In all the drama of the coronavirus crisis, it even felt almost attention seeking to suggest I might have it.
Within 24 hours of my first dry cough, I was holed up in bed. Feverish, aching and still spluttering, I was an absolute wreck. I’d tried to work, but about two hours in, admitted defeat and for the next two weeks was left quarantined in my bedroom, ‘just in case’.
I remember reading that if you didn’t start to feel better after three days you tended to end up on a ventilator in hospital. So, when after three days of feeling like an absolute bag of sh*te, I started to feel slightly less like a bag of sh*te, I figured I was going to be OK.
As someone who doesn’t like to make a fuss about my health – I was in agonising labour for hours with my second son, before I would concede that it was actually labour – I didn’t call the doctor and didn’t ask for a test. At the time, they weren’t so easy to get hold of anyway; they were for those being carted off in the back of ambulances.
Incredibly, now I look back, although I’d had nearly four terrible days of illness, I still returned to work on the Thursday.
In my mind, it couldn’t hurt – I was already going to be stuck in bed for the next 10 days, with my husband sleeping on the sofa and the kids banned from the room, so how stressful could it be sitting there with my laptop propped on a pillow?
The truth was that by then I had also lost my sense of smell and taste and had apalling sinusitis (yet another telltale sign that would later be revealed). Some days I would feel so hot I would attend Zoom meetings in the skimpiest of vests. But I never let on that I still felt pretty terrible.
The first thing I did when I broke out of quarantine was give my family the biggest hug and grab a glass of wine. Finally, I was free. Life would be back to normal, I thought.
I am well aware that for many it is a horrible, severe and frightening illness. People have been left unable to get out of bed or go to work for months. But that’s not my experience.
If you ever want to really know what it feels like to have imposter syndrome, try having ‘mild’ long Covid. Not sick enough to warrant any real medical attention (for which I am eternally grateful), not quite well enough to ever feel 100% recovered.
At first, I didn’t even realise I had it. It was only when I was trying to get back to my fitness levels during lockdown that I grasped something wasn’t right.
As someone who’s done half marathons, climbed the national three peaks in 24 hours and regularly ran 10k, I was what you’d consider pretty fit. And I was desperate to get back to it. I remember even posting on Strava that my aim was to be at my 10k best by the end of lockdown in summer.
It was a video I took of myself running up a bridge that first caused alarm. My breathing was horrendously heavy. I’d been feeling done in after most runs – which I put down to not having exercised properly for a few weeks – but with my headphones in, I hadn’t realised just how much of a wheeze I had going.
Initially, I just thought I had to try harder – use it or lose it was my attitude. But each run – none anywhere near 10k – felt like a real slog.
I also felt pretty wiped out most of the time, my brain was a bit foggy and I was getting the odd palpitation. None of it caused me to take time off work or let it really affect anything, but I just didn’t feel ‘right’.
When antibody tests became available privately, my husband suggested I get one. It was months after I’d been ill and although experts had spoken about how antibodies generally didn’t survive that long, curiosity got the better of me.
Turns out that six months on the antibodies were still raging in my body. I’d had Covid-19. But what did I do with that information? The time had been and gone and with not much still being said about long Covid, I just sat on it.
I told my surgery, but it was very much taken with a pinch of salt. Of course I’m tired all the time, I was told. I’m working full-time and had spent months homeschooling my two kids during a very stressful time.
I was referred for a blood test; as it could be down to a million things other than Covid-19, they said.
When I spoke to a nurse on another appointment to explain that my breathing was laboured after running or even sometimes just going up stairs, she prescribed me an inhaler.
By that time, it was September and I had started to come back to the office for three days a week. While I absolutely adored returning to London and seeing my colleagues (and having time to watch things on my commute that no one else in my family wanted to watch on Netflix), it left me utterly exhausted.
One morning in November, I finally went for my blood test. 12 hours later – as I was watching GBBO with a glass of wine – I got a panicked call from the out of hours GP. The results had shown I was at risk of a pulmonary embolism (a potentially fatal blood clot) and I had to get to A&E immediately.
There, I had electrodes attached to my chest, followed by an X-ray to make sure there was no visible clot nearing my heart or lungs and then finally I was given a course of blood thinners that had to be self – or husband – injected into my stomach at home over the next few days to dissolve any potential clots.
As I reeled off my symptoms from the last eight months to the consultant, it was the first time long Covid was mentioned.
Although I’d been petrified – the thought of dropping down dead in the local emergency room without saying goodbye to my kids was unimaginably terrifying – I still felt like a fraud. I’d been going to work and having boozy Zoom nights with my friends. I even walked 26 miles for charity in the summer.
A few days later a follow up CT scan confirmed I was clot free. It was great news, but brought other battles.
The hospital consultant questioned why I was on an inhaler without being properly assessed (the surgery nurse had said they couldn’t see people), so I was given a spirometry test – where you blow into a device to measure your lung capacity. It showed that they were weak, but the X-rays had also shown there was no visible lung damage. So what had happened?
I was referred to the respiratory clinic for further investigations, but as it’s not an emergency and we’re still living in lockdown, I’ve yet to see anyone.
Instead, I’ve been given a different combination of inhalers to work out whether it’s just exertion (such as running or going up stairs) that leaves me breathless or whether the virus has caused me to develop asthma.
I’ve also had more blood tests to try and fathom my fatigue and I have started keeping notes.
A one-off 10mile hike is fine. Combine it with a 5k walk a day or two earlier and it leaves me feeling nauseous and wiped out for at least 24 hours. I have days when I think I’m finally feeling better, so push myself a little more, but more often than not, it turns out not to be the best idea. It’s very much a two steps forward, one step back, scenario.
While those symptoms lasted just a few hours, I couldn’t properly get out of bed for two days. (Saying that I’d happily go through it all again to get my second vaccine, so please don’t let it put you off!)
Now, a year on from that day when I felt a dry cough tickle the back of my throat, I’m not sure how I feel, physically or mentally.
I’m beyond grateful that I never ended up in hospital, as I know there are thousands of people who have been through pure hell with this virus and I can’t even imagine what that must be like.
But with every palpitation I can’t help wonder if it’s the beginning of another trip to A&E and I’m gutted I can’t run anywhere near like I used to. I’ve given up trying to complete a 10k as I can rarely even manage a 5k these days, but at least I can go for a lovely long walk with my family or friends.
I’ve also hidden a lot of this from colleagues and mates, as it just feels so boring that it is still going on. On top of that, I feel embarrassed saying I have long Covid. Remember that imposter syndrome?
Even as I write this I feel a fraud. After all, wouldn’t the easiest solution be to just to give up running and regular hikes and stop moaning? But as someone who finds exercise the best way to deal with life’s pressure, to do that would be stripping away part of my identity and what makes me happy.
It’s frustrating not knowing when and if this will all go away, but I really do hope it does. I just want to feel like me again.
The Year That Changed Us
The past year has been… weird, to put it lightly.
12 months of living with Covid-19, from the restrictions on our old way of life, to going in and out of lockdown, to being confronted by the reality of death and illness, is bound to have radically changed us.
We may never go back to the way we were before.
Our series, The Year That Changed Us explores all the ways we’ve been impacted by the pandemic and how these effects will stick with us long-term, from our friendships to the nation’s mental health.
You can read the full series here.
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