10 May SCREW YOU, COVID, AND THE BAT YOU RODE IN ON.
I first realized that I had covid when I woke up at 2:30 on a Monday morning with the sheets soaked and freezing. My teeth were chattering on top of the full body shivers that ran up and down like someone practicing scales. I finally managed to extricate myself from the cold grossness of my bed, put on my bathrobe, and because I lacked the energy to do anything else, got back in under the covers. Disgusting, right? Oh, that was just the beginning. When I woke up in the morning, I suspect the fever had taken some of the sting out of the illness and I actually felt not too bad.
I went ahead and did my morning workout and while I was wheezing and struggling with things that are normally simple I was pretty pleased I could still do something. Today my workout looks something like this. I have created a new yoga pose and I apologize to the purists. I call it kaka kurmasana or sleeping piece of crap.
And so it began this back and forth dance of enticingly feeling a teeny bit better, responding by overdoing it, getting slapped hard back down and starting to crawl back up again. There has been plenty written about the physical manifestations of covid and home therapies that may help you get through them but I wanted to write this as a bit of a psycho emotional guide for those going through it or, who will go through it in the future.
I am not a doctor or a nurse and so any mention I make of medications or therapies are entirely based on my experience and are largely over-the-counter products in any event. Obviously get your doctor’s advice before you take anything, even over-the-counter remedies.
One of the great, but also frightening, aspects of my experience has been the vivid, detailed and frequently bizarro dreams, metaphors, and scenes that come into my head, awake and asleep. Some of my dedicated readers have heard a few of these bits so I hope you will bear with me as I revisit them for others.
One of the guiding metaphors of my illness has been the medley. Picture yourself sitting on the rec-room floor with your family watching Ed Sullivan or Sonny and Cher.
Inevitably there will be a musical guest who will perform a medley of their hits. Although my sister and I pored over the TV Guide, which usually highlighted some of the songs that would be performed, it was somehow unsatisfying to be a Wichita lineman with Glen Campbell for a few minutes and then suddenly be slammed into the kitchen of the everyday housewife. That is how covid has affected my experience. Every song is unfinished and you’re suddenly thrown into a whole new piece of the illness. So, one minute I’ve got myself comfortable with a heating pad on my back, my feet up, another Stephen King novel in my lap, and Glen Campbell in my head. Next thing I know my head is pounding so hard I can scarcely think. Glen is gone and Dean Martin is making jokes around his cigar. Mom and dad are laughing, they don’t see that I’m choking to death.
Several years ago, my GP introduced me to the keto eating regimen, and intermittent fasting, as per Doctor Jason Fung from Toronto. This totally changed the game for my blood pressure, my blood sugar, my weight, and my cholesterol. To start with I took away everything that included more than a trace of carbohydrates: no sugar, flower, rice, pasta, root vegetables, sweet drinks, desserts, fruit, And bread. Once I became comfortable taking all of these things away, and to be honest I was never one for desserts, sweet drinks, or candy so that wasn’t hard, but pasta and rice were tough as a hard pass. At first when I learned that you could have a lettuce wrapped burger or a cauliflower crust pizza I was overjoyed. Sadly, the experience of a burger and fixings swaddled in half a head of iceberg lettuce is a completely different experience. And those commercial cauliflower crust pizzas? They make a big deal saying that they’re gluten-free and make with cauliflower but the only way those things stick together is with a vast amount of rice flour, totally defeating the purpose. The reason I bring all this up is that during the weeks of my illness I started to cut myself some slack and allow myself to experience some of the things that I really missed. I had no appetite for most of the time but every once in awhile a powerful craving would strike and so I allowed myself a grapefruit. I treated myself to an A&W Teenburger — in a bun! I even had some tonic water at an astounding 14 grams of sugar in one bottle! The point I’m making here is that you have to let a lot of things go when you’re this sick. For me it was partly the occasional non keto treat but it was also the dawning realization that I could not spend night after night beating myself up for the projects I had put on hold, the meetings I had cancelled, the interviews I had postponed, and the myriad of things I do on a daily basis to keep my business afloat. Like pulling your arm out of a bucket of water, the hole doesn’t stay very long. No one is irreplaceable and there’s going to be a lot of work to do to remind people that I have not died.
One of the visceral gut punches came on the day I went for my covid test. I had already been ill three or four days but did not have access to a vehicle and the testing centre is 20 kilometers away. It seemed very poor form to ask someone to take my diseased self into their car and drive me to a covid test, so I waited. When I arrived at the testing centre the staff were absolutely lovely. The nurse taking my history and giving me the tube to spit into told me that she wanted me to wait a little bit and speak to the Doctor, who would be in shortly, because she was just feeling a few too many red flags.
In short order I was sent up to the emergency room at the local hospital, spirited in through the back ambulance bay doors so as not to mingle with the people waiting in the ER, and taken directly into an exam room. I was hooked up to the usual blood pressure oxygen saturation heart rate etc. while they decided what they wanted to do with me. The nurse asked for my medical card which she took away to the nursing station and when she brought it back it was in a clear plastic bag with the biohazard logo on both sides. I could clearly see my photo through the biohazard circle and it made me a little sad.
I’ve described the vividness of some of my dreams in other writings but I wanted to reiterate the one that was so strong that I was still experiencing it in the morning while I was awake. In the dream I was in a small Mexican village sitting on one of those folding camp stools like the little Mexican ladies use when they set up their hibachis on the sidewalk and roast skewered chicken for sale. In my case the sidewalk was all smashed up, mostly by the roots of the huge wisteria and laburnum trees that had been planted on the inside of the wall but had extended their roots out and lifted the sidewalk, making it like a really bad set of teeth. So, I’m sitting there on my campstool and I’m stuffing my covid crap into duffel bags. I remember there was one yellow file folder that I knew was important but I have no idea what was in it. There were also VHS tapes, piles of sweaty towels, sheets, and pillowcases, empty bottles of cough medicine, and all the paperwork that I didn’t need for my tax return and hadn’t yet shredded. When I woke up in the morning I actually took a quick peek over the side of the bed fully expecting to see the camp stool or some duffel bags lying on my bedroom floor. And now Sonny and Cher are singing “I got you babe”.
You will lose things. Like the ability to put a toothbrush in your mouth without gagging. Like your grapefruit spoons when you decided to finally splurge and treat yourself to a grapefruit and then couldn’t find the grapefruit spoons anywhere which kind of took away from the solemnity of the occasion. I’ve spent days looking for a particular medication, the remote shutter for my iPad, some documents I knew I had right there at my fingertips, and a million other things that I can’t even remember forgetting now. You will lose patience. You will lose the will to live. You will stop caring that the dishwasher is full of unrinsed dirty dishes and smells terrible every time you open it to throw another dirty dish in.
They say that crisis, illness, death — all those things show you who your real friends are. I don’t think that’s true. Your friends are still your friends but not all of them have the knack of knowing what you need without being told. This is particularly true of our partners. We assume, or at least I do, the person nearest and dearest to me should be the best able to anticipate the fact that I might want him to run me a bath or come wash my back when I’m in said bath and I have to fight to not be upset that he hasn’t yet read my mind. If you think this is fraught with challenge when your partner is well, it becomes doubly complex when he too falls prey to this freaking disease. Now you can’t look at him as the paragon of health who is there to support you but rather someone who’s a few days behind you in the journey and whose journey is not necessarily the same as yours. His tolerance for aches and pains is much higher than mine because he’s lived with them through most of his physical career. Sitting behind a television anchor desk didn’t usually send me home feeling like I’d been hit by a truck although there were days as a field reporter, dragging a bag of lights in three and a half inch heels, that came close.
Friends will offer assistance, some will drop treats off at your front door, and sometimes you can actually reach out and ask a presumptuous favor: will you pick up a bunch of bedding plants, bring them to my house, and help me plant them on the sundeck? That’s not something I would ask most of my friends but there’s definitely a few that I would.
You may have to fight your natural defensiveness when people willfully disregard your information and politely observe that it’s good you’re feeling better even though you’ve tried to make it abundantly clear that that is the farthest thing from the truth. It seems logical that people will look for the positive and try to reinforce that even though it ends up making you feel like you’re simply not being heard. Or at least not taken seriously. Truly it is impossible to fully understand and comprehend how debilitating this disease is and that’s coming from someone who has not had to be hospitalized. I cannot even imagine what it’s like to have to be in hospital on a ventilator or living with this in a part of the world where you can’t have a hot bath with Epsom salts, or clean cold running water whenever you want it, or cough suppressant, or a Teenburger.
If I allow myself to pay attention to the happenings of the world at large I feel overcome with grief and sorrow. Whether it’s the impending collapse of India, the megalomaniacal saber rattling of that pissant prick Putin, or the days of reckoning around the environmental global crisis, it all seems too much of too much. It’s like that mountain that you’re staring at, not believing that you’re going to have to climb it. Obviously when you’re in the grips of this disease it’s the worst possible time to be making monumental decisions, but don’t close yourself off from great insights either. Just don’t act on them until you are in your right mind because– make no mistake– you are not right now. You are not right, right now.
Morning rituals that used to take me 10 or 15 minutes now take 2 hours to accomplish the same few tasks: get up, get showered, get dressed, have medication, drink water. That takes 2 hours because in between each step there’s 15 or 20 minutes of sitting to regain my strength and recapture my breath. I can’t stand in the shower because I get too dizzy and so I sit and let the water run over me until the shivering stops and then I crank it just a little bit hotter so that when I turn it off I have a few seconds to throw a towel on me before it starts up again. I hate the feeling of my sweat soaked hair stuck to my back but I know I don’t have the strength to shampoo it more than every few days so I settle for a hot rinse and a ponytail. I don’t remember the last time my appearance was so appalling. I did spend the first week of the illness sitting out on the sundeck taking in that vitamin D from Mr. Golden Sun. As a result, I look like I’ve been away on vacation at a resort where they didn’t feed you and didn’t give you access to shampoo.
Which brings me to a little piece of advice that maybe you will act on more propitiously than I did. I get it that people mean well and believe that having a Zoom or FaceTime get together could be a treat but truly, feeling as horrible as I have been feeling, and looking as appalling as I do, the last thing I want to do is be taken by surprise by a video call. I probably should have told everyone right off the hop, if you want to chat with me please let me know when we can talk, ideally it will just be on the phone unless I am feeling particularly camera ready. Chances of that are pretty slim at the moment.
My partner describes his experience with the gremlin as being a bit like a house burglar who first spends days casing out the joint and then, after acquiring that basic information, taking little forays to see which window has been left ajar, which door unlocked, which entry is most vulnerable. He claims that in the first few days of the illness he could actually track the virus as it poked and prodded in his body and he would muster all of his mental focus on telling it to get out. It would retreat and then come back somewhere else a little while later. Eventually it took the battering ram to the front door and ran amok everywhere. Everyone has their own metaphorical experience.
I woke up this morning feeling only partially like crap and so took the opportunity to shower, put on makeup, and organize my dirty sweaty hair into some semblance of order. My reward is to have a crashing headache and a screaming lumbar spine which is currently experiencing the delights of an electric heating pad. It doesn’t take the pain away but the heat is at least a distraction. It’s incredible how an hour after I woke up I could very easily fall asleep sitting in this chair.
Day 16 and my perspective on things has taken a pretty dramatic shift courtesy of a late afternoon phone call yesterday from my GP. She’s an interesting woman who made a valiant attempt to start a slow medicine clinic but she couldn’t get enough people willing to spend extra time with patients but still only be able to build the minimal amounts that the BC fee schedule allows. Ironically she has moved to the sunshine coast where she is practicing anything but slow medicine because of the onslaught of covid and the virtual nature of primary care. But I digress. We talked about the progress of the disease that I have experienced thus far and then she gave me some advice which, while hardly revolutionary, has totally changed the game for me in a lot of ways. First of all she said you have to reframe the experience and stop relying on previous life experience to dictate how you are reacting, responding, and even thinking about this particular illness. It is nothing like you’ve ever experienced before and your body has wisdom that your brain does not appreciate. She told me to think about my body mounting a massive immune response to the threat it’s experiencing and that I have to do everything I can to support that immune response and not get in the way. So, despite the advice you get from so many people, she said if you don’t feel like eating don’t eat. Digesting and processing food requires energy and that energy is diverted from the immune response and committed to an activity that is not central. Same thing with trying to exercise or even go for a walk. It sounds like it would be good for you but it’s just another distraction from the battle. She said if you can sleep 15-16 hours a day do it because that is exactly the clear open field your body requires to wage the viral war. Drink as many fluids as you can and try to replenish your salt. In my case it’s easy because I like club soda and it’s loaded with sodium. Clear broth with salt would also be an option although it’s not appealing to me. She also endorsed the notion that if your body needs something in particular it will let you know and so my craving for instant mashed potatoes (clearly not on the keto regiment) is totally fine because it may be just the weapon that my system needs to do the job right now. The other piece of that is to get rid of any guilt around what you’re doing or not doing. I have been feeling guilty about not participating in life, not following up on work commitments and all the myriad things that go into everyday life. This re-framing has also given me permission to say I don’t want to talk on the phone, I don’t welcome UN scheduled unexpected video calls and I don’t embrace being quizzed as to where I contracted covid and who else I may have passed it onto.
Day 24. So now that we’re emerging from several weeks of hell, there’s a little something called Post-Covid Disorder. Turns out after the virus recedes it may have left little souvenirs in major organs so, three months from now, my GP wants me to have a pulmonary function test, chest x-ray, echo-cardiogram and various blood panels. It truly is the gift that goes on giving.