My month after COVID

It’s been about a month since I came down with COVID-19, after nearly three years of researching the virus.  Since the aftermath is interesting from medical and public health perspectives, I thought I’d continue to share my story here.  It’s one snapshot of recovery.

The main effect I’ve experienced of having had COVID is fatigue.  For the first three weeks after exiting lockdown huge waves of fatigue would hit me.  Sometimes they would hit after I’d done what I used to consider minor or trivial amounts of physical activity: making dinner for the house, vacuuming a floor. Sometimes intellectual work yielded those fatigue tides, like grading for a couple of hours.  At other times nothing would be the cause – sitting on a chair, reading, and suddenly feel like I’ve just chopped wood for ten hours.

This was much worse in early November.  I think it’s less of a problem now.

Yet connected to fatigue is getting more sleep.  Normally I sleep for around 6-7 hours each night. (My quality of sleep is usually fine, thanks to the CPAP machine. I have no problems falling asleep.) Since Halloween I’ve slept 9-10 hours, and many days could easily have slept more.  These are usually deep sleeps without waking or disturbance. My dreams are clear; I can recall one, two, or three upon waking.

To some extent this might be my body catching up with “sleep debt,” since 6-7 hours/night isn’t enough.

Keep in mind that the medical advice for people after infection is not to exercise.  I’ve been following that advice carefully.  My pull-up bar stands neglected in a corner.  My weights gather dust and occasional feline attention at the end of my desk. I haven’t ridden the bike or taken a long walk. The only walking I’ve done is the roughly one mile to my Georgetown classroom from the Rosslyn Metro station, and I’ve been very careful to take that slowly, even pausing to rest.

And this is galling. I feel my muscle tone softening (perhaps mostly in my imagination). At times I feel like an invalid, especially when resting during a puny one mile stroll.  I know it’s the right thing to do, but that doesn’t stop feeling like a lazy slug.  When I drive to the grocery store or HOA meeting one or two miles away, I feel embarrassed.

The Potomac River just after sunset, seen from the Key Bridge.

Crossing the Potomac River on the Key Bridge. This is the center of my walk to class.

I have been eating less. This takes the form of skipping breakfast or dinner or both.  That’s because my appetite is lower.  I’m not appalled by food or anything, just not getting hunger pangs in my gut. Is it because I’m not doing as much physical activity?  Is it a mind game, because I’m embarrassed by not exercising?

There was one bad week when my left ear had problems. It got congested badly enough that I couldn’t hear through it. In face to face conversations I turned my right side to people so I could hear better.  I tried domestic cures: steam, tugging the left earlobe while yawning, exhaling while closing my mouth and pinching the nose shut.  No luck. Friends recommended an audiologist.

I worried about permanent hearing loss, so checked with our HMO.  The nurse on call (on chat, from the Kaiser website) recommended a combination of eardrops to melt earwax, nasal irrigation with a saline solution, and using a neti pot.  This took nearly a week to work, but finally that left ear opened up.  It’s a weird experience, almost like a popping, but more like someone suddenly playing loud noises right next to your head. The ear closed again a few hours later, then opened, then closed, until finally it remained open and I wasn’t going deaf on my left side.

Other post-COVID symptoms I’m not experiencing: joint pain, headaches, organ pain, shortness of breath.  My senses of smell and taste are just ok, but it’s winter, and I usually get stuffed up for the season.

What about brain fog?  I’m honestly not sure.  Most of the time I find myself thinking like I used to, pre-infection… as far as I can tell, which is part of the problem here.  I don’t have good ways of monitoring my cognition.  Externally, I’ve been quietly asking people how I do in conversation, in class, leading video meetings, giving talks. All feedback has been positive, which is a relief.

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I feel mentally energized by some events.  Class, for example, is always an adrenaline shot for me. In fact, earlier this month I warned students I might end sessions a little early, due to COVID, but every time went right to the scheduled end and had time for students afterwards.  Clients for presentations have been satisfied.

And yet.  The fatigue gnaws at my mind. I worry that I can’t multitask as much, but it’s hard to assess this. I catch myself making small errors (not sharing apps the right way in Zoom) or having to remind myself of process steps (chopping garlic *before* sauteeing green beans) more than I used to. Are these real problems, or am I just paying more attention because of the COVID context?  I’m honestly not sure.

All of this is the first month post-infection. Looking ahead, I want to start exercising again.   Not my full routine, but some small exercises – a one mile bike ride, the lightest weight.  I have to be careful not to let enthusiasm and remembered capacity lead me to overdo things.

I’m not sure if my appetite will rebuild. I’m at the lowest weight I’ve had since the 1990s – 215 lbs – and like it.  Maybe my appetite will be suppressed long term.

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Alternatively, ramping up physical exercise will bring it back.

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Hopefully I can resume my pre-COVID muscle mass and tone, which will add pounds.

Is this something I should talk about with medical or mental health professionals?  I don’t know, and it honestly feels silly to even consider.

My biggest worry is, of course, long COVID. Research on this is still nascent. I’m not sure how my behavior now shapes my chances of coming down with it.

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  So I’m trying to be very careful.

That’s not really my biggest worry, although it should be.  My greatest anxiety is that COVID will depress my ability to work, and hence reduce my ability to support my family.  As an independent and an American, I don’t have much in the way of public resources to fall back on.  I can give myself days off, but those are days when I could be bringing in revenue. My teaching, workshops, presentations, consultation, writing, and video work are how I pay the mortgage, medical bills, insurance, groceries, debts. So while I try to not make my health worse, I also have to keep a roof over my family’s heads.  How far can I push myself?  What risks am I taking?

Forgive me if this is TMI or too long, or both. I hope these reflections are useful to people experiencing or thinking about COVID.

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15 Responses to My month after COVID

  1. do you practice mindfulness meditation, Bryan? No better way to check your experience of the universe than to pay attention to it, name it, look for trends, expand the present moment. I’m certified to teach if you need a few quick sessions on Zoom or Teams:) I’m 3 months out from COVID, and my brain and body are still reconnecting with each other and the world; a nice opportunity to make the process intentional!
    be well; Michael at Mason

    • Roxann says:

      I’m definitely on board with a mindfulness practice for helping with COVID stress/anxiety during and after the illness. Much needed research is finally beginning to appear on the topic. I am also a certified mindfulness practitioner and mindfulness educator too.

      Regulation of Mindfulness-Based Music Listening on Negative Emotions Related to COVID-19: An ERP Study

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Roxann, what’s your favorite mindfulness app these days?
        You are so generous with your thoughts!

        • Roxann says:

          I participated in a university research study a few years ago with the Calm App. It has incredible meditations for just about anything you can imagine. Also, HeadSpace and Insight Timer (has a free version). I think HeadSpace is still free for educators but I’m not sure if it is only K-12. Stamford University has a free App too- I have numerous suggestions- these are the top 3 I would begin with. Calm and Headspace have the free trial weeks .

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Michael, I do meditate, but should do more.
      I’d be delighted to connect on video. Do you have my email?

  2. Roxann says:

    Yes, definitely the post COVID maladies you are experiencing sound like part of the recovery process. If any get worse definitely call your drs. to be sure they can assess. For your healthy recovery, it’s your personal journey to a new healing of the body and mind. When the mind wants to race forward at full speed ahead, and we don’t listen, we often end up in frustrated and sometimes relapse (HOPE NOT!!!). I think there are stages for recovering from the COVID virus unlike other illnesses. And the potential long COVID side effects are in the minds of many who have had it and those who haven’t . Yet, I notice you already know the best thing is to rest when you need rest- both body and mind. I believe rest and some mindful practices will speed up healing. Aging (yes, I do hate to mention) unfortunately is another thing that is true when an illness happens, we often need a little more time and everything will be better. You will be the best you again very soon :)! One breath at a time, one day at a time. Notice what you are experiencing without judgment. Just take it in and breath in and out with it. Acknowledge all the (good and bad) experiences in a friendly way, welcome them as these are giving you insight to better physical and mental healthy state. (I do this practice daily). So many practices are free on YouTube too and healing frequencies

    Hope a little of this helps 🙂
    The Meta Loving Kindness:
    May I be filled with loving kindness.
    May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
    May I be well in body and mind.
    May I be at ease and happy.
    (Jack Kornfield)

    Here’s a link for mindfulness managing covid.
    Insight Timer is free.

  3. R. Riskin says:

    Hi Bryan,
    Not at all! 🙂 I notice your are doing what you need to and it sounds like you are in recovery. Rest your body even when your mind tells you something different. Welcome all the feelings good and bad without judgment- that’s part of mindfulness.
    It’s not easy but necessary for healing , you will be the GREATER again you Soon!!! 🙂

    Insight Timer is a great free App. and here’s some more info

    Meta Kindness Mantra for daily practice.

    May I be filled with lovingkindness.
    May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
    May I be well in body and mind.
    May I be at ease and happy.

    Sound Healing for COVID

  4. Jim Parker says:

    I had a fairly mild case of Covid in early May. I took until the the first of July to start feeling anything like normal. I have a few little nagging things that still seem to be hanging on but I can’t be sure they are related to Covid or not. My level of activity is back to normal for the most part and sleep is OK. I do seem to tire fairly easily still but since I’m 72 years old that is part of the issue as well. My wife had Covid back in September and I did not test positive. However, I did have Covid like symptoms at the time such as the brain fog. I don’t know if I had a subclinical case or if I was just have sympathy symptoms. I hope you keep returning to normal.

  5. Theresa Swann says:

    We got it in Dec 2020 and we still experience symptoms. The scariest thing, two years out, is that we are not recovering from other upper respiratory illness nearly as quickly.
    A cold turns into chest issues that linger. It’s esp bad for me bc I got COPD from Covid.
    I hope/pray your recovery is swift and more complete. You are much younger which should help.

  6. Harry Baya says:

    Thanks Bryan, I live in fear of Covid. My wife and I have been somewhat hunkered down for the last two years.. but are off on a two week trip from California to Virginia and back, for the Christmas time, and I am a worrier to start with. Tracking you through it, and now through the aftermath, makes me think it wont be as terrirble as I fear even if I do get it. Harry Baya

  7. Doug Belshaw says:

    Thanks for sharing all of your experiences of Covid, Bryan, and especially for this post!

    To add another data point, although I worked through my Covid infection in January and had mild symptoms, it took me 10 weeks to get back to my regular exercise regime.

    After that, though, a renewed focus on health has meant that, in many ways, I’m in better shape than beforehand. I do wonder about the effect Covid has had on my heart, but then I’m in my forties now and there is a history of cardiac problems in my family.

    My hope is that there’s a lot more funding put into things such as Long Covid, which a member of my family has suffered from, and into the ongoing effects of even mild infections.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Dear Doug, another two month course, like Jim’s: mild but persistent.

      I’m glad you’re healthier.

      And I do hope we commit more to long COVID care.

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