Life Post Covid

Six months on from getting infected, I pause to reflect on what life looks like now

As I wrote back in January, I was lucky to contract a mild case of covid. I still consider that I was lucky to have had a relatively easy time. I was at home and managed my symptoms with help of tablets and extra asthma inhalers. I even managed to work at first though I was mildly weary. It lasted about ten days and, for a few days after, I thought that was that.

But like many people who have had covid-19, I have ended up with a much longer, more complicated picture and at six months I can’t help but consider how it has completely changed my life. I have what is colloquially called Long Covid or Post-Covid Viral Fatigue. It has meant learning and managing fatigue far beyond the tiredness I have been experiencing before now. It has stopped me and forced me to do things differently in a number of ways.

Not everyday, but on a bad day I block out the world. I have had to strip back what I do, prioritising my activities and often managing to work for a few hours or maybe play for short bursts with my son. If I socialise I can be thrown off for days because I am getting post exertional malaise that knocks me off my feet, leaves me achy and able to do little. Never has the feeling of being hit by a bus felt so accurate.

I often spend hours on my bed although I now try and meditate not just nap. I have had to reduce exercise to the point of tracking that I don’t do too many steps, rather than counting them up, on my Fitbit. All of these changes are hard-won lessons I am still learning. Trying to find what I can and cannot handle has become my preoccupation. I am reading and watching a lot about the condition (and related advice for people with chronic fatigue syndrome) trying to get the game of pacing right.

I have had to tune into my body much more. Listening to a podcast or watching the tennis I may discover suddenly it’s far too intense. My tolerance for stress, even the pleasurable kind of tension we choose to put ourselves through for entertainment like a thriller, overwhelms me. Instead I look for things that are light, funny or soothing. And use the meditation practices that help me listen to my body more clearly.

Really doing these things has been a lesson in what I wasn’t doing for myself before. Like a lot people, my stress increased in pandemic times. I became more anxious and felt some of the losses of not seeing family, feeling isolated, very keenly. Now I am seeking help both medically and for my mental health. Actually I don’t really have a choice.

The whole world stopped for a while in 2020 and that was a lesson about how we cope with modern life. Everything too fast, too consumerist, not to mention too close, stopped and stripped back to what was essential. Well, it seems I still have to learn this lesson. My body has chosen to stop me in my tracks. I can’t be grateful for every difficult moment in the last six months, nor for all the sadness and loss in this pandemic, but I am starting to get very grateful for the chance to assess what is really important to me. To spend my energy where I can, doing what I most value. To reassess and prioritise.

And top of my list, for the first time in a long time, I am having to look after me.

Ways to Work With Pain

What if, even at our most difficult times, we could still make time to create?

I have been preoccupied with the bone-tired fatigue and various symptoms for months now but even as these lift, I can’t help think of the many times I have created when I am in some sort of less than perfect state. Creative living is less finding the perfect moment and more about working with what you have got. So what can you do if you are experiencing pain, physical or emotional?

Firstly, the Morning Pages method that Julia Cameron teaches us in The Artist’s Way has worked for me. Most days I get all those grievances down on the pages, this has been a massive part of my practice over the last few years. I recently watched a great video on resetting your goals half way through the year and Strussed’s advice was to always brain dump before you start on exercises. Journalling as an artist and particularly a writer can be a powerful place for ideas to pop-up.

Often old memories do surface as they would in any therapeutic practice. In week nine of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron asks us to do some archeology to uncover old dreams and even old hurts. As an exercise, I would be cautious to follow this without a therapist if there are any childhood traumas that could resurface. But I do find these exercises and other journal prompts can spark ideas or surprise you with memories. I listed some of my favourite journalling ideas last week.

In my pages I was revisiting a memory just recently and realised how strong my emotions were still towards a more adventurous child. I watched as she fearlessly swung on a tyre off a rope swing. She may or may not have leapt over some water, the memory is fuzzy but my envy was clear. How odd to have held onto this after so many years. This innocuous tale had remained in my mind and wound itself in to my adventurous protagonist probably without me realising.

Childhood memories sometimes resurface in your writing

I found this quote from the French Artist Annette Messager who explains how we must uncover our emotions…

“Being an artist means forever healing your own wounds and at the same time endlessly exposing them”            

Annette Messager

She has worked around greatly traumatic themes of assault and violence.  I hope it is clear from my example that I am sharing something lighter to illustrate the point but clearly all pains and emotional experiences can’t help but influence our work.

So what I would say in some ways we have no choice but to uncover some of our experiences in order to be creative. In fact, we may find they come out anyway. In order to express our true selves, maybe we also need to be mindful of doing so safely.

Even using journalling practices, which we might use as therapy, you may wish to seek help from a professional. Or if not, give ourselves space and time to recover. Build in whatever practices work for you so that you can be safe. I have shared how I have learned to meditate over the last decade. But I would also add that working through these emotions, if done safely, can help us heal. I am not trained in psychology and, please do seek support of a licensed professional if practicing exploration of pain causes you difficulties.

The final way I think I work through emotions that surface, perhaps despite of the pain, is to play games with any idea from different angles. If we have a memory that is feeding our work, how can we change perspective. How did that girl feel when I cautioned her from swinging out over the water? Her perspective may have to see me as annoying or she may well just have been living in the moment, oblivious to others. And this is the fun isn’t it of being creative? We can work through any image and explore it with fresh eyes.

Creating on Little Sleep

As always, little sleep leaves me grumpy and less creative.

I have written before about trying to be creative and a parent. When I don’t get the chance of a decent night’s sleep, much time to be quiet or alone it effects my mood a lot. But if I can’t have a creative outlet, I’m downright grumpy.

I accepted a few years back that my time to create write or play at crafts, have Artist’s Dates would be in short snatches. Built in deadlines help me anyway so that is a bonus if anything. But what is also clear is in these weeks where my mood has been effected, my creativity gets a bit stilted.

Adding in brain fog I have developed since my January run-in with covid, I am literally and figuratively struggling to find the words to write. Dragging the idea out feels like squelching through mud. According to Elizabeth Gilbert this can give you a creative fear. As I wrote recently, I worry that the idea is running away.

So along with resting when I can, I have been trying to find ways to lift myself into a better mood so I can get creative, even just a little. Mostly I have been trying to improve my mood by getting out in the early light and using meditation. All the things I know help. They do enough that I dare to open my work in progress a couple of times this week.

So how have I helped myself? More sleep is not possible, though that would certainly help. Instead, I listened to music:, sometimes to pump me up, sometimes to rouse emotions, sometimes to float away. I have often worked with music on. Sometimes it provides inspiration in itself. A character who is obsessive about 70s singer song writers comes to mind, as does The Rites of Spring and the folklore that has inspired me. These moments listening often spark a story.

I tried to take more walks. On my walks I take photos of things that inspire or I sit and look at the trees a while trying to identify a tree. It was a hawthorn I discovered later. Not only do the places provide background for my woodland work-in-progress, but having time in nature can soothe my mood too.

Finally, I am try to forgive myself for taking a little time away from creative work. It’s hard, I want to blog every week and write creatively three or four times too. But really I have to be realistic about what I am able to do right now. Hopefully I will get a bit more sleep now my son is back at school and in a routine and it will inspire me to take time out to be more creative again.

Meditation For Fidgets

It occurs to me it is a decade since I first took a mindfulness course. I still can’t sit still.

If you are like me and struggle to do nothing there are simple soothing activities I recommend and also ways to make yourself feel cosy. But alongside these suggestions I am, after all this time, still trying to meditate daily. It’s been a crucial practice this year as I cope with my ongoing illness but it’s often the main thing I will do to relieve stress. The problem is I have never been good at staying still.

Here are my to five ways to meditate for fidgets like me:

Guided Meditation

By now I know that lying or sitting waiting for bells to chime gets me making to do lists in my head. Instead, I will listed to Guided Meditations by Richard Latham, use Hay House podcast or Growing Mindfulness by Michelle DuVal. I know most of these recordings by heart now, but the opportunity to either follow instructions or even better go on an imaginative journey works best for me.

Lying Down

Though it makes me feel lazy to admit it, I don’t do well sitting for meditation. Even in a class when I did attend, I would sit on my knees rather than criss cross because, again, can’t sit still. I love this cartoon about all the thoughts that go through your head as you try and meditate. I get so preoccupied by my discomfort that I feel a failure at meditation. Of course, that’s part of the experience but honestly I wouldn’t have stuck at the practice so long if I was only allowed to sit.

This quote is on Jill Conyers website which explains mindfuless indepth

The Shakti Mat

For years I have lain down for meditation but this year I really upped the practice with a Shakti mat, ie an accupressure mat and pillow. I think this has really helped with my recovery in most recent months. The theory is that after about twenty minutes dopamine reacts to the mild pain of lying across the spiked mat. You lay with a thin layer of clothing on so it is only a very mild pain. I will often shift and move and having that discomfort makes you more mindful, rather than relaxing so much you fall asleep. I find often it helps with emotional release. It may not be what you are hoping if you want to meditate to relax, but often the reason we don’t like to stop is to avoid our emotions. Mindful meditation is a lot about being present and watch as emotions drift over us like clouds.

Lavendar Eye Pillow

I love lavender as it has some happy memories of my Grandma as well as always been considered a restorative. For someone so easily distracted, blocking out light with a lavender eye pillow really works. Often I will listen to meditation on my headphones, a hygge headband adding compression and the eye mask blocking the light. Sensory distractions reduced, I have just about a chance of staying mindful.

Mindful Walks

Another great way to meditate is to take mindful walks. Again there are guided meditations I use. But you can also take in you surroundings, observe the feeling of your feet hitting the ground and the sensations of the air, sounds around you. It is a good practice to concentrate on sounds because it is so interesting to find out that something irritates you. Some days you only hear noisy cranes and parakeets near by others, when you tune in to the birds, and hear a woodpecker. Again you can watch you emotions and sensations pass over you.

For me, meditation has been a lifeline. I am not sure that all teachers would say I am doing it in any orthodox way but by finding ways that work for me, I help myself be calmer even if I will never learn to sit still.

Coping with Bone Tired

I am learning that colourful similes really do describe fatigue

Have you ever felt bone-tired, held a heavy burden, could hardly drag your head from the pillow or felt like death?

There is some colourful language to describe fatigue. When I used these terms in the past, I thought they described how I felt. Perhaps when I was drinking alcohol I would raise my head and groan, feeling like death. To be honest booze does make me feel so rough I gave it up. But now I know, I was being dramatic on those days. Even after a tougher week with my son’s sleep, I would feel particularly sluggish and use these similes. But it wasn’t until I experienced this fatigue that I really understood these phrases.

Words can be inadequate, even for someone who enjoys writing, to describe how our body can give up on us. What I am finding helpful, as well as now understanding completely the term bone-tired, is to listen to my body. I mean really I have no choice as there are days when I have to just stop. Whatever my aches and pains are, I have to pay attention much more than I have in the past because I know enough now of the boom and bust cycle to not push through aches, pains or tiredness.

This week I made it to the office, promptly to be laid up in bed again. I am suddenly getting leg cramps added to the aches in my arms. A sluggish existence. No really, like a slug, more able to move horizontally than vertically. And that’s all part of the game of learning to live with fatigue. Listening to your body and learning that when you have to stop like this, you took it too far.

And I am learning to cope. I have already written about using things that soothe me. This weekend it’s a Sherlock Holmes audiobook, familiar, satisfying and funny they have helped as I lie down. But here are a few other things I am using to help:

1. MEDITATION I have used meditation for years to help with anxiety. I love the Mindful in Minutes and Hay House podcasts and an album Growing Mindfulness by Michelle Duval, free with my Spotify membership.

2. SHAKTI MAT A new acquisition, a small spiky yoga mat. You lie on it for 20 mins and it is supposed to release pain-relieving dopamine. I am a bit obsessed and confused that I find it so relieving.

Me, but less glamorous

3. MEDICATION While holistic practices help, taking my medication and being on top of having it at certain times of day is got to be one of the best things I can do for myself. I have built new medicine into my routine by pairing it, for example taking my inhaler then brushing my teeth. This is a technique Gretchen Ruben recommends for habit change and it helps my foggy brain remember this crucial step.

4. TA-DA LISTS! It’s hard not to focus on what you haven’t achieved when you are lying down a lot. But instead I am trying to list what I have managed at the end of each day.

5. NAPS I think I have to be honest because I am sounding like I manage to do a lot despite being laid up but the most obvious way I am coping is by sleeping more, including naps. Too simple to say really but I wanted to acknowledge that to cope with fatigue, you really have to others around you. Support from work that you do shorter days, support from someone else to look after your child, the TV as a babysitter.

I feel lucky that it’s not as bad as it could be. I am really very tired but hoping that I will learn what works for me and build up more energy each day that I rest. Eventually I will learn to cope.