I’m twenty-six, relatively physically fit (with no history of asthma, respiratory disease, etc.) but catching COVID-19 was not mild or fleeting for me. I got sick in mid-March, just before the lockdown in the UK came into effect.
It’s been over 100 days since then.
While I’m now out of the woods, my lungs are still struggling to cope with the lasting damage and I see no end in sight. We’ve all heard of the most common symptoms. We’ve heard that the estimated recovery time is just a few weeks. Not for cases like mine—the effects have been wide-ranging and last much longer. Reading stories of other people with long-term effects helped me to feel less alone so I’m sharing my experiences in the hope it does the same for others.
It began as an intense fever and a cough. Both symptoms hit me like a brick wall. Three days in, the cough went as suddenly as it came but in its place I found myself unable to breathe. I was gasping for air even when I was sitting still. I could barely speak. My lungs felt dry and inflamed and I couldn’t take deep breaths without experiencing blinding pain.
We’ve all known about these symptoms but I didn’t know about the side effects. The lack of oxygen caused my hands and feet to turn blue and go numb. The numbness became super painful and rendered me unable to do anything for myself for weeks.
When I called the COVID response team they told me because I’m young and relatively fit I would likely recover on my own. Hospitals were already becoming overwhelmed as the UK skyrocketed towards the peak—I didn’t make the cut to receive oxygen.
Being sick for this long, with no clue as to whether you’ll recover, will send you into an anxiety spiral.
I started to plan for what would happen if my condition deteriorated and I had to go into hospital—a list of who needed to be called, emergency contacts, a list of medication. What would happen to my partner if the worst was to happen. Did I need to make a will? At twenty-six I’ve never really had to think about it. Being sick for this long, with no clue as to whether you’ll recover, will send you into an anxiety spiral.
About two weeks in, my breathing seemed to get easier but that’s when my lungs started to fill up with fluid. At this point the doctors suspected COVID-pneumonia. Having your lungs slowly fill up with fluid is one of the most uncomfortable feelings—you can hear it “bubbling” every time you take a breath. All I could do was sit and wait, hoping my lungs didn’t become overwhelmed. I was desperate to keep myself out of hospital because I’d read too many stories of people going in and not coming back out.
I was told I was “lucky” to avoid that.
It didn’t feel much like luck at the time.
The doctors advised me not to lay down or put any kind of pressure on my chest. Doing so would cause more fluid buildup along with sharp stabbing pains. I had to sleep sitting up (I still have to now). Lumps started to appear on my chest that swelled up and down depending on how bad my breathing became.
Around this time the migraines started. They got so bad I completely lost the vision in my left eye for about two months. It’s been returning slowly but I still have dark spots that obscure my sight. I don’t know when or if it’ll go back to normal.
For months all I could do was sit there and wait for it to pass or get worse.
Not being able to do things for yourself, not even being able to do simple time passes like watching TV—to distract yourself from knowing you have a potentially fatal disease—takes a huge mental toll. As someone with severe anxiety, dealing with my physical health while worrying about the impact of the pandemic on the world, whether I infected anyone else before I started showing symptoms, whether I’ll ever get to see loved ones again, has been soul-crushing. For months all I could do was sit there and wait for it to pass or get worse. The feelings of helplessness and frustration still haven’t left me.
It took nearly three months for the fevers to subside. They were constant and painkillers didn’t help. I couldn’t think straight and felt constantly dizzy and overheated. Oh, and did I mention the memory loss? I’d forget big chunks of the day, or names, or basic things.
I couldn’t go outside for over seven weeks. Even now I rarely do. I used to walk everywhere, easily, without ever getting out of breath. Now, the two flights of stairs down from my apartment seem daunting. Walking used to be a joy for me, something that helped me cope with my anxiety, but I don’t think I’ll get that feeling back now. It is still a struggle to do basic tasks and I get tired very quickly. The constant fatigue is real. The only thing I can compare it to is jet lag from a long haul flight.
Four months in and I’m still exhausted.
Four months in and I still can’t take deep breaths.
Four months in and I still can’t lay down, even to sleep.
Four months in and my lungs still feel like they’re gummed up. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s like they’re stuck together. I can only take in small amounts of oxygen and the discomfort and pain is ongoing. It’s frustrating as hell not to be able to function normally. And even though I’m better than I was, with such a weakened and tired immune system, I constantly worry I’ll get reinfected. With the way I’m feeling, both physically and emotionally, I don’t think I could go through it again. And I don’t want anyone else to have to.
To all the twenty-somethings (or any age, for that matter) thinking you’ll be fine: It’s a lottery. COVID-19 doesn’t care if you’re young and healthy, if you’re bored of social distancing, or if you think you’ll be okay.
I have no idea how long this will last. I don’t know if I’ll ever get completely better at this point. There is no information readily available for people like me who’ve had symptoms for this long. Only that it’ll take “time and rest” to heal and I have to be monitored for the next few months. I’ve signed up for a study into the long term effects in the hope that my experiences can help others. But I’m still left with more questions than answers.
What I do know is I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. To all the twenty-somethings (or any age, for that matter) thinking you’ll be fine: It’s a lottery. COVID-19 doesn’t care if you’re young and healthy, if you’re bored of social distancing, or if you think you’ll be okay. It’s not “just a cough” or “like the flu” for some of us. Every time you go out (and it’s not essential) you’re putting yourself and others at risk, symptoms or not. It might be more comfortable to ignore this but it’s a fact we all have to face. Because being stuck in a lockdown might be uncomfortable; having COVID-19 is far worse. You might not have symptoms but the friends, family, and any other people you infect might be like me. Or they won’t be “lucky” enough to survive.
This isn’t over and it won’t be for quite some time. Until then (and always), it’s our responsibility to take care of each other.