As a therapist who has worked with people suffering all types of illness, grief and loss, I was still entirely unprepared for my own encounter with Covid-19. It was harrowing, endless and challenging to every facet of my being. And in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, KindBody has asked me to share which aspects of my knowledge and experience helped pull me through.
It is important to note that I have a supportive husband who provided heroic care, access to outstanding medical attention and financial stability, all of which put me in a category that is not available to everyone. I also was able to manage the illness from home, narrowly escaping hospitalization. Even in my lowest moments, I was always aware that the advantages of my situation made the ordeal less grim than is true for many others and my heart is with everyone suffering from this monster of an illness.
Here are a few strategies from the perspective of recovery that made a difference:
1. Ask for help.
Encouraging people to ask for help evokes skepticism for many in a society that tends to admire and reward independence. It’s tough to show vulnerability and admit you need assistance, in whatever form. Some people fear they will be perceived as weak or incompetent, lazy or unstable. On the contrary, I know that exposing what makes us human promotes intimacy, reduces anxiety, minimizes burden and is just plain necessary for everyone
Even so, I initially avoided calling attention to my symptoms, not wanting to worry anyone or be the object of pity, and I felt certain my husband and I could handle whatever came my way. I’m healthy with no underlying medical conditions, so I assumed it would be annoying but no different than any other virus that comes and goes. That all changed several days into the onset of symptoms after I started encountering raging fevers, body aches, stomach upset and inability to eat, fainting spells, muscle weakness, debilitating chills, soaking sweats and dehydration. I could barely walk the 10 steps to the bathroom and taking a shower was out of the question. Once it became clear that I was seriously ill, the light bulb went on and I realized we could no longer go it alone without the advice, guidance and fortification from others. It was a relief to have input from friends in the medical field and colleagues and friends offering to problem solve while we concentrated on survival.
2. Become informed but not overwhelmed.
In the counseling role, it is not uncommon for patients to express distress over a perceived problem before any information has been gathered to confirm the trouble. Maybe he or she is concerned their job is in jeopardy because of a suspicion the boss is snubbing them (with no hard evidence), or they sense a change in their body that conjures up a grave diagnosis before a check-in with a doctor. Fear can prevent us from gaining knowledge because we want to evade bad news (as we are blindly preparing for the worst) and avoidance feels like the lesser evil.
During the acute phase of Covid and even in recovery, I found myself vacillating between wanting to nail down the truth and preferring total ignorance. Because I have access to top-notch medical care and a long-term relationship with a responsive and extraordinary primary care physician, I was being monitored regularly via telemedicine and was able to receive up-to-date appraisals of my condition. At the same time, it’s the NOVEL coronavirus. I had a fairly early case and our wisdom about the condition is limited. As I tip toed into the reporting on what to expect and heard about the agonizing experiences and deaths of those who were hospitalized, I started to imagine the worst. I wanted to be informed and participate in decisions about my care, but my ability to think clearly and evaluate what I was learning was seriously compromised. Relying on my doctor and reducing the influence of nonstop Covid-19 updates felt like the best solution.
In the meantime my own health status was deteriorating, days turned into weeks and I couldn’t imagine ever recuperating. The fevers raged on and after the third alarming fainting spell, we found a local clinic to administer IV fluids in order to avoid the hospital admission that my doctor thought was needed. It was here that I received the diagnosis of pneumonia, a low oxygen saturation level and the recommendation to go to the hospital the next day if my fevers hadn’t subsided. Looking back, this was the lowest and scariest moment.
3. Seek peer support.
Professional opinions are invaluable and the love of friends and family essential, but in the face of adversity there is nothing quite like finding out you are not alone in an experience that is considered outside the norm. After facilitating numerous support groups over the years and being moved to tears many times by the power of peer support, I wondered if there was such a resource I could tap into.
Luckily, I ended up finding it in an unlikely place: from CNN journalist and anchor, Chris Cuomo. We don’t know each other but Chris documented on live television, the course of his Covid-19 saga at the precise moment in time that I was enduring my own battle. I found I could relate to his descriptions of the toll it was taking on his mind, body and spirit and to his reactions to setbacks and the grueling fevers. It’s true I had to assume he was not in the predicament I was in, since I could barely stand up and here he was performing in front of a camera, but it was still reassuring to hear someone’s story that was similar to my own. I was also relieved to see that even with breathing difficulties, Chris was managing his illness at home.
From the beginning, my worst fear, as I imagine it is for anyone going through this, is that I would end up alone and on a ventilator in an overcrowded hospital. Consequently when the clinic doctor sounded the alarm and advised hospitalization if my fevers didn’t subside, I feared I was in terrible trouble. The next day came and not surprisingly, my temperature of upwards of 102 had not run its course.
My energy reserves were depleted and even the smallest movements required monumental effort. Chicken broth or the dreaded Gatorade were the only substances my stomach could tolerate, my entire body ached, I was light headed and chilled to the bone. But the one symptom I was spared, despite having pneumonia, was shortness of breath, and that was my saving grace.
When I discussed the clinic recommendation with my doctor, he was confident that as long as I was no longer dehydrated, stressed-to-the-max hospitals would turn me away without breathing difficulties and he felt I could manage at home. With my clear-enough lungs, I breathed a sigh of relief but it would still be a number of days before I started on the road to recovery and the fear of hospitalization loomed.
4. Consult with health professionals and social networks.
Different than asking for help, it is no secret that loved ones, therapists, clergy and other trusted confidants have the power to mitigate anxiety, rein in irrational thoughts and provide hope during a time of crisis. In a perfect world we would all have the connections we need to bolster our mental health but unfortunately, according to a 2020 Cigna Study, 61% of those surveyed are lonely, an astounding statistic. Assessing the presence or absence of a social network is an important aspect of any therapeutic process and encouraging community building a goal for everyone experiencing a void in this crucial area.
As word of my fate spread among my own cohort, I leaned on every text message and email to nourish my state of mind (phone calls required more energy than I could muster). Friends took on different roles, some acting as watchdogs, keeping track of every symptom and temperature reading, others sending daily messages of concern, and still others checking in as cheerleaders.
There were times when the physical discomfort was so acute, I felt it could be the end and wanted it to be over at any cost. One exceptional friend granted me the space to imagine my demise and listened to the most difficult and painful fears. At just the right moment, when she felt I had been hopeless long enough, another comrade kicked in some tough love and demanded that I start fighting back. And always, my husband, son and daughter-in-law kept me grounded and focused on recovery. Every gesture from this network, big and small, registered and I am convinced, saved my life.
5. Stay distracted whenever possible.
Denial can be a problem if it results in unhealthy or unsafe behavior, or prevents us from gaining insight that might enhance our lives. But distraction is a great tool to provide a break from suffering and pass the time with less distress. While communicating with friends and family was restorative, we were most often focused on the raging war inside of me rather than turning my attention away from reality. Fortunately, I did have a secret weapon to keep my mind occupied on other matters.
There were certainly Netflix shows to watch, which became part of my routine, but with no appetite for reading, my preferred downtime activity, I gave in to the addiction I am always fighting: animal videos. There were plenty of dogs and cats to admire but I was open to almost any furry beast out there, and I will be forever grateful to the videographers who provided much needed relief during the endless days and nights of my battle with Covid-19.
On day 18 the spiked temperatures finally lifted for good and it was time for recovery. Although a sense of well-being has not come as quickly as I imagined, the strategies that carried me through the illness have continued to work in this phase.
1) I have asked for help, especially from friends and colleagues in the medical field who can talk science.
2) My doctor still follows my progress and provides his perspective on residual symptoms.
3) I discovered an online peer forum for survivors of Covid-19 that is a wealth of information and support, but can be overwhelming as I learn about the long-term impact of the disease, so I limit my exposure.
4) I no longer have to rely on friends to get me through every minute, but I draw strength in every way from their support and hope we have returned to more reciprocal relationships.
5) I’m trying to wean myself from animal videos with limited success.