Performing original piece 'You're Dead' in 2008 on a bus in UK in a Clint Eastwood mask
Failure and resiliency are two words that have been haunting me these days—this being Day 63 of COVID recovery, in which it is now assumed I am experiencing "post viral syndrome" yet also have a sense of smell that comes and goes at times within the same hour. I am grateful I have not had worse symptoms, but I have found even within the mild category—which now includes something akin to chronic fatigue syndrome—the back and forth of feeling better and then crashing has at times made me melt down as in crying uncontrollably.
I was saying this to a friend while bemoaning my "lack of resiliency," when she paused and said, "You know, maybe put that word in a box for a while. I don't think it's helping you." And she was right. As soon as she said that my sense of being an utter failure as a human being and as a COVID 'survivor' subsided. She reminded me of the tools we have at hand as people in long time recovery from other things. She said, "you need to think of yourself as a newcomer." And I realized she was right again.
I was using the word resiliency, which seems so neutral and positive, as a cudgel. The implication being: if you don't get through this without meltdowns and in some kind of straight line out of illness something is Wrong With You.
I am in two Facebook groups for COVID survivors, and all of us in the extended play version of this thing all feel the same way whenever symptoms recur: failures. Like somehow we did something wrong. But no. It doesn't work like that.
Which doesn't mean there aren't good things to do that can help, like rest and eat well, etc. But then even here there are mixed messages, because honestly no one knows for sure—everyone is shooting in the dark including the medical professionals—about resting: should you sleep, which your body needs to heal, or should you force yourself to walk and move because of possible blood clots? About food—endless controversy as to what is healthy and not. About supplements—also endless controversy, with perhaps the exception of Vitamin D and Zinc. Oh you think C is OK? Well yeah, but also if too much can hurt kidneys. Even our friend Zinc can apparently affect short-term memory. And it goes on.
So the point is…we are All Newcomers Now. And all I can do is follow the best advice I have received so far from my primary care doc: listen to your body.
Ah, but even this can be tricky. Why? Welp, for starters I have CPTSD and if this illness with its loopy irrational trajectory with an assist by a sociopathic executive branch isn't gonna trigger a trauma response, what will? So, that means to some degree I am dissociated, so "listening to my body" isn't all that easy. Because I do yoga and meditate, I can get some inklings, but I am equally glad to have a Pulse-oximeter, so I can see right in front of me that my oxygen supply and heart rate is fine even if it feels like I am having a hard time breathing or my heart is racing. I need these kinds of objective measures. I also needed the X-ray that showed my lungs were clear, which my rehab doc thought I should get since certain symptoms were not budging at Day 56.
What I can feel is exhaustion when it hits and if I don't listen to that it can tip over to fatigue. Many folks are suffering from some version of chronic fatigue as part of post viral syndrome. I thought I was just failing (of course), but then told my rehab person how exhausted I felt after walking (not out of breath, happily, but just drained) and she said, "Oh, I see. It's not that you are deconditioned, you have post-viral syndrome."
So, now I am tasked with trying to stop myself when I hit 50% of my capacity rather than 100% so don't tip over into fatigue, which also can tip over into other symptoms. I am really not very good at this, and so when I crash I feel….you guessed it…like a failure.
But the fact is: I am new at this, even if it's been going on for ages. I have never been sick with anything this long. In the 63 days since I had first symptoms and was diagnosed, so much has changed in the thinking about this virus. Because it's new and no human beings ever had it before about six months ago. We don’t know its parameters. Nevertheless, some docs are saying things very definitively and generally dismissively to people who are staying at home because don't fit the parameters of who should be in a hospital (and anyway, I for one had no interest in going to the hospital, but also no need, for which I am just lucky). But I feel for people who report docs telling them they are "just having a panic attack" and etc. May that be the case for some people? Sure. For all of them? No. Some people have died because they were told that and sent home.
So, the fact is…there is a lot we still don't know. And if I keep trying to be "resilient" (aka some sneaky idea of perfection through control that can demonstrate how "well" I am in some deep spiritual way) throughout this, I will go insane. If the fact I can smell one minute and not the next makes me cry and then despair, is that lack of resiliency (whatever that means) or just a normal human emotion? Who doesn't want their body to work in a consistent manner? Who doesn't want to get better and stay better rather than fall down another rabbit hole?
However, while clearly I can't control this virus, I can do certain things, which I have done and continue to do, including: reach out for help with emotional responses, reach out to various health care practitioners of various traditions (especially when it became clear to me kicking the long term version of this thing to the curb was not in the remit of Western medicine at this time). I am doing what I can, and that is great. Reaching back in some cases to far more ancient traditions. Will those "work"? Who knows? If they do or don't it doesn't mean I am a 'failure' or a 'success.' It means I tried some things.
What I can't do is become an expert on COVID 19 in two months. What I can't do is pretend any health care people I speak with know for sure what they are saying is true or not. I can give them the credit for best guesses, and follow my nose on who to trust. Please note I wrote "follow my nose," which may give you a sense of how much I value my sense of smell, which has historically been acute. And why I am in such despair over its mutedness now. Is it getting better? Yes. Is it linear? No.
So the unwanted invitation to this party no one ever asked to attend is: let yourself not know. Accept this. And accept how hard that is, and that every step is a challenge and that doesn't mean you are doing anything wrong. No one knows for sure what to do. No. One.
When I can turn this all over to that which is greater than me for which I don't have a good name, I feel much better. I know I am a small part of this global Thing that is happening. I am on a tide or a wave or a tsunami and am not in control of it. Nor am I in control of my emotional response to it. I can work with the tools I have to allow those emotions to move through rather than own me, but I can't pretend they aren't there. Including the trauma response element. There is no fighting that will work here, only acceptance.
Only when I can accept the full reality of my situation can I get a glimpse of what the next right action might be, including the fact in this case I might not "know" what the next right action is and it might be a guess. My New Year's resolution this year was "thread the needle." I had no idea how apt it would be. How much I would have to still myself to listen for prompts and intuitions coming from the deeper self.
In the Kripalu tradition, we are taught, "Self-observation without judgment is the highest form of spiritual practice." In other words: there is no "failure" in the sense we consider it, nor indeed is there "success" because you need judgment for either. We just are moving through this strangest, saddest, scariest, weirdest, sometimes shockingly beautiful time in moments (like when I can suddenly smell something I could not before, it makes me cry), sometimes together, sometimes apart, with various levels of support and lack thereof.
I am angry at so many things now, too, but I am not going into all that, because I think it's obvious and many have already delineated what is wrong in the US right now. What I am seeking here is respite for myself and hopefully offering to you who are reading it from the relentless judging of our bodies and selves for 'failing' when it's doing its best, we are doing our best. Groping in the unknown in the dark with only a flickering flashlight that threatens to go out at every turn.