail, with no understanding of when or if or how our health and quality of life will be restored?
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