From late February into early March, I battled a respiratory illness I feared might be COVID-19, but then I got better. I’d started climbing mountains again — just boring ones to condition for major summer ascents. Then on 3/22, I was in the middle of an online yoga class when it happened: a shadow eclipsed my energy just as the moon slides over the sun. It’s a moment I’ll remember all my life.
Dramatic as the shift was, I made myself finish the class before collapsing in a sloppy shavasana in some sunbeams on my carpet. Having mostly stayed home for some time, I didn’t know where I’d been exposed, but I sensed a major storm on the horizon and realized I had to shop while I still could.
The next morning, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. I woke dazed. Weak. My living room, when I toddled into it, looked surreal, as though the furniture were floating an inch or two above the floor. My ears roared and I could not think. Our electronic thermometer read 97.4°. I stuck it in a glass of hot water: 97.4°. Great. All the drug stores and websites were out of stock, I knew.
The idea of phoning the local test line and waiting to get through, then getting vetted or whatever, and perhaps actually driving somewhere to wait in a car line seemed about as doable as climbing Mount Rainier that afternoon. I once had Dengue fever with a temp of 104°, and this felt worse.
Around 11:00 that morning, I decided a fresh orange might help. I had a bag of navel oranges, so I stood in the kitchen peeling one. But instead of the peel curling off in one piece, as with a tangerine, all I could pull off were pieces maybe the size of my thumb or thumbnail. I kept trying to roll off a strip, and the peel kept breaking. Each time, I felt more overwhelmed. Finally, setting down the half peeled-orange, I thought, Why, oh why, did I imagine I could DO this?! Oh my god! Oranges are so stupid! My face was, I’m sure, a mask of Greek tragedy. I wanted to cry.
That’s another moment I’ll never forget. But I’m too sick now to keep writing. More tomorrow.
[Got worse again. Took a 3-day break]
What I’ve noticed over the course of my illness (I’m al-most well after 2 weeks) is that my experience with COVID-19 in many ways mirrored my experience with alcoholism. I like to think, at 25 years sober, that my reactions to life have transformed through working the steps. But dancing with this illness has shown me they haven’t. It’s only my AWARENESS of reactions to life that have changed. And that awareness usually arrives, unfortunately, only in retrospect.
Stage 1: Hangover / wiped out by initial symptoms
After a binge, I would always feel like death warmed over. In my longing to feel okay, I’d make all kinds of resolutions to live in a healthier way. Similarly, when I first got C-19, I vowed to do all I could to help my body fight it.
Stage 2: Feeling Better / business as usual
As soon as the worst of my hangover used to pass, I’d start rationalizing why it was fine for me to have a “cocktail” or “nice glass of wine,” etc. After all, I was way smarter than your average alcoholic, and I’d be able to manage my drinking. Similarly, as soon as I felt somewhat better from COVID-19 on Day 3, I dismissed all my resolutions about helping my body. Pride kicked in: Wasn’t I super fit? Hadn’t a doctor told me just a week before that my blood pressure was ideal for someone 40 years younger? I’d shrug off this virus like a 20-year-old! I started working online with 2 clients a day, still washing dishes, caring for the pets, and trying to tidy up after my son who, home from college, was sick, too. By Friday, Day 6, I was teaching 4 clients a day, though my doctor had confirmed COVID-19 through a virtual visit.
Stage 3: Seeing insanity / getting scared
When did I recognize that alcoholism was going to kill me? Those moments were awash in so many symptoms of end-stage alcoholism (depression/despair, distorted thinking, self-loathing, etc.) that the memory is hard to tease out. But there came a day when I glimpsed my own self-destructive insanity. With COVID-19, on Day 6, my ribs were tight and I’d lost some sense of smell, but I found these symptoms somehow amusing and went ahead teaching. Then, while the last client was taking a bathroom break, I coughed.
My lungs, I discovered, were thoroughly congested. They sounded like bagpipes. Horrified, I called my doctor, who prescribed an inhaler.
Stage 4: Hitting bottom / reaching out
Surrender comes only when we’ve exhausted every other option. In 1995, I attended my first AA meeting as an alternative to suicide. With COVID-19, on Day 7 I realized neither the inhaler nor breathing steam was making a dent in the lung congestion. The virus was dug-in and thriving. I recognized that I was 59 years old and this virus was too mutated for my habituated immune system to trump. I felt the fringes of panic, hyperventilating with my tight, constricted ribs.
That’s when I called a New York man with whom I’d never spoken before. We’d attended the same college but not known each other then. What I DID know through a mutual friend was that he had COVID-19 and was one week ahead of me. I used Facebook messenger to leave a desperate, rambling voicemail. He called back.
“Are you staying in bed?” he asked.
“No.” My long To-Do list and mortgage payment came to mind. “I can’t.”
“Well, you need to,” he said. “You need to stop everything.”
“Yeah, but I –”
“Just stop. Just get in bed. You need to make getting well your only work.”
Stage 5: Willingness
So you know what I did? I got in bed. I cancelled all my clients and stayed in bed for 5 days. The house became a pig-stye. I signed up for Netflix and binge-watched Giri/Haji. And because two nurses advised it, in addition to steaming and gargling with salt water and spraying Simply Saline up my nose 3 x a day, I went for a brisk 30-minute walk each day to work my lungs, streaming with sweat and being vigilant to stay at least 20 feet from other pedestrians.
After following this regime for 4 days, I hit my first pink cloud. During my walk on day 11, I suddenly felt a little energy spurt. I felt almost normal for a brief window and could see the beauty of the world. The cherry blossoms were out, and so were whole families who loved each other. I heard laughter and squeals; I saw a mom teaching her son to ride a bike, running alongside him while the dad, carrying a little one, called out excitedly, “You’ve got it! You’ve got it!”
I wept, thinking how beautiful life is, what a magnificent journey it is to inhabit a body and be part of the material world, even with all its trials and tribulations.
Stage 6: Gratitude and Service
Today is Day 15 and I’m not well, but I’m feeling vastly better. My lungs have cleared — just a tad wheezy — and my temperature is down (my mom mailed me a spare thermometer). Headache and fatigue are my sole symptoms. Friends have showered me with well-wishes, groceries, take-out, and home-cooked meals dropped on my doorstep. I finally got tested three days ago and will probably hear back tomorrow.
But someone else is getting tested as well: my almost-94-year-old mom’s primary caregiver. Mom lives alone, usually with hired help, but until the test results come back, no caregiver will visit. If the caregiver’s test comes back positive and my mom proves infected, I’ll be able to move back home to take care of her, tag-teaming with my son (who recovered in just 3 days). Further, once I’ve got my official test results in hand and am 100% healthy, I’ll qualify to donate my hard-earned antibodies in plasma to help others recover.
I may even try to organize my AA fellows who’ve likewise recovered from C-19 to offer services to quarantined sick people who lack a supportive circle of friends such as we’re blessed with in the program.
In other words, exactly as with recovery from alcoholism, my difficult past — all the pains and fears I’ve walked through in fighting this virus — will make me more useful to others. And to that, I look forward eagerly.