No stranger to overcoming huge health and emotional issues, writer Poorna Bell reflects on how she pieced herself back together after long Covid knocked her down again...
Nine years ago, I found myself in the hospital, lying on a table in a darkened room. I’d been finding it hard to catch my breath, and my dad, a retired GP, insisted I go to A&E to get checked out. I expected to go in, have a chat with the doctor, roll our eyes collectively at my father’s over-protectiveness and be back in the office by lunch. But instead of dashing into Pret, I was about to have an echocardiogram.
Apparently, I had a hole in my heart that I’d had since birth, and I’d been unaware because somehow my body had managed to chug along until it got to the point where it simply couldn’t.
I have spent a lifetime listening to music but when my heart spoke to me through that machine in a swoosh and a thump, it was sweetest song I’ve ever heard. I realised that our body expresses itself all the time, but we pretend we don’t understand what it’s saying, whether that’s sleep more or work less. Until we reach the point where it grounds to a halt and we are forced to listen.
Afterwards, I rested more, drank less and moved in ways that made me feel good mentally, such as running outdoors. Having heart surgery also meant I could physically do more, which felt like a gift I didn’t want to waste.
Although there is a huge mental component to recovering from physical illness, human beings are fickle and our memories are short, so I mostly forgot about my heart and went back to taking my health for granted. Until I caught Covid-19 in March 2020 and was forced to confront something that would turnout to be even more challenging: long Covid.
What is long Covid?
Long Covid is the term used to describe the longer-term symptoms of Covid, which can last for months and be debilitating. For me, that included a distortion of taste and smell, deep and constant fatigue, body aches, restricted breathing and nausea. For others, it has meant being in a wheelchair or even losing their hair.
Just before I got sick, I was physically the strongest I had ever been – I had just lifted
a personal best squat of 110kg. But almost overnight, that strength was snatched away from
me. Over the next 10 months, it mentally unravelled me, and although it was not comparable to the worst period in my life, it definitely comes second.
The worst thing happened several years after my heart surgery, five years before Covid in 2015, when my beloved husband Rob passed away by suicide, after along battle with depression and addiction. Grief burned through things I had previously thought were important, but throughout it all, I had always moved my body, whether going for a run or to the gym, because it offered a small dose of mental relief from being sad all the time.
In the aftermath of Rob’s death, the realisation that I had never really valued getting physically stronger was triggered by a practical need to move house. I realised that I couldn’t do any of the heavy lifting, and so I hired a personal trainer, who taught me how to lift weights.
Although it initially began as a physical goal, it had unexpected mental benefits. Aside from the serotonin it generated, it made me feel more confident and capable. I became known in my family as the ‘strong one’ and it also osmotically flowed into my working life by giving me a strong sense of self-belief. In 2019, I took up powerlifting, a type of competitive weightlifting in which the goal is to lift the heaviest weights in three types of lift: squat, bench press and deadlift.
After a year, I decided to write a book about what I had learned. I had seen first-hand how lifting weights made me confident and reduced the intimidation I felt if I was the only woman or person of colour in the room. I wanted to make a case for how amazing we could feel about ourselves by getting stronger.
But long Covid wasn’t in the plan, and I found myself having to write a book about strength just when I was at my weakest. Not just that, but at a time when I didn’t really know what was wrong with me.
It’s easy to forget now, but in the first few months of the pandemic, we didn’t know much about Covid. When I fell ill, I thought it was just another bug because I didn’t have a high temperature or a cough. My sense of taste and smell vanished but that wasn’t a known symptom at the time, and there was no access to testing. I seemed to get better after two weeks; thank goodness, I thought, and threw myself back into weightlifting at home.
What are some of the long-term effects of Covid?
But two weeks after my seeming recovery, I couldn’t get out of bed. My chest was tight and I was extremely nauseous. (A friend joked about the latter being a sign of pregnancy and I retorted that immaculate conception was not a thing.) I barely had enough energy to make tea and toast, and this continued for the next few days.
I needed to lie down a lot, but my body ached fiercely, so resting wasn’t exactly, well, restful. After a week, I dragged myself out for a walk but barely five minutes in, I had to shuffle back home. This continued for weeks; I couldn’t work out why my recovery was so slow.
It was the longest that I hadn’t lifted weights and I was itching to get back to it. While I was happy people had pivoted to home workouts, I found Instagram unbearable during this time because I couldn’t manage more than a walk or some gentle yoga.
At around the seven-week mark, I went to A&E. They confirmed my blood pressure and chest was normal, but that they had noticed an increasing number of people reporting longer-term symptoms. When I called my GP a day later, they said the same thing. Finally! I thought. I’m not going mad.
Around the same time, we started to hear the words ‘long Covid’ being mentioned – and it was being compared with the post-viral fatigue that people could get after other viruses, such as glandular fever.
While it was reassuring to know it was real, a slow, cold dread set in. Lifting weights had been such an important part of how I had built a new life for myself and coped with some of my grief. Now, I was no longer the ‘strong one’; I didn’t know who I was without that.
I was sent information on managing my energy levels, but the impact on my quality of life was immense. It felt like standing on quicksand: one minute I’d feel okay, the next, the ground would give way to tiredness. A seemingly minor detail yet one with huge impact was that my sense of taste of sense and smell was distorted for nine months, which was utterly unmooring.
As the weeks passed, I felt as if the connection between my mind and body was being severed. I didn’t feel like myself, but worse, I didn’t know who my new self was. Did this mean I was now chronically ill? How could I write a book about strength when I felt so weak?
There wasn’t, and still isn’t, much guidance around managing long Covid, and even my GP surgery told me they felt frustrated they couldn’t support their patients better. I had a chest X-ray and a blood test that showed normal results, and shortly after this, I decided I was going to have to take control of what I could.
As gyms started to open up, my power lifting teammates started lifting again. But I couldn’t even get through a resistance bands workout let alone lift with them, and it felt like an even bigger grief because weightlifting was also about the community, and one I felt estranged from at a time when social isolation was such a powerful undercurrent.
How long does it take to recover from long Covid?
A turning point came in September when I decided to get help mentally with long Covid, and reconfiguring my relationship with strength and how I saw myself as a person. I saw a sports psychologist who challenged me to find a sense of self beyond lifting weights. As it turned out, the values my friend sand family love about me – from loyalty to fierceness – don’t have anything to do with what I look like or how much I can lift.
A couple of months after that, my full sense of smell and taste returned. At last, coffee didn’t smell like burning rubber, and when I realised I could smell my own natural body odour, I actually jumped around my flat. I was still experiencing symptoms and was mystified as to why, but by this point I had almost made my peace with the fact that maybe I wouldn’t be able to lift heavyweights again.
Maybe I wouldn’t be the strong one physically, but there were plenty of other ways I was strong, and mentally surviving the worst of long Covid with no partner to lean on was just as impressive.
In January this year, however, after 10 months of having long Covid, I finally entered a full recovery, which also included re-training my brain to not fear exercise. I was in disbelief when it happened. When that barbell touched my back for the first time in months, it felt like home. I would never take it for granted again.
When I was ill, I told myself that if I ever got well again, I’d make grand plans of getting to Everest Base Camp or entering another powerlifting competition. But strength means something different to me now.
I had to dig deep and find what strength truly meant, when I wasn’t physically capable of much. I also had to redefine what ‘much’ was, and how there was still a sense of achievement to be found in things I previously wouldn’t have thought impressive. When you are ill, a 10-minute walk can be just as life-affirming as hiking up the side of the Himalayas. I know this because I’ve done both.
To me, strength is something you constantly redefine and adapt while somehow holding on to the core of your individuality and the things that make you the most beloved. If you were to ask my loved ones, they would say that it is my ability to get up no matter how many times I get knocked down. I know this won’t be the last time I get brought to my knees, but each time it happens, I get better at standing up.
Stronger: Changing Everything I Knew About Women’s Strength (Bluebird/PanMacmillan) by Poorna Bell is out now.
This feature originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Red, out now.
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