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The mental health effects of living with the Corona virus for long periods

long covid

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

I go to The Strand at Hermosa Beach every week and enjoy the fresh air. Most weeks, I get there and the sun is setting, the sky is a cream-orange-purple-pink color, and the clouds are fluffy. The predictability of this place calms me: the salty air, the sounds of lapping waves, the crackling of runners, the chirping of seagulls and the wind dancing on the sand. My visits allow me to have a clear slate for the week and reflect on my progress mentally and physically.

About two and a half years ago, I started showing symptoms of COVID-19. But unlike my friends and family members who recovered from the infection, some of my symptoms persisted. It would take dozens of medical and doctor’s appointments to make sure I had COVID for a long time.

I’m a data journalist for the Los Angeles Times and have a deep appreciation for spreadsheets, so my instinct has been to keep track of my symptoms.

My planner has become a living document detailing the good and bad days using color-coded dots to indicate how I feel. I used a more thorough approach, tracking a spreadsheet every time I had shortness of breath, dropped blood pressure or lost my voice. In fact, while taking notes was useful for taking doctor’s appointments, the process of collecting daily data for a year took its toll on me.

I wanted to believe that keeping my accurate data would lead to answers from my doctors, a precious “aha” moment that everyone with a rare disorder craves. But by the late summer of 2021, I was completely overwhelmed by the test results and research I came across in my long COVID support group and the fact that no single doctor had a perfect solution for dealing with my symptoms.

There were days when I had to make calls to get the earliest available appointments, give interviews, go to one or two doctor’s appointments and analyze data, as well as manage my daily life. The doctors kept saying, “We don’t know anything yet” and “Let’s try this new drug, but we’ll have to monitor you for two to three months.” This, combined with the news I was covering every day, made me feel like I was going deeper and deeper into the dark ocean.

My doctors told me that if I didn’t schedule a break, my body would take one for me. So I took a step back from work and said “yes” to take care of myself. I am very fortunate to have a supportive employer, family and friends and the financial means to go on vacation. Rest is critical after the coronavirus, but unfortunately the systems in this country do not support the mental health well or the physical health needs of the people who need it most. My vacation allowed me to focus on my health and my health only, rather than trying to juggle five things at once.

I realized that as much as I enjoy collecting data, it was time to let go of my personal symptoms spreadsheet and shift my focus and energy and be kinder to myself.

I replaced my spreadsheet with an Apple Watch and spent more time outside, focusing on gains I could make while walking — each day a little bit longer and harder. It freed up my mind to think about what I really enjoy. I started drawing while on vacation to continue using my creative side, especially since I didn’t write much. At first, it allowed me to escape on the worst days of my life, but over the past few months, it has evolved into much more than that.

Drawing allows me to express myself in a way that I don’t in reporting, writing, and analyzing data. It’s the one space in my life where I don’t have a deadline, a color palette to stick to, or a specific routine I need to follow. My paintings are often cotton candy clouds that I see on the beach at 7 p.m. These moments allowed me to leave my body for just a minute and focus on the wet paint and bright pinks and prepare me to sit on the sand and watch the horizon and ocean melt into each other.

Drawing also allows me to find balance and flexibility to continue helping others. Besides shifting tracking of my personal data, I’ve also shifted from tracking daily coronavirus cases to doing longer interviews with other patients for extended periods of COVID. I am able to empathize with a whole group of young people, like myself, who are facing learning to live with a chronic illness much earlier than they ever imagined. Although I enjoy doing interviews, some of them remind me of my early days of trying to get the care I need and leave me wanting to do something more to help these people. These days, drawing gives me a place to unwind from the medical trauma people share with me and continue to work.

And even though my symptoms diminish, I can still move and allow time to paint, even if I’m not at my worst. There’s nothing like peeling plastic off a new canvas, squirting a little acrylic paint onto my palette and letting the brush glide, catching the sunset again.

What to do when you catch COVID-19 (or something else)

2022 Los Angeles Times.
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