The Surprising Lesson I Learned from Having COVID

It will surprise no one that COVID kills. What’s not so obvious is the broad reach of its devastation. For me, it was about killing my belief in myself. I was poised to complete a final round of interviews for my research that would be the basis for the last chapter of my next book.

I’m nearly there, I kept telling myself.

And then, we got the phone call from a friend. She had exposed my husband and me to COVID. Within days we felt sick. For three weeks we battled the onslaught of nasty symptoms—fever, nausea, exhaustion, headaches, and a rattling cough. Yet, it would take several more weeks for the most pernicious symptom of all to uncoil in my psyche. It nearly defeated me, until I learned how to tame it.

Getting the coronavirus when the finish line was in sight put me in mind of Odysseus and his men as they neared Ithaca. They were close enough to see the chimneys of their homes when a few of the men seized upon a satchel belonging to Odysseus, believing it contained treasures. Instead, when they opened it they unleashed a curse in the form of roaring winds that blew their ships back and off course. Another cycle of setbacks and hardships would befall Odysseus before he would bring his crew home.

The lesson from the gods is clear on this: completing a brave journey is most difficult near the end. This gives new meaning to “the bitter end” and suggests why we have all seen people stall out right before finishing an important project. For me the most vivid example is of a dear friend who, as a PhD candidate, never made the annotations to her dissertation. The entire thing was written except for the footnotes. Alas, with no degree and no clear sense of how to move forward, she sailed on in circles, rudderless.

Thinking about this made me determined to complete what I had started. I kept faith in myself that I would recover from my COVID symptoms and write the final 40-odd pages. Then the holidays blew in with all their hullabaloo. I was the first among my relatives to be infected by the virus, so when the next wave of COVID landed, I had active antibodies that liberated me to mingle with family. A few extended their stay, and it was a rare window of time to enjoy a real Christmas. Who could blame us after months of quarantine? Even so, no writing got done.

When I finally returned to my project after the new year, I discovered that I had a new working companion. Let’s call him the Beast. I’m not talking about the garden variety “inner voice” or “self-editor” often encountered in one’s work. This was the Boss Mouth, a brass-knuckled bully with an insidious power to break my willpower.

What shocked me most about the Beast was his cunning insight into the delusions I had mounted for myself to endure the hardships of more ambitious work. For example, I believed I could complete delicate research using Zoom during the pandemic. The Beast called me out for such half-truths. If you’ve seen the movie The Exorcist, you may recall a creepy scene where the young priest is in active conversation with the demon, only to discover that it gives such complete answers to his questions because it’s reading his mind.

The more emotional barriers I built up against his bullying, the more vicious the Beast grew. “You have nothing useful to say. No one will ever read this book.” Each day, as I ascended up the stairs to my writing loft, I was met with even heavier hostilities. “You will never finish! You’re a fool,” he thundered.

As for my usual sunny optimism, it was puny in the face of such assaults.

What I eventually discovered is that the worst of my COVID symptoms is a certain kind of madness. On December 28, 2020, the New York Times reported on the number of rising cases of COVID-related psychological damage, stating that “there is now ample evidence of many other symptoms, including neurological, cognitive and psychological effects, that could emerge in patients.”

What to do?

Like so many health risks related to COVID, the medical profession is not sure how to treat the problem. What they do know is that the brain-related effects may be connected to the immune system’s response to the coronavirus and the surges of inflammation caused by the disease process.

Given that I had exhausted every psychological trick in my arsenal to rein in the Beast, my last resort was to meet fire with fire. Truth be told, there is a reckless rebel deep inside me. Petulant and feisty, she has foiled my most cherished plans and set fire to many of my beloved relationships. For most of my adult life, I sought to contain this wild woman within me. Now, I invoked this inner banshee and reclaimed her as my ally.

Since I sought to domesticate the Banshee for years, I discovered that she, too, had grown cunning. The Beast could knock the wind out me, hissing in my ear, “Admit it, you have no talent!” To this, the Banshee tossed back her hair and tut tutted, “I know. But I’m doing it anyway.”

Then silence for the rest of the day. I could work. I’d found the key.

Every day, the Beast ratchets up more vicious, heart-stopping rebukes. I can’t change that. But the Banshee is there to drive him back. Not with denial or simple positivity. Instead, she gracefully rebels with the surprising result that it crushes his authority over us.

It may take months for medical experts to understand the brain-related effects of coronavirus. So for now, it’s me and the Banshee finding the courage to finish the book I’m writing.

The Beast can say what he likes; he’s not the boss of us.

Photo Credit: Kalisa Veer, Unsplash