The mental health effects of living with a long COVID

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I go to the Strand in Hermosa Beach every week and breathe in the fresh air. Most weeks I get there and the sun goes down, the sky is a Creamsicle pink-purple-orange color and the clouds are fluffy. The predictability of this place calms me: the salty air, the sound of crashing waves, the crackle 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 to reflect on the progress I have made mentally and physically.

About 2 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 doctor and doctor appointments to confirm that I had long COVID.

I’m a data reporter at the Los Angeles Times and have a deep appreciation for spreadsheets, so my inclination was to track my symptoms.

My diary has become a living document in which I detail the good and bad days using colored dots to indicate how I feel. I used to take an even more holistic approach, tracking in a spreadsheet whenever I had shortness of breath, dropped blood pressure, or lost my voice. The reality is that while note taking was helpful for doctor appointments, collecting daily data for a year wore me out.

I wanted to believe that my meticulous curation of data would translate into answers from my doctors, a precious “aha” moment that anyone with a rare disease longs for. But at the end of the summer of 2021, I felt completely overwhelmed by the test results, the research I encountered in my long COVID support group, and the reality that no doctor has a perfect solution to treat. my symptoms.

There were days when I had to make calls to get the first available appointments, do interviews, go to a doctor’s appointment or two and analyze data, as well as manage my daily life. Doctors kept saying, “We don’t know anything yet,” and “Let’s try this new medicine, but we’ll have to watch you for two to three months. This, along with the news I covered every day, made me feel like I was wading deeper and deeper into the dark ocean.

My doctors told me that if I didn’t take 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 lucky to have a supportive employer, family and friends, and the financial means to go on leave. Rest is crucial post-COVID, but sadly, the systems in this country don’t adequately support the mental health or physical health needs of the people who need it most. My time off allowed me to focus on my health and my health alone, instead of trying to juggle five things at once.

I realized that while I love collecting data, it was time to ditch the spreadsheet of my personal symptoms and shift focus and energy and just be kinder to myself. .

I swapped my spreadsheet for an Apple Watch and spent more time outdoors, focusing on what gains I could make on walks – each day getting longer and harder. It freed my brain to think about what I really like to do. I started painting on my leave to continue using my creative side, especially since I didn’t write much. At first it offered an escape on my worst days, but over the past few months it has turned into so much more.

Painting allows me to express myself in a way that reporting, writing and analyzing data cannot. It’s the only space in my life where I don’t have a deadline, a color palette that I have to stick to, or a routine that I have to follow. Often my paintings are clouds of cotton candy that I see at the beach at 7 p.m. In a space of uncertainty, painting sunsets allows me to have a sense of normalcy and calm. These moments allow me to leave my body just for a minute and focus on the wet paint, the bright pink hues and bring me back to sitting in the sand, watching the horizon and the ocean melt into one. the other.

Painting also allows me to find balance and resilience to continue helping others. In addition to changing my personal data tracking, I also switched from daily tracking of coronavirus cases to longer interviews with other long-term COVID patients. I can sympathize with a whole group of young people, like me, who have to learn to live with a chronic disease much earlier than they imagined. Although I love doing the interviews, some of them remind me of my early days trying to get the care I needed and make me want to do something more to help these people. These days, painting gives me a place to release the medical trauma people share with me and move on.

And although my symptoms are fading, I continue to pace myself and make time to paint, even though I’m not at my worst. There’s nothing quite like peeling the plastic off a new canvas, pouring some acrylic paint onto my palette, and letting the brush glide, capturing another sunset.

What to do when you get sick with COVID-19 (or anything else)

2022 Los Angeles Times.
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