By Sheryl Kraft
I’m writing this on April 15, 2020, about seven days into my recovery from the coronavirus.
How I know I’m recovering: Last week, as I did each morning since suddenly and profoundly losing my sense of smell, I stuck my nose into a bottle of rubbing alcohol and — joy of joys! — recoiled, recognizing that familiar stinging odor. I was so elated that I wanted to dab it on all my pulse points and use it as perfume!
It all began in late March, weeks (maybe months?) into the COVID crisis. As I brushed my teeth, I was suddenly struck by a strange sensation. I felt a sudden and eerie disconnect between my nose and the room. (Odd, I know, but it’s hard to describe it any other way).
As a health writer, I’d been following the reporting on COVID virus symptoms and quickly grabbed my bottle of perfume. I frantically sprayed my wrist and leaned in, nose to wrist. Nothing. I then ran to my night table drawer and grabbed my pillow spray, which never fails to soothe me with its lovely lavender fragrance. Nose to pillow: Zero.
COVID had completely shut off one of my senses.
What followed — a test — confirmed positive on April 1. April fools? I think not. (Living in Connecticut, I was lucky enough to be able to have access to testing fairly quickly. My doctor called in the order and one day later, I obtained an appointment at a drive-through testing center at a nearby hospital. Two days after that, he phoned me with the results.)
When this whole pandemic began, I was so frightened of catching this cruel and unpredictable virus. Nevertheless, I worked hard, every day, in between my bouts of sobbing for what was happening to our world, to talk myself through my fears and doubts. Words quickly followed and I soon wrote an essay on my feelings.
I’ve never written an essay in less time or effort. I shared my wisdom about how not to think of every little twitch as a sign of something sinister. How not to panic. How to step back and think, “what else can this be?” By this time, we all had the same fears: that our sniffle, cough or upset stomach signaled Coronavirus. I was getting myself through the worry by practicing some of the same mental gymnastics I learned as a cancer survivor. (You can read those tips here: How Being a Cancer Survivor is Helping Me Cope With Coronavirus Fears.)
And then it was COVID.
All my hard-won knowledge didn’t help me now that I had the virus. Now, I faced a vast host of new fears as images of morgues, ventilators, ambulances, masks and protective gear pushed any sense of reason from my mind. Suffering, statistics and sadness. I examined each breath and became hyper-alert to every twitch.
Would I get worse? Each morning I woke up, thankful that I was still okay. Let it remain mild, please keep it this way, became my mantra.
New morning routines evolved. Reaching for the thermometer became as automatic as reaching for my toothbrush and I’d exhale only when my temperature registered a steady 97.7 degrees. Donning gloves and a mask before venturing downstairs, I’d quickly gather my coffee and breakfast before retreating to my office, mindful of keeping a safe distance from my new office-mates, my husband, son and his fiancé.
Midday meltdowns preceded much-needed naps. Taking panicked phone calls from my 89-year-old mother, now in her fourth week of sheltering in place at her assisted living residence, I couldn’t help but think of how solitary confinement can legitimately drive a person mad, even without a pandemic underway.
The days became blurred and amorphous. Losing any structure, erasing any memory of time before the pandemic. My life became the pandemic and I could concentrate on little else. I pictured the virus particles as silent missiles descending from above, my thoughts veering to images of those duck-and-cover drills of the 1960s and people hiding in bomb shelters during earlier wars. Only back then, they could see and hear the bombs. I didn’t know what was worse: being able to see and hear the enemy or being caught off-guard by a silent and potentially deadly stalker.
When we look back on our childhoods, we often say things like, “I can’t believe we ever drove in cars without seatbelts,” or “How did we ride bicycles without helmets??” After the pandemic passes, will we similarly say, “I can’t believe we used to greet people by shaking hands”? I think it’s very likely the handshake go the way of the phonebook, the milkman, the (I hate to say it) movie theater and department store.
For me there was nothing much I could do but wait it out, and I did, trying hard to work, but finding it extremely difficult to muster up any focus at all. Staying away from the news was extremely difficult, but it made me much too anxious. And so, I cut myself off for a while, preferring temporary ignorance to terror drummed up by the constant beat of tragedy.
By day eight I began to feel mentally stronger and more confident as my daily bouts of fatigue and headaches diminished and my energy steadily increased. My sense of smell returned and I began to feel assured that the virus was finally making its retreat.
I’ve been slowly feeling more secure about my health. I test my recovery with almost-daily exercise, working out on my indoor stationary bike or taking walks outside. With my restored sense of smell has come my sense of taste, so I’m now able to enjoy my favorite foods, rather than not being able to distinguish the taste of an onion from that of an apple.
Our world currently feels surreal and dystopian, suspended in a cycle of fear, helplessness, anxiety, heightened by all the things that made it off-kilter before the virus ever hit.
I realize I am one of the lucky ones. My recovery has brought relief mixed with guarded optimism and even some guilt, fueled by the incredible loss and suffering surrounding us. I hurt deeply for the world and the collapse of structure and security. Our world no longer belongs to us, but to an invisible force that is hell-bent on breaking it into tiny little pieces.
Buddhists say that “Life is 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.” Though we can’t avoid sorrows, we can look for joy. Every morning and every evening, I close my eyes, take a deep breath and tell myself three things. I invite you to do the same or share some of your own. Here are mine:
This will resolve.
The world will get back on track.
You are well.
Quick Thoughts for a Pause
Plant it and it will grow. As long as we’re waiting out this pandemic, we might as well acquire a green thumb along the way. Scope out some space and plant your own edibles. Added plus: no fighting at the produce section for the freshest stash.
Mirror, mirror on the wall. Lots of us don’t feel like we are the fairest of them all right now, especially if we’re seeing those gray roots come in as quickly as weeds grow in a garden. L’Oreal offers some practical tips for covering up your roots (including out-of-the-box ideas). Don’t want to bother with color? Consider changing up your hairstyle.
Please don’t drink the Lysol. Injecting disinfectants to protect against Coronavirus? Um, we think not. This does not “sound interesting to us.” The manufacturer isn’t onboard either.
ONE MORE THING...
Even Belle hasn’t escaped the pandemic. Like us, she’s on her way to Costco to find toilet paper. Only, where’s her mask?!
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