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Overcoming long-hauler symptoms

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I’m back. Did you miss me? I’ve been laying low recovering from long-haul COVID and certainly lacking any creative mojo. I read my last column in quarantine, while eating soup I could not taste or smell, extremely anxious about being sick with the virus. I suppose I had every reason to be worried as this virus proved to be the most terrifying sickness I have ever experienced.

The initial week that I was sick was mild. No fever. No cough. The hardest part was the boredom of being locked away from my family. A FaceTime Thanksgiving is not something I care to repeat. After a few weeks I was doing better. Although much slower, I went back to some of my physical activities like Crossfit and uphilling on Buttermilk.

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Then, around week four, my body shut down. I found myself in the ER convinced I was having a heart attack. If I were a robot, you could say the wiring in my body short circuited, which caused the most bizarre and frightening symptoms. My heart felt like it had barbed wire woven through it, my heart rate would spike while doing simple things like standing in line at the grocery store. My breathing patterns became labored, my ability to fall asleep annihilated. Most days my digestion was horribly slow and my arms and hands would buzz or go numb like I dipped them in IcyHot cream. In short, I felt like crap all the time for months.

Because I was desperate for answers, I called the only doctor I had in my contacts. A doctor I didn’t really know because before COVID I was one of those super healthy, fit and foolish individuals who pride themselves in not having a primary care physician. This doctor was no help. But, to be fair, I think most doctors were and continue to be at a loss with the mysterious longhaul COVID symptoms. Prescribing anti-depression meds was certainly a knee-jerk reaction. Of course, these meds didn’t have any effect. Although I was feeling down about my body being so out of whack, the root problem was not depression or anxiety.

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After that, my gut feeling was to go with what I believe and have always believed to be the best path for me and that is alternative medicine. I work in the alternative medicine world and my mother raised us with her vast knowledge of Mexican herbal remedies so it just felt right. I worked closely with the most caring and intuitive acupuncturist, named Heidi Stoeckl, in Basalt and with our local shaman medicine woman, Dr. Hilary Back. Okay, maybe she isn’t a shaman — maybe more of a naturopath — but brilliant and extremely knowledgeable in her field, nonetheless.

I also did my own research. During all those sleepless nights, I read many books on the vagus nerve which is like the soothing balm of the body. This one long winding nerve plays a big role in chilling us out. It helps lower our heart rate. It governs our breathing patterns and even aids in our digestion. Basically, it rules all those functions that so many long-haulers, including myself, suddenly found were not working properly. I learned there were many ways to tone this nerve and so, for several months, the babying of it was my top priority. On top of acupuncture, massage and a slew of supplements, I braved many cold river plunges. I learned all sorts of breathing exercises. I hummed, I gargled water. I took every measure to ensure I had a healthy gut biome by doing things like quitting coffee, sugar, dairy, chocolate and alcohol.

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Over the weeks, I started steadily improving even though many times it felt like it was two steps forward one step back. It was not an easy, linear road to recovery. There was a lot of fear that would creep in. Especially at night, when dark thoughts would take over. Would I ever see my active lifestyle again? Would I ever sleep again? There are so many unknowns about this virus. I don’t know about you but unknowns freak me out.

Today, I still can’t smell much so I burn more food than I care to admit. But, I’m thrilled to report I’m back to all my physical activities. I still have to monitor how hard I push my body and I have obsessively good sleep hygiene. The occasional rough night happens, but overall, I’m so much better than I was a few months ago. And as much as I believe in alternative medicine, I have met a caring doctor who I’m excited to call my primary care physician and who is working with many other long-haulers.

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Through this season of suffering I was often asked if I gained some spiritual insight. I can’t say enduring this pain could be connected to any enlightenment or greater wisdom. There was nothing noble about it. I was just one of the unlucky ones who had to get through it the best I could. I can say, however, that this ordeal made me feel more gratitude for my body’s ability to heal itself and for the team of people who supported me along the way. Maybe my unlucky go with COVID did make me more compassionate, and that is precisely why I decided to share this with you, just in case there is anyone out there who is struggling with long-haul symptoms and worried that they will never get better. I’m truly sympathetic to those struggles and maybe my story can inspire a bit of hope. Surround yourself with a good team of healers, be gentle with yourself. But most of all, believe you can get better. Recovery, although slow, is totally possible.

Tags: #COVID #healing