Coaches are not supposed to talk about themselves. Coaching is ‘client focused’, and when you come to me for help, our time together is about your story, your needs, your fears, your resources, your dreams of a better future. Of course, I can’t hide all information about me: my room, my appearance and my personality will give all sorts of clues. But when clients come to see me, they are seldom very interested in what novels I read or whether I like football – they are there because of a pressing urgency to change something, and their words often tumble out of them in their gratitude for a neutral listener who is paying full attention, and not interrupting them to impose their own story into proceedings.
It is unprofessional to talk about myself. But in this blog I’m about to do that. And I am doing it because I have been ill with coronavirus and come out the other side and I want to tell you about the experience to offer a story which might be helpful if you are suffering with it yourself, or if you are anticipating it and are scared. I also want to communicate some of what I learnt about myself whilst it was happening – there’s nothing like being ill with a potentially fatal disease to wake you up to what matters in your own little life.
My illness kicked in at the same time as it did for our Prime Minister. I had been feeling a bit strange for a few days with a sore throat and swollen glands but was otherwise active and presumed those symptoms were stress-related: I had lost all my group coaching and teaching work, and was very concerned about my elderly mother and how she was to keep fed and happy whilst far from me with a bunch of enfeebling conditions and no computer skills. On the evening of 26 March, after a jolly Zoom social with friends, I suddenly felt wave after wave of vibrations in my body – it was peculiar and ominous. My brain went into practical mode – ‘This may well be IT. Take paracetamol, go to bed, it’ll be fine.’ Sure enough, the next day I woke with what felt like a bad flu and was pretty sure this was the dreaded universal bug, particularly because I had had a flu jab – a winter habit which has kept me flu-free in previous years.
I live on my own and was immediately thankful as I knew if I had had to deal with another’s concerns, and the possibility of them becoming infected, on top of my own sickness, I would have had my focus split and I needed to put all my attention on monitoring my health and nurturing myself. I cancelled my clients, whom I’d been planning to see on Skype, as I sensed there was going to be no bluffing of my wellness possible. I told a handful of trusted friends so that they would check up on me regularly – I wasn’t planning on dying alone and neglected, but this felt wise, and of course, they would cheer me up with contact which was vital. I had not stockpiled food but I had enough to survive for a week or two at a pinch, and whilst well I’d become uncharacteristically homely and cooked a batch of vegetable soups, now snug in the freezer and perfect for the ailing cook.
I read a few choice articles online about what was emerging about the illness. There was a real shortage of personal records. I was an early adopter, infected before lockdown, and a lot of the earlier victims were still in the midst of their illness and not writing blogs or public diaries about what was going on for them (I certainly didn’t feel like writing this whilst under). I went onto the NHS 111 website and after a couple of brief questions about my symptoms, it informed me I was almost certainly suffering with it and I should stay put. No exercise hour for me – it was bed or couch – with one eye on changes in my breathing which my reading informed me could be a prompt to dial 999.
Then commenced an extraordinary roller coaster of physical and mental states. The first two days felt like manageable flu and I thought I’d be right as rain in no time, if I stayed in bed, popped paracetamol for the fever and drank hot honey and lemon (probably more a comfort than anything else, but it always feels like Vital Self-Care). Then a slump blindsided me, ushering in worse headaches, more need for sleep, crazy dreams, a harsher cough. Then, on about day 5, a sudden rush of energy! I leapt out of bed, did some ironing, danced round the living room, texted my favourite morning DJ on the radio saying I’d recovered from coronavirus and she gave me a shout-out then and there. My joy knew no bounds! I was clearly so healthy I could defeat this bastard in a matter of days. That’s hubris for you. After lunch I collapsed. Crawled back to bed, achy and humbled. Corona wasn’t beaten so easily. Slept a lot more. Ate vegetable soup.
I spoke to one or two friends a day but not for too long – my customary loquaciousness was stymied. Mercifully, my brain cogs and sense of humour were still working quite efficiently and I could take in a drama series on Netflix and lots of really funny items on Facebook and Twitter (media I felt less inclined to malign when they were such a fertile source of amusement to a woman who could have been very despondent indeed). But I couldn’t read a book till the very end of it all – my eyes skittered over the page and wouldn’t rest to process the grey words on white, full of meaningful content and layered arguments and plots. The large pile of unread novels and improving tomes I’d gleefully posted on FB as my happy antidote to enforced seclusion sat ignored.
The moodiness of the bug continued. One night I woke up at 3am, got up, felt great, did a stack of washing up, wrote a rough draft for a comedy monologue and went back to sleep. The next day, I woke in a fug again and shuffled to the kitchen for tea in a dirty dressing gown with what felt like a hippo sitting on my head.
I was scared a couple of times, when I had setbacks and couldn’t see a logical progression to it all (how often have my clients felt dispirited when their plan for change encountered obstacles and wasn’t a straightforward ride to success!). Once I woke up with the dreaded tight chest that some sufferers had said presaged a decline – I employed all my resources: deep breathing exercises, self-shiatsu, intoning positive mantras, visualising the goodie white blood cells destroying the baddie corona bugs (it looked like Space Invaders, which dates me). The next day, the tightness had subsided.
On the 10th day I had the worst of the relapses when I felt very headachy and frail and had to go back to bed all day after having graduated to the sofa in the daytimes. It transpired that this a critical day for everyone who still has the virus at that point – the immune system goes into overdrive and discomfort can increase quickly. Hospital admissions accelerate on that day, and indeed, that is when Mr Johnstone was admitted. After I came back from that, for lucky old me progress was made quickly. On the 11th day, I managed to speak to my doctor, who was comforting, and told me interesting new information such as that GPs were observing from patients’ reports that the bug was more likely to be a 3-week illness from start of symptoms to total recovery, rather than the 7 days initially thought. He told me I was a ‘mild’ case to which I responded that if that was mild, I dreaded to think what ‘moderate’ was. He said, in a tone of voice that warned against hysteria, that ‘moderate’ is when you have to go to hospital; ‘serious’ is when you need a ventilator. The worst illness I’d ever had, and the longest time I was ever trapped indoors (14 days) and the word for it was ‘mild’! Humph. I wanted a silver medal at least. On my last Thursday in the foetid warmth of my little flat/sickroom, I opened the window wide and pretended that some of the clapping for the NHS was applauding my very personal return to health.
What did I learn about myself from all this? Here’s a little summary:
- I know how to look after myself pretty well. All that independent living and resilience and practicality paid off.
- I’m impatient. I knew this, of course, but on this occasion, I saw how the rush to wanting it all to be over (or completed) set me back in a way that may even have been dangerous. I could have respected the process of the virus more and waited to do that ironing.
- I love my family and friends very deeply. They cared, they love me, they were there for me, lack of their physical presence notwithstanding.
- When I only have a tiny bit of energy to spend, I like spending it on comedy, drama, hot showers, changing my pyjamas, eating nice food, checking in with the wider world in my online newspaper of choice and staring out the window at the sky and next door’s garden. I didn’t write a memoir, plan my future career, practise transcendental meditation or learn Mandarin on YouTube.
- It’s nice to cry every now and again.
- I have a strong awareness of my bodily sensations when I give them my full attention. I could feel every shift of the illness in all its tempestuousness, though I couldn’t often predict where it would go next. But I was calmly ready for a crisis and had no fear of calling the paramedics if I felt on the edge of a big downturn.
- I crave doing creative things. As soon as it was over, I knew I’d want to make something and the first thing I did was this: #GettyMuseumChallenge:
- I love to move, and be supple and limber. I’m no athlete, but I am active and my new identity of Bed-Bound Lump didn’t feel very natural. After I came out of it all, I cycled round all the leafy streets of NE London and had satisfyingly achy legs the next day.
- Music is one of my greatest healers. Every day my weak little fingers would stray to the radio knob and my grateful ears would mop up whatever BBC6 Radio happened to be playing that hour, my invalid’s knees jiggling under the blankets to the disco numbers.
- The internet makes worldwide plague lockdown much easier to tolerate.
- Knowing the NHS was there – free and accommodating – was a huge fat cushion of comfort and reassurance, as embodied in my own kind, informative doctor.
- On the whole, life is really worth living.
Stay safe everyone. And if you get it, be true to yourself and take lots of paracetamol.