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It's funny, we've been dealing with covid almost three years. There have been over a million cases of covid in my state of Maryland alone, yet if you tell someone you caught it, you might as well tell people you got a venereal disease from a debaucherous weekend in Cabo. Maybe if we work on the stigma, we might see some progress.
My family caught covid for the first time, a few weeks ago. My daughter had a runny nose on Monday night, we figured it was allergies. But she woke Tuesday morning destroyed and an at-home test confirmed our fears with two dark lines. She donned a mask and was quarantined to her room but my husband and I had symptoms by that afternoon and by Thursday were also getting two dark lines on the at-home covid test.
When you tell someone you have covid, the first question asked is where you think you got it. This shows how three years into this “new normal,” folks still do not understand covid. Acting like it's an STD and not an airborne illness, you're expected to go through your engagement calendar and admit what escapades transpired. The thing is, you may not know where you got it. You may have literally walked through the cough of an individual who you never see, who darted into a car or coffee shop before you crossed their path.
You can wear masks indoors, shy from large gatherings, get your vaccine and boosters, and still get covid. And even with those masks and boosters, you can still get bad enough covid that you know what you experienced, your elderly relative or friend with a suppressed immune system may not be able to handle. And my fellow grown-ass women? We're at serious risk for long-term effects from the C word.
After playing psychic and trying to guess where you caught covid, you then go through the song and dance of how careful you have been. How you still wear a mask at the grocery store, the bank, the mall. How you've gotten your boosters, you traded the germy gym for an at-home Peloton bike, small concert venues for outdoor amphitheaters. You've been good.
The thing is, when you catch covid and you go through this song and dance of proving your goodness you realize all the ways you have gotten lazy since Lockdown. You only had to run in and grab a latte to go, you leave your mask in your pocket. You meet friends for dinner; you wear a mask to the table but don't put it on the rest of the night as you laugh, hug, lean in to talk in a lower tone, maybe even offer a bite of your dessert, kiss cheeks goodnight. It's okay it's not for long, the place wasn't very busy, it's just with friends and family and you know they've also “been good.”
We've all experienced trauma from this period of time, even if we haven't lost a loved one or contracted the virus. But like childbirth, our brains try to forget the trauma and forge on. But you know what? Even though Biden states otherwise, we're still in the middle of a pandemic that while isn't killing as many of us, it is still infecting a lot of us. Even if individuals are vaccinated and boosted and “being good,” Covid is has folks weeks out of commission and for some, months and years of lingering symptoms.
The C Word Stigma
My daughter begged me to not tell her teachers she was absent due to covid. Her classmates who missed school for covid were teased, while those who had the regular flu received sympathy. After one week out of school, we agreed I had to tell her teachers, who had already assumed such, but were glad to have more information to explain her being home so many days.
I spent my entire time sick emailing brands and organizations I work with, explaining that I can't shoot that content right now, I can't attend that event, I am late in replying to that email, I missed the cutoff for that opportunity because I have covid. The responses are usually sympathetic, a few have been snide. The most popular response is, “I'm so sorry. I haven't gotten it yet!”
I haven't gotten it… yet. It's a boast with foreshadowing. Sorry for your luck, mine is better… so far. Even in this moment where I am feeling superior, I know the writing is on the wall.
I did this myself before I too caught covid. “I'm so sorry you're sick! Can you believe no one in our family has gotten it yet?” I read those articles about folks who seem to be immune and thought, maybe that's us too. Maybe we're just “being so good” or maybe we just have some sort of superior genes or immune system. Nope, it was just chance and now it's our turn.
Sadly, another response I receive is the extremely diplomatic equivalent of, “tough shit.” I am so sorry to hear you're feeling under the weather, but the work is still due. I don't care if you're on death's door, a professional meets their deliverables and you're overdue.
The Many Different (and Weird) Symptoms of Covid
My daughter had textbook covid symptoms for the vaccinated and boosted. An unproductive cough, congestion, fatigue. She slept a lot (even more than a typical 13-year-old), sometimes was a brain fog zombie, but sometimes felt good enough to work on school assignments and play computer games with her friends while on a video chat app. Once the fever was over she felt great, went back to school, plenty of energy for classes and activities after school.
I on the other hand… my covid symptoms were nothing I would want another person to experience. Joint pain and muscle aches so extreme, that I struggled to walk downstairs, stepping with both feet on each step while clinging to the banister. Random pain, like the pain I had in my right thumb for two days, reminded me of when I pinched a nerve. It was electric and hot and random and I couldn't sleep. My THUMB, and just one thumb, was in such pain, and then as soon as it started it was gone.
As a person with a uterus, I noticed weird things in regard to that part of my body. Breakthrough bleeding, cramps not at the same time as ovulation or PMS, change in discharge. I had one day where my nipples were so raw it hurt to have anything touch them. Also, my ear piercings, even ones that are decades old, were sore and infected.
I didn't realize I lost some of my sense of smell until one evening my daughter was complaining that the house smelled like burned pizza (covid brain fog and cooking can do that). I couldn't smell it at all. That night when I went to brush my teeth, I couldn't smell the toothpaste. I opened my bottle of Listerine and took a deep whiff… I smelled it, but it smelled as though it was far away.
The headaches changed on a daily basis, but usually woke me around 6am. Some were so intense they reminded me of the migraines I used to get when I worked retail. Those hit one side of my head, these hit the entire face. Some felt like my heartbeat is trying to escape. Others just made my head so sensitive, brushing my hair out of my eyes hurt.
I could have one day where I felt amazing. I was bedridden on a Friday, but that Saturday I felt amazing. I tried on clothes that had been sent from brands, I deep cleaned my bathroom, I wrote for a bit, and changed the sheets on the bed. But come Sunday, I was so fatigued watching a TV show was dizzying and I had to turn it off.
I think of my mom, who already deals with pain, and how having covid symptoms like this would be unbearable and so debilitating physically but also mentally. I think of how much time went between when I may have been exposed and when I felt symptoms… where did I go, what did I do, who did I infect? Who with a suppressed immune system, chronic pain, or preexisting issues may have gotten it and made my temporary suffering look like a walk in the park?
The Neverending Covid
I felt sick September 13th. It is close to a month later and I am still feeling the effects of covid. While I am no longer able to infect others (and have all kinds of lovely antibodies to protect me from this strain for a couple of months), I am still not back to normal.
My husband is about 95% recovered, I am at maybe 75%. I took a half-hour walk, a leisurely pace on a relatively flat ground and was so winded I had to take a break before finishing and heading home. I went to Brazillian Jiu Juitsu, thinking I was well, would do a “lite” version of the class with my husband as my partner, keeping it chill but after ten minutes I was so winded and my headache so intense my eyes wouldn't stop watering and I had to go to the car. I reclined the seat and put my jacket over my eyes to try to recover.
Being so behind with brand campaigns, I rested up to do a photo shoot, which required changing into a variety of outfits. We finished it in about an hour and after I was so exhausted I had to lie in bed for a couple of hours. My brain wasn't tired, but my body needed to be horizontal to recover. Writing this, I still have several more contracted campaigns I signed up for before getting covid I still have to do. I need to figure out how I do them without overtaxing my still-recovering body.
I think of how I shared these symptoms I experienced and some are shocked. They only had a mild case, am I sure I got a booster? Yes, got the card to prove it. Not everyone with a vaccine will go unscathed, and my experience is not unusual. I didn't need to be hospitalized, I didn't need a ventilator, I survived. That is why I get vaccinated. Vaccination prevents death, it doesn't prevent covid.
Unlike the flu, which may have one bedridden for a week, covid has no typical timeline. As I share my experience, I get more stories from those who have been homebound for weeks, with symptoms fading and new ones taking their place. A day or two of feeling on top of the world and then another few more days of feeling like death warmed over. Those who recovered enough to get back to normal, but finding themselves weaker, a lingering cough, dizziness, brain fog, a new health issue that has plagued them for weeks, months, and some say for years.
With these stories, I also hear stories that folks were only given X days of PTO, Y days to recover, and then they had to get back to normal productivity, normal routine, normal rise and grind. In my field, the majority of stories I hear are from women in midlife. But I'm finding it's not just because of my field that I am hearing more stressful covid experiences by women.
Women in Midlife and Long Covid
Did you know women are more likely than men to get long covid, and of women, those who are premenopausal or menopausal are at the highest risk for longterm effects from covid? Did you know a mild case of covid can still cause long covid? You can have not a single symptom when you have covid yet still end up with long covid.
Studies repeatedly share that midlife women are most susceptible to long covid. They mention there could possibly be a correlation with hormone levels, or maybe it's just age and greater chance of having preexisting conditions. No one seems to have pinpointed the connection between midlife women and long covid but in my opinion they're ignoring the environmental issues likely causing it.
We're the age of being invisible and easily replaceable while also the age where we are the caregiver. We are in high-stress jobs where we're constantly working twice as hard as our male counterparts to be respected let alone be seen. We're still caring for our children while also caring for our parents. We've been teetering on a “having it all” tightrope knowing that one more thing on our shoulders will cause us to lose our balance.
We're used to working through the pain. From middle-school menstrual cramps to college sexual assaults to taking the bare minimum maternity leave to stay on the partner track at the office. We've worked through migraines and miscarriages, hysterectomies and hemorrhoids, cancer and chronic pain, and still won awards and cases and clients. We may not have it all but we can do it all and after all the things we've been dealt in life we're not going to let a little covid hold us down or make us look weak.
Maybe it's not hormone fluctuations causing our increased risk of long covid. Maybe it's our can-do spirit. And maybe covid is telling us that what doesn't kill us won't make us stronger, it may weaken us for the rest of the time we have on this planet. And even though society may think otherwise, we know that midlife is exactly that… just the halfway point not the final lap.
What can we do? Sadly, not a lot. Jobs aren't set up for TBA endings to illnesses and caregiving doesn't offer PTO. When you've proven time and time again you can do it, you don't get a lot of understanding and grace when suddenly you can't.
Studies on hamsters show that inflammation to the olfactory bulb, a part of the brain involved in processing smell as well as in emotion and learning, happens with covid, and is very likely to remain inflamed long after they recover from covid, which is considered chronic inflammation. And chronic inflammation in the olfactory system correlated with behavioral changes in the hamsters thought to reflect mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
So we get covid. We're depressed thinking about how our diagnosis will affect our jobs, our family, our income, our future. We feel anxiety over trying to balance our lives and our health. This causes inflammation, which can exacerbate covid and may cause long covid. And long covid may give us… more anxiety and depression. Awesome.
The Oxygen Mask Theory
I don't have any good answers for those of us who get covid and can't take the necessary time to heal, but I do for those like me who feel stress and guilt when they're at rest and feel they don't have the luxury to stop.
It's the oxygen mask theory, the one I've been talking about forever on Wardrobe Oxygen because I want you to be smart about your mental and physical health, but also because I'm reminding myself.
When a plane is in trouble, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. You are to put your own oxygen mask on before you assist anyone else with donning their own mask. Before your child, before your spouse, before the kind person seated next to you who needed assistance with their seat belt. You can't properly help another if you don't first help yourself.
How are you going to help all the people who need you if you end up with lingering fatigue, respiratory issues, anxiety and depression? How are you going to get all that shit done when it will be twice as hard to complete it? I keep repeating this to myself like a mantra.
I am one who has always pushed through the pain. I have an extremely high pain tolerance, it has been a source of pride most of my life. I also pride myself on my strong work ethic. I feel best when I am useful, productive, active. And long covid is the antithesis to all of this.
Thos who haven't experienced long covid don't get it. They think you're tired because you dropped your exercise routine, you're spending too much time sedentary, you need to get back out there. But there's a difference between being sedentary and the effects of long covid. And I know I need to keep reminding myself to listen to my body, not others. To trust my gut, to know that if I push through this I could set myself back.
As I hear more and more of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues get covid (it seems more lately than in the past year or so), I wish they don't experience what I did. But if they do, I hope they speak up. Because if we admit that covid isn't a walk in the park, that it isn't always over after a week, that maybe we can reduce the stigma and adjust our world to accommodate this new normal.