(My) Top 10 Ways to Cope With Longhaul COVID

Hi. My name is John, and I’m a COVID Longhauler.

I’m quite convinced that most adults have at least one of “those stories.” You know what I’m talking about… the stories that gets rehashed ad nauseum every time the family gathers, no matter how old you are. Of course, never do these stories showcase your progress. These are the stories that are regurgitated to remind you of your humble roots as a doofus or screw-up — or a doofus screw-up.

Lucky for me, there is a deep well of stories from which my family can — and does — choose. There’s the time the form to register for the SAT sat on the kitchen counter for weeks without my filling it out until my dad lost his shit (for him, anyway) the day before it was due. This most often is brought up when I say, “Yeah, that’s on my agenda” to something the family needs me to do.

There’s the time when I was 16 and, while talking to my then-girlfriend on the phone, decided on the spur of the moment to drink one of the beers that seemed to have a permanent home in our fridge, seeing as how neither of my parents drank beer. Distracted by what I’m sure was a scintillating conversation with the then-girlfriend, I stupidly put the empty can back in the fridge along with the package of salami I was noshing from. This most often is brought up after I showcase how, yes, my head is often in the clouds somewhere.

And then there’s the story about how I started freaking out one afternoon just before my second year of preschool. I’m told my first year of preschool, during which we were dubbed “chickadees,” went well. To me, that means I didn’t eat paste, didn’t pick my nose too much and was boss at show-and-tell. But evidently I wasn’t my normal room-illuminating self with the approach of the second year, during which we would be dubbed “robins.” As the story goes (over and over and over again), when my mother asked me what was wrong, I broke down in tears and cried out, “But I don’t know how to be a robin!”

Which illustrates perfectly how, in many ways, I am to this day, anxious about how I’m supposed to fit into a future that lacks definition. Yes, I figured out how to be a robin, but that and a million other success stories have failed to convince my brain that I’m a pretty adaptable dude and find my way quite well when the moment actually arrives.

Enter Longhaul COVID.

No one knows how to be a Longhauler. In fact, those of us who are trying to figure it out are finding that there seem to be as many varieties of Longhaulers as there are cases of Longhaul COVID. Everyone seems to have his own special combination of symptoms. Some people have digestive issues. Some don’t. Some can’t work. Some can. Some have diagnosed heart or lung issues. Some don’t. Some can’t smell or taste. Some can. It goes on and on and on.

I have faced a lot of shit in my life. Each time, there’s been a textbook. Yes, Lyme’s Disease was new-ish when I got it back in the early 1990s, but I lived not far from Lyme, Connecticut, so there was a great local body of research at that point. When I came down with what was ultimately diagnosed as a non-Epstein-Barr type of mono after my freshman year of college, yeah, it took doctors a bit to figure out what was going on, but when they did, they knew what to do.

With this Longhaul stuff, there is no textbook, no large body of research. There only are guesses and trials that, in my case, have led to exactly nothing.

In the meantime, the virus has progressed. The worst of the fatigue has thankfully eased a bunch. Mouth stuff and hand pains have stepped in to take its place. Wonderful.

For the first time in many Longhaulers’ lives, there is a question with no answer, a hidden truth, a thing that smart people haven’t got a clue about. There is only a somewhat constant misery we are forced to adapt to if we’re going to continue to live on this plane.

I realized this morning that I have adapted, if not belatedly and somewhat kicking and screaming along the way. I have, indeed, found things that have worked for me to help me live life while… what? While doctors figure shit out? While the virus runs its course? Don’t know. And that’s part of the whole “adapting” thing, I guess.

Now, I know most people who see a “Top 10” article don’t read anything that comes before the list, but I hope you have, because it’s really important that you see that these are things that have worked for me, to some degree. I’m not telling you “Go out and do these things and you’ll feel better!” because I’ve tried a dozen other things that people told me would make me feel better that didn’t. Again, there are as many types of Longhaulers as there are cases of Longhaul COVID, it seems.

That said, we’re all at a point where we need to start figuring this whole “robin” thing out, because, like it or not, we are all now robins.

So, without further ado…

Top 10 Things That Have Helped Me Cope With Longhaul COVID

  1. Honor Your Limitations: Like most men, I’m not good with “I can’t.” it is humbling and often humiliating to accept the limitations of being a Longhauler. The most recent one for me was when I had to hand a bag of M&M’s to my 11-year-old because my hands hurt too badly for me to open them. The reality is, though, I do have limitations now. A lot of them, on some days. To pretend I don’t helps no one. For me to start navigating my way through this new world, I had to inventory those limitations and make the people who love me the most aware of them. The challenge many Longhaulers face is that these boundaries seem to be constantly changing. Some days, I can think with the best of them and have great in-depth conversations on topics of major importance. Other days, I have to hope for good cell service to look up my ZIP code when I try to pay at the pump with a credit card.
  2. Stop Trying to Push Through: I have dealt with more than a few situations in my life where the ultimate answer to fixing a problem was to try harder. Feel like you can’t get out of bed? Get out of bed. Back pain from a car accident still there after six months? Be more focused on your physical therapy between appointments. Suck at math? Yeah, well, I never figured that one out. I can’t say this strongly enough: You cannot push your way through being a Longhauler. If you did, please let me know so I can amend that sentence. To date, I have talked to not one Longhauler who was able to beat his symptoms by working more, trying harder or go-go-going. This includes people who were runners before and regularly logged 10 miles a day, as well as the more sedentary folks such as myself who are going to log 10 miles in a day only in some sort of wheeled transportation or if being pursued by a persistent bear. It took me awhile to “get it” that the more I tried to push through, the worse I felt. If Longhaul COVID does one thing, it slows us down. Honor that. I still suck at this, but when I don’t honor it, I take at least five steps backward in whatever “healing” looks like for this.
  3. Figure Out Your Load-Management Program: Honestly? I hate the term “load management.” It became a thing in the NBA in the past decade and is what I at first thought was a way for millionaire prima donnas to find a way not to play but still cash fat paychecks. Turns out there’s science behind it, which doesn’t mean a thing to me if I plop down money from my skinny paycheck to see you play and you’re on the bench in a suit that costs more than my monthly mortgage. But yeah, I get it. There are times in our life when science will tell us we’re more likely to get injured and hurt our team in the long run. I’m now able to break my days into two categories: Good Days and Longhaul Days. On Longhaul Days, I use load management to lessen my workload at home and at my job. I take more frequent breaks. I lean on my wife to pick up more of the duties with caring for our kids and the child from Burkina Faso we’re hosting while he gets medical treatment. In short, I’m going to make that day about me. It sucks. It’s a hard thing to do when you’re an empath who is so used to giving giving giving giving to a point beyond exhaustion. But it’s also 100 percent necessary, and I’m beyond blessed to have understanding family members and co-workers.
  4. Say ‘No’ With Abandon: I have never really had a problem telling people “no” if they ask me to do something I wouldn’t be able to do well or if it’s something I simply don’t want to do at that point in history. I know my wheelhouse, I know the things that necessarily stretch my comfort zone, and I know when enough is enough. So I have had no problem telling people “no” to help me respect my new limitations and load-management program. Sometimes, these “no’s” crop up after initial “yes’s” when a arrives on which there’s something I agreed to do but I’m having a Longhaul Day. I know I’ve lost some connections over this. Tough. If you can’t see the “no” isn’t about you, we probably shouldn’t have a relationship anyway. This extends from my personal life into my professional life. Of course there are work things I can’t say “no” to. But I can say “no” if you plan a meeting for the late afternoon, when my brain tends to be fried, and ask you to schedule something the next morning. My co-workers know that, for now, if they want the best John, they’re gonna go after the Morning John.
  5. Avoid the News: I spent a few months reading everything that came out about COVID and Longhaul COVID. Now, I try to check in every few weeks to see if anyone’s figured anything out. So far, they haven’t. When you’re not well, being “plugged in,” whether it’s to COVID news or otherwise, is a bad idea. After being a journalist for 20-plus years earlier in my career, I know the world is a mean, ugly place where people do horrifically nasty things to each other. I am at my best when I choose not to marinade in it. That means no TV news, no Internet news, no alerts on my phone and very limited social media interaction, among other restrictions. The world can go on being sucky. I’m taking my ball and going to my off-the-grid cabin in the woods.
  6. Talk to the Right Someone(s): As I’ve written about here before, my life is spectacularly devoid of genuine connection. I’ve got my wife, who is the biggest blessing in my world. There is precious little else. Sure, there are some co-workers who genuinely care, but I tend to keep them at a distance because of past bad experiences with co-workers. There are a few “friends,” none of whom live in the same time zone. So absent people who want to talk to me, I reached out to pay someone to talk with me. Sad but true. Yes, the value of a good therapist cannot be measured. And for God’s sake: Find a therapist who’s going to challenge your bullshit. If you find your therapist only being your biggest cheerleader, question the relationship and consider finding someone who might make you a bit less comfortable.
  7. Yoga: At heart, I’m a woo-woo hippie dude who believes in many things considered non-traditional by Western society. This is a relatively new thing in my life, and it shocks many people who think they know me. I have found the most amazing yoga studio with restorative yoga classes led by a quirky, hippie-ish instructor who is really good at helping her students find quiet and ease in what has become a too-crazy world. Restorative yoga, for those unfortunate enough to have not tried it, is not like the yoga you might be thinking of. There are no super-challenging poses or crazy stretches. What there is, however, is a lot of serenity, some bolsters to support your body parts in various positions, sandbags that feel great when they’re placed on your hips, shoulders, back or chest, and a whole lot of lying around. But it’s the most productive lying around you might ever do. I don’t care about your body type… you can do this and, Longhauler or not, you should at least try it a few times.
  8. Mindfulness: I love my morning coffee. I appreciate how it smells, that first hot sip on a cold morning, the way the mug feels in my hand, the sentimental significance of the mug itself. That is mindfulness — taking immense pleasure in the things that light up our senses. I am at my best when I’m focusing on those things. The feel of the breeze on my cheek. The scent of the air after a thunderstorm. The sight of my wife’s blue-blue-blue eyes after a long day of work. Man, that is where life is. And when I’m focused on that stuff, life is better.
  9. Create: Yes, I dream of going viral and publishing 50 books and giving up my day job to write, write, write. Surely there’s some publisher out there who sees value in making me the next Stephen King or Oprah or something, right? Seriously, though: Yes, I write these blogs (and the others at this site) for the people who read them, but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t equally about my needs. I must create. That’s at the core of who I am. I can’t draw a straight line, my singing voice scares children and if Jimi Hendrix heard me attempt guitar he’d reach up out of his grave and punch me in the throat. So I write. I design. I do what I have been blessed with the ability to do. And it helps. Yes, I have to accept the limitation of having to take frequent breaks even if I’m in the zone when I’m writing. But when I’m creating I’m truly alive. Maybe you can draw, can sing, can play the guitar. Maybe you have a green thumb and can create a bitchin’ garden. There’s tremendous energy in bringing something into the world that didn’t exist before.
  10. Find Your Quiet Places: For me, the world is sometimes way too loud and busy. And that was before the sensory overload part of Longhaul COVID. Now, the world is often way too loud and busy. If I am not able to strategically retreat from time to time, I’m toast. So I find my quiet place wherever I go. A co-worker told me of a room not frequently used that has the bonus of a La-Z-Boy. I have a mancave at home and noise-canceling headphones to block out the boisterous play of my kids and their friends. I know a variety of quiet parks where I can sit and listen to podcasts or soft music. My wife and I sometimes drive separately to the same function so her need to be filled by people and conversations can coexist with my need to put a limit on stimuli. It is really, really, really hard to get away to the level I truly need to so I can find true quiet and ease away from any humanity-created sound. But I can do my best and, most of the time, find the next best thing.

So what’s your list? Can’t get to 10? Fine. Get to five. Or three. Or one.

Got nothing? Start today. Take some time to be still and — to sink disgustingly into the world of human resource-speak — look at the tools in your toolbox. We’ve all got things we can do to at least try to make life a little better right now.

Yeah, it might not be easy, but know this: Nothing… nothing you face will be as challenging as figuring out how to make that huge transition from chickadee to robin.

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