What It’s Like to Have Covid-19 Symptoms for 5 Months
In March, I tested positive for Covid-19, well before there was a curve that needed flattening. The grueling road to recovery has tested every fiber of my being, and it’s far from over. This is life as a long-hauler.
It’s a weird thing having Covid-19. It’s full of contradictions. You’re part of this morbid zeitgeist but, at the same time, stigmatized. There are peaks and valleys of varying degrees: The lingering primal fear of thinking you might not wake up the next morning followed by the unfettered relief and joy when you start to turn a corner. You assume you’re getting better, but really your body is in the eye of a viral storm. Tons of people send you love, but you can’t touch your loved ones. For some, Covid-19 is a blessedly short experience. For others, those of us the world has dubbed “long-haulers,” the journey doesn’t end when you finally test negative.
My story started with a road trip.
On March 15, I drove from New York to Washington, D.C. with my husband, Mike, and our demonic cat, Salem. Initial plans for a vacation had been scrapped as the world started to shut down, so my mom’s house sounded like a good place to be. I wasn’t alone in this instinct. Hordes of fellow millennial runaways were fleeing to their childhood homes as Earth began its proverbial descent down the rabbit hole. What makes me somewhat more unique is that on March 20, I would be counted among the first wave of people diagnosed with the coronavirus in the United States. Almost four months later, the repercussions of the virus continue to plague me.
For some, Covid-19 is a blessedly short experience. For others, those of us the world has dubbed “long-haulers,” our journey doesn’t end when you finally test negative.
Driving south from New York, I distinctly remember thinking how little I’d eaten the last few days. My appetite had simply vanished. I chalked this up to stress — I’m a teacher of young, rambunctious humans, and it had been an improvised dash to the spring break finish line as schools shuttered and Zoomland began. Loss of appetite is now recognized as a hallmark, early symptom of Covid-19, but four months ago — which by 2020 standards, is roughly two years — the flow of information was less an orderly stream of facts and more of a dam bursting with uncertainty, confusion, and fear.
That was Sunday. By Monday, I clocked 14 hours of sleep. On Tuesday, I woke up with a high fever, and from there, it was downhill. The next 10 days were a blur, and despite three trips to the emergency room, I was never kept overnight because, “You’re 31 and otherwise healthy, so you won’t die from this.” Aahhh, what we know now, my friends.
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Mind you, I consider myself a sturdy broad. I’m only five feet, three inches tall, but I enjoy red wine, meat, and potatoes, and I wrangle young children for a living. And yet, this Covid-19 Sturm und Drang quite literally floored me. In addition to a persistently high fever, I couldn’t keep food down for days. I had extreme body aches — it felt as though my legs were being flayed and the muscles stripped from the bone. I would sweat through a mattress while simultaneously feeling so cold I had to layer up. My heart would pound absurdly fast. I once clocked 150 beats per minute (resting heart rate) at the hospital. I developed mild pneumonia, although I was lucky it left my lungs intact. I was in such physical pain I couldn’t really sleep. Despite being physically and mentally depleted, I found myself suspended in that horrible in-between state where you’re not really awake but you’re certainly not dreaming.
What really sums up Covid-19 for me is this: At one point in my plague-fueled stupor, I ordered Little Women on demand (the one starring Saoirse Ronan) — and found myself relating a little too closely. When Beth dies, I thought to myself, I feel as sick as Beth. I know exactly how she feels, and I would feel better if I died. But I don’t want to die. I swiftly turned off the television and launched into a staring contest with the creepy American Girl dolls who still reside in my childhood bedroom. As I emerged from the “acute” stage of chest X-rays, intravenous fluids, and spirometers, I began to take stock of what I’d just been through.
I turned 32 on March 30, on the top floor of the house where I’d been quarantined for two and a half weeks. In the throes of Covid-19, my husband would drive me to and from the hospital, while wearing a mask, of course, and my mother would leave things I needed on the landing. On my birthday, they joined me upstairs (while still keeping a distance). It was the first nonhospital human interaction I’d had for what felt like forever. I was deemed “recovered” on April 3 when I met the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements for a clean bill of health. Like a good millennial, I had documented the entire experience on Instagram in moments of lucidity. That was my spring break project — in lieu of traveling or decompressing poolside.
Mind you, I consider myself a sturdy broad. I’m only five feet, three inches tall, but I enjoy red wine, meat, and potatoes, and I wrangle young children for a living.
My school and boss could not have been more supportive during this ordeal. Teaching four- and five-year-olds on Zoom was like trying to ride a galloping horse backward while juggling live cats, but the new truncated schedule of virtual (versus in-person) learning suited my recovery. Life was slowly getting back to normal, or so I hoped. Gone were the fever, aches, and pains — but now fatigue had settled in. Not the I-stayed-up-too-late-watching-HGTV-and-ran-so-many-errands tired, but the kind of weary-in-your-bones fatigue that makes your body feel as heavy as stone.
I’d Zoom with the kids in the morning, do whatever work and lesson prep needed doing, and then I’d sleep until dinner. Five-hour naps became a way of life. Copious amounts of caffeine were my fuel. The 15-step commute from my bedroom to the guest room/office was about all I could manage. Nights were spent watching The West Wing with my saintly mother and Mike or Zooming over a cocktail with friends. As the weather started to warm up and my naps gradually became shorter, I began swimming laps for exercise.
I even joined a plasma donation study and donated convalescent plasma. The idea is when someone is extremely sick with Covid-19, a transfusion of plasma containing a survivor’s antibodies can help. It felt good to pay it forward with my newfound liquid gold. I had the antibodies, and so I was, according to prevailing wisdom at the time, theoretically immune. I may have been exhausted, but I had a cool new superpower. Miraculously, my mother and husband never got sick. They were tested for the antibodies and didn’t have them, meaning they weren’t even asymptomatic.
By the time my co-workers and I hurdled ourselves across the end-of-school finish line, I felt like things were looking up. I was now swimming up to 100 lengths a day! I had more bounce in my step! Some days I didn’t even have to take a nap!
Alas, I spoke too soon.
Many women will tell you that the scariest thing you can experience in the shower is not what happens to Janet Leigh in Psycho. It’s feeling your hair run down your back in clumps. This had technically started before the end of school, but I initially chalked it up to the amount of swimming I’d been doing. The chlorine must be affecting my hair, I told myself. And my DIY, quarantine highlight job probably didn’t help things.
Five-hour naps became a way of life.
Except, it kept falling out. My shower started to look like Chewbacca after a shave. I also began to feel dizzy, lightheaded, and tired. Not the bone-heavy tired — I wasn’t even sleepy, really. I just felt better lying down — and I noticed my heart rate would now accelerate rapidly with minimal movement. My skin broke out in ways it hadn’t even as a pre-teen with braces and a training bra belting NSYNC songs while rocking bedazzled jeans.
I also started experiencing what I now know is called “brain fog.” Sometimes, I just lose my train of thought. It likely manifests as a moment of ditziness or like I’m not paying attention, which, to be fair, is not out of character even in peak health. I would walk up the stairs to get something and by the time I got there, I’d completely forget what I was there to retrieve. I’d have to rewind scenes of a show because I would “zone out” and not process any of it. I joked that I didn’t feel like enough blood was going to my brain. Turns out, that’s exactly right.
I found out from my new doctor that there are technical, Latin-ish names to describe the Covid PTSD my body is enduring.
That hair loss? Telogen Effluvium. Luckily it will (in theory) grow back in a couple of months, and I’m currently on the lookout for some fabulous Moira Rose-esque wigs to cover my rapidly thinning hair.
Then there’s the POTS, and not the cooking kind. It’s a fancy acronym for Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, which is a circulation issue. POTS is a continuum, and luckily, I have a milder case. If you have severe POTS, you can pass out upon standing up.
To round things off, this triggered thyroiditis — an inflammation of the thyroid gland which has led to me having hypothyroidism. It could be I was predisposed to this, and Covid was the express train that got me there. However, at my annual physical a week before symptoms started (fun ironic fact: I probably got Covid-19 at said doctor’s office), I had a lot of standard blood tests and my thyroid was fine. Sigh.
Still, I’m one of the lucky ones.
Some Covid-19 survivors continue to experience heart issues, blood clots, and other life-threatening complications. I’m scared that this virus is still enjoying an all-you-can-eat buffet my body is serving, but I also know I am in great hands. I have the best support system of family, friends, and doctors. I’m able to work remotely for the time being. Nobody has yet told me that I can’t drink pinot noir, so until someone says otherwise, I’ll consider it medicinal.
I was in the first wave of Americans diagnosed with the coronavirus, and though my status has shifted to the “recovered” column, my true recovery is far from over. I think of the famed Dorothy Parker quote, “What fresh hell is this?” I suspect the world can agree this is an apt slogan for 2020.