I’ll preface this blog by saying I’m one of the lucky ones. I can still work. I can even work full time. And I am, (over multiple months), still getting better. Many aren’t so fortunate. Yet the difference between my long covid experience and many people I know who got covid but not long covid is also huge. In short, they got sick for a few days or a week and maybe skipped gynn for a fortnight. I spent eight days in bed, then aged around thirty years for nearly three months. Its not yet four months and I’m still not returned to my pre-covid state of health. So how did long covid change my body, mind and life?
It Was Hard to Tell At First
Four days before I tested positive to covid, I’d been recovering from a chest infection. Both illnesses put me in bed for eight days, but it was easier to breathe with covid. And the splitting headache and scratchy throat faded in just three days. It didn’t seem as bad as the chest infection. Lying in bed, I was capable of reading books and didn’t feel too bad. Then I tried getting up and was completely out of breath having walked around ten steps to the kitchen to get food. I remember leaning on the bench to catch my breath and not being able to consider why I was in the kitchen until I’d caught it.
Showering was tiring, especially drying myself, which also left me breathless. Finding the energy to climb out of bed and walk a few steps to the armchair at the end of my bed and sit up while eating dinner (with my feet up) felt like an achievement. My body ached and felt as heavy as lead. I concluded that I only felt ‘fine’ while sitting still and spent eight days lying or sitting still as much as possible.
Disclaimer: I don’t remember the first three weeks after testing positive very well. My brain fog was so bad, my lucidity so absent that I wandered about in a disorientated daze, acting out of habit and instinct, not consciously, nor properly thinking about almost anything.
I’ve Aged Thirty Years
But I have a job and need an income. And I’d never experienced anything that took such a physical toll on my less than forty-year-old body before. A chest infection in 2019 took around three months to fully recover from, but I didn’t realise covid had hit me harder until I returned to work. The short walk from my car to my classroom had me puffing like a steam strain. Manually opening four blinds in the classroom had the same effect, with loud groaning from the physical strain of opening each blind. Sitting in my teacher chair as much as possible, and minimising time on my feet was clearly key to making it through the work day and the work week.
I teach small groups of children sitting on the floor. So every time I got up was around a thirty or forty second procedure of careful leg positioning, using my hands to support myself and load groaning. Getting up off the floor was hard. I’d aged. Still, I taught Reading and Writing. Then it was lunch time. And I was so tired I was ready to go home and sleep. But there was still three hours of teaching left. And a one-hour staff meeting after that.
By Thursday, I had to cut explicit teaching short in the third or forth hour of teaching, because my brain suddenly melted out of my ears. I was modelling short division. Its a multi step process, but suddenly I didn’t know which step I was on. Or the step I’d just modelled. Or the step that came next. My brain just shut down and I didn’t know what I was doing. This remained the case for the forth hour of teaching onwards on a Thursday, and Friday for several weeks.
My body wasn’t what it was. My mind wasn’t what it was. I felt like I’d suddenly aged thirty years mentally and physically.
My Long Covid Body (weeks 1-3)
During that first week back at school, I slowly realised that my body was remaining heavy. My movements were always slow, and awkward and my limbs just didn’t move properly. Explicit teaching and anything that required any physical strain at all, like getting up after sitting on the floor, unstacking the dishwasher or walking twenty steps continued to make me very short of breath. By 4pm my body would start to shut down. If there wasn’t a staff meeting, I’d leave my classroom messy, not look at what materials tomorrow’s learning required, drop everything and go home to bed.
By the end of my second week back at work I was managing to start some of the paperwork I had to get done after teaching hours. On days there was no after-school meeting. My body was still shutting down by 5pm and I was still spending each night lying in bed for a few hours, before dragging myself out of bed for a shower and dinner around 8pm-9pm.
My third week back at work I somehow worked till 6pm for two nights to finish that after hour’s paperwork. And went straight to bed every other night. I was very proud of myself for getting the paperwork done, and in hindsight not properly conscious of my poor physical state.
Long Covid Brain Fog (weeks 1-3)
I mentioned above that my physical movements were awkward and clumsy. My brain was mentally the same. I was delighted to discover that as an experienced teacher, I had an autopilot for not just the dozen or so most common things we do on a daily basis in teaching, but more like the thirty most common things. I could run my classroom moderately well on auto-pilot. Thank God for that! Because my brain fog was so severe that if I had to run that classroom fully conscious of every decision I made as a teacher every moment of every lesson: I wouldn’t have made it through the first hour of my teaching day, let alone the next four.
Things I was not mentally capable of included: problem-solving, critical thinking, decision-making (unless I could default to prior experience via mental autopilot), focusing on more than one thing at a time, and thinking beyond that one thing I was doing. Mentally, I was barely fit to teach. But the thing I struggled more with is that I simply couldn’t write. Making sense in social media messages and posts was the limit of my writing ability. Forget blogs like this one, forget author newsletters or short stories. As for my second novel, for which I’d sat on feedback from critical readers and been waiting for work to calm down for three months so I could edit it? Now way Hose! Fiction writing was cancelled until further notice.
I’m very glad I had that severe chest infection back in 2019. I’d done the whole, ‘But I’ve been sick for a week, why am I not getting any better? When will I get better? What if I never fully recover?’ thing back then. I knew that my chest was week, and if a chest infection could set my body back for three months: covid would knock me out for at least that long. So I celebrated my body aches ceasing. I celebrated being out of my isolating sick bed, out of bedroom confinement, being able to talk to housemates and my students face to face and enjoying social company again.
Oh, My Body is Still Fucked
By the end of my second week back at work I’d gone an entire month without exercise. As someone who normally runs 4km four nights a week, and prefers two to three-hour long walks on weekends: that was an eternity. Spring weather was improving, and there are some lovely sunny tracks in nearby mountains that I was only halfway through exploring. I’d managed to drag myself up the stairs to the summit at the end of my eight days in bed with covid, so surely I was ready to go for a decent length weekend walk again? NO. I. Was. Not.
I had to take the start of the walk slowly because the uphill slope was hard work. But my legs were craving every step. My respiratory system craved being pushed to work even a third as hard as my pulmonary system seemed to have to work just keeping me on my feet. And by the time I’d reached a high point in the mountains, overlooking gum trees and boulders and paddocks below and beyond, I felt great! Exercise is SO important for my mental and emotional wellbeing. Its something I have always found incredibly freeing, and being physically fit and strong has always helped me to feel empowered and capable as a person.
That’s why I was able to walk far enough that I had stabbing pains in my left shoulder. Pain perhaps akin to heart attack pain. I slowed right down. I dawdled for forty-five minutes longer than I should have walked at all, because I had to get back to my car. Monday at work was ok. Tuesday was meetings all day. By Wednesday my lower back was inflamed and sensitive to the touch. Standing was painful and uncomfortable. Sitting was worse. I couldn’t lie down without taking painkillers.
Physical or Mental Health?
By Friday of my third week back at school I was off work, in bed and on prescription painkillers (I saw my doctor a few times around then). It took three days in bed for the inflammation to go down and to downgrade from prescription to non-prescription pain killers. I was taking those non-prescription painkillers for a week and a half. It seemed that the physical exercise I longed for and craved was more than my covid weakened heart and body was capable of. But I was now at a critical juncture.
I mentioned above that physical exercise is freeing, and being physically capable helps me feel capable and contended full stop. It’s what regulates my usually highly energetic body and helps me sleep at night. If I was going to recover from covid, get back into a normal sleep cycle and rest properly, I HAD to get back into exercise. My physical health needs were at war with my physical health needs.
And that wasn’t the only battle. By this stage I’d been sick for four weeks. I’m a very resilient person. I’m also quick to smile, quick to laugh, likely to see beauty in things and normally an excitable and enthusiastic person whose mind operates at an average speed of a hundred miles an hour. When I’m sick, I’m none of those things. My mind was slow, dull and at partial, extremely limited operation. And I felt FLAT. So emotionally flat. I wasn’t sad or depressed. But smiling and laughing took so much energy. I just didn’t have the energy to be emotional —good or bad. Happiness was beyond me —until I got my energy back.
Past Experience Helped
I’d been there before. During that 2019 chest infection (in New Zealand, where no friends or family could visit, cheer or help me in person) I’d realised that the only thing standing between me and depression was exercise and my beloved great outdoors. I’d dragged myself out of bed for a half hour walk through a reserve of beautiful ferns and tropical rainforest, through which bright sunlight beamed and beside which a creek flowed. For those precious, hard earned, fleeting moments each day I was happy. Exercise and the great outdoors gave me a reason to wake up each morning (or to wake up and not cry because I had another day of being severely ill and alone to endure.)
So with Long Covid, the solution was obvious: push my body. Find out exactly how much exercise I could do without giving myself a heart attack, how often and do it!
The Physical Battle (weeks 3-7)
It may not surprise you that by week four of long covid I was not ready for physical exercise. In hindsight, I wasn’t really ready for a 20 minute walk two or three times a week (on work nights). I was gasping for air and hit by chest pains after 500m. I was also physically tired and walking hunched, being overtaken by an old guy who was hooked up to oxygen tubes -I shit you not! That’s when I conceded that ‘exercise’ was too lofty an ambition. That all I could aspire to was getting out of bloody buildings, for a breath of fresh air and a moment to feel the breeze on my face and assure myself that the in-accesible world of the outdoors still existed and would wait until however long it took for me to inhabit it again.
So I did a painfully short, 750m walk down the round, round the field then back home three times in week four. My chest and back pain gradually receded. The next week (week 5) I extended my walk to 1.6km and a little garden beyond the field. That went well for two days, so I went further along the track near the garden, walking slowly 2.6km. Then temptation struck again, and on Sunday I walked the full 4km loop to cross a river I hadn’t reached on foot for two months. I felt fantastic! This was actual physical exercise! And it was clearing my brain fog, and energising me! For an hour or two afterwards, I actually felt like myself again!
I Got Carried Away
I did the 4km river loop twice more that week, after work. Naturally, I got chest pains and had to take painkillers and not walk at all for the last two work days of week six. Ok, ok, fine then body! I’ll limit myself to half an hour’s exercise three work nights a week and only one longer walk on the weekend! (A concession that in hindsight was still too much.)
But how to remove the temptation of walking too far? I turned to a short loop with no longer options, a mostly flat route, without the stairs that had given me grief in the mountains. And for three weeks I only walked locally, only short distances. And conceded that up to four weeks after having covid was too soon to realistically expect to return to exercise and that the best I could do now was stretch my legs, get fresh air and enjoy the sun and wind of my face and watch the birds chitter and dart through the bushes as I walked past.
The Turning Point (week 8)
From weeks three to six, it was hard to tell if I was getting physically or mentally better, or if some symptoms subsided while exercise attempts flared others. And work got busy or I got tired at times and missed one of my half-hour walks, so it was hard to gauge if I was getting physically fitter or stronger. Until school holidays. I spent around three days lying in bed. Then for the next week, week 8 since I’d returned to work, I’d go for a 1-2 hr walk in the evening, after spending the day lying on the couch.
Those long walks and resting before and after them were the turning point. After the first two-hour walk my head was clear and I felt energised for the next four hours. I upgraded from social media posts to writing newsletters, editing blogs and by the Wednesday: writing a full chapter-length bonus scene for my debut YA Fantasy novel. By Wednesday, the brain fog and fatigue didn’t return the day after I exercised. It seemed that going for a second walk within twenty four hours of the first kept both at bay. I would get tired. And I still had to sit comfortably resting for much of the day, but my body and brain ceased reaching a point where they shut down and I had to go straight to bed each evening. I began fiddling about on social media and authorly jobs until 10pm (as opposed to 7pm in recent work weeks).
I was Back!
The proof came when on the Friday, after three months of being too sick to be mentally capable, I returned to editing my second YA Fantasy book. During week nine since having covid, I smashed through eleven chapters of edits. By Friday of week nine (mid October), I went for my first run since June. Like my first mountain walk after having covid, it was probably fuelled almost entirely by restless energy, exercise cravings and a massive endorphin hit. My second attempt to run the same 4km loop around the river in week 12 saw me jogging slower than walking for the last half, and my blood sugar so low I had desperate sugar cravings and was jittery and giddy by the time I got home.
The Way Forwards (3.5 months after catching covid)
I’m still not the 36 year-old I was before having covid. Interestingly, with my returned mental energy and the return of my ADHD tendencies, I’m more distractible and require higher levels of stimulation than I used to. Week 11 was my second back at work this term. I had to be careful not to mentally wander from meetings, and have accepted that 2-4km walks three times a week after work and a 1-2 hour walk on the weekend is the most exercise I can do, after the rigours of a work day/ week. Running is off the cards after work until January (summer holidays).
While my brain fog appears completely annihilated by week 8’s exercise, I can still get physically and mentally tired and require more rest from the same workload than before I got covid. I often wake with an aching chest on a Saturday morning, after a busy week, especially if I sleep poorly. Perhaps every second Saturday I mainly lie in bed doing nothing in anyway mentally taxing, to let my body and brain recover from a busy working week. And while a busy term four often requires me to work on student reports till 6-7pm (having started work at 8am), I’m tending to lie in bed after that (and after my walk 😉).
But I’ve been working till 7pm at times with only tiredness, not mental or physical shut downs or strong fatigue determining my work hours. 76 year-old me has pissed off to the future where it belongs, and I’m back to 36 year old me, with twenty something-year-old mental energy, still fighting for my full exercise, strength and physical capacity. (I hope to be running 4km four nights a week again in January, six months after I got covid. Hopefully carrying the shopping for a 5min walk home will no longer require a lie down to rest and recover either).
*Week 15 Addendum
Chronic pain has been back all week. The only potential ‘over doing it’ thing I did was a one hour shopping trip on a Friday night, meaning one hour less rest after a busy working week. I’m not even sure that’s why I’ve just woken from 13 hours sleep on a Thursday night, and am off work today having worked only two days this week. Clearly my covid recovery is not linear, and will have ups and downs and periods where my body demands extra rest just to function normally again. My hard fought for fitness remains, but it seems that those later work hours are more than my body can keep up with and that pacing myself at work remains crucial.
A Final Note
A final note: I still teach and shop wearing a mask. I feel uncomfortable being in the same room as three or more people if I’m unmasked. The prospect of having to go through all of this again (let alone having a worse second experience of covid) is unthinkable. My mental health is better off not thinking about it, masking up and avoiding crowds as much as possible.
Thanks for sharing my covid journey with me! If you haven’t had covid yet, I hope yours is MUCH milder and you recover far more swiftly than I did!
If you suspect you or someone you know may have long covid, here’s some information and general advice on managing symptoms from the not-for-profit HelpGuide.
Personal posts are something I’m publishing occasionally when I think I have something significant to say. The other post I’ve written that ticks this box is my experience of Identifying as Nonbinary.