In 2021, I thought I was going to die. And I was pretty much OK with that.
It wasn’t that I was hoping for death or particularly wanted to die. It’s that I saw the trajectory Longhaul COVID had me on, and no matter what I had tried, nothing had provided even a momentary reprieve from the steady downward decent.
I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t participate in the fun activities going on around me. I’d have random bouts of extreme exhaustion. My heart would start racing with no physical exertion, and I was pretty much convinced that one of those episodes would be too much and I would just cease to be.
Through most of it, I wrote. That’s what I do.
I wrote about how Longhaulers were killing themselves and gave suggestions for loved ones to know what to do to stop that from happening. I talked about the hopelessness and the futility of going to doctor after doctor after doctor for scan after scan after scan, only for them to shrug their shoulders and say, “Hmmm. I dunno.”
Now almost two years from the lowest of the lows, I’ve rebuilt my life. I found a combination of things that worked … for me.
And that’s precisely why I haven’t shared much of it publicly. If there’s one thing we Longhaulers have learned, it’s that what works for Person A doesn’t necessarily work for Person B. I know I hated hearing everyone’s recommendation to try this or do that. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the care or concern. It’s that so much of it was quackery. Either that, or I’d already tried it and it didn’t work for me.
Maybe I’ve been doing people a disservice. Maybe what worked for me will work for you or the Longhauler you love. I know the only reason I tried the big stuff that was at the foundation of my turnaround was because the right person said the right thing at the right time. My wife was key, and she caught me at just the right moment — a moment when I was so utterly frustrated that if she would have told me running naked through Time Square might help, I’d have been booking an airplane ticket and preparing to strip down for a nice jog.
On top of my hesitancy in being That Guy who says, “Have you tried …?” I also wanted to give things some time. Longhaul has a way of fooling you, a way of making you think that the worst is over before smacking you in the face with a nice, hard reminder that it hasn’t gone away. But now nearly two years have passed. I’ve had time to reflect on the journey and can say, “Ya know what? I am pretty damn sure I beat it.”
And I want you to beat it, too.
So below is what I did to kick Longhaul’s ass. If any of this helps you in any way, if some combination of these things is foundational to you reclaiming your life from this wretched disease, then good. Do it. Get back to living.
And if it doesn’t? Please. Keep trying. Keep holding on. No matter who you are or how bad it seems, you’re needed.
Thing No. 1: Diet overhaul
Sadly, many of you won’t get past this point. I know this because I’ve had several conversations with people who are in the midst of Longhaul hell, and when I tell them how radically I changed my diet, they say, “I could never do that.” Yes, you can. I did, and I definitely could never do that.
I had a typical American diet when I got COVID in November 2020, and I kept right at it until June 2021. Yes, I heard about the suspicion that Longhaul was an inflammatory disease and how the foods we typically eat aren’t good for inflammation. But the thought of giving up processed foods and dairy and all sorts of other stuff that I loved to eat was a bridge too far until their was no other bridge to cross.
So I crossed it. I started eating what could best be described as paleo, but it’s not even really that. I ate so damn clean for six months or so and I was so maniacally focused on sticking to it that it was like I was a different person.
And here’s the thing: It worked.
Not at first. It takes a while for your body to get rid of all the crap. But after three months or so, I realized I was thinking more clearly, was far less exhausted and was actually … better? Not great, mind you. But better.
So I kept at it.
If you’re not willing to do something radical in the face of an unknown disease that is ruining the quality of your life, you need to ask yourself why? If nothing else, eating cleaner will help in a variety of other areas of your life. I lost 20 pounds without even trying! So why not try it?
Yes, it’s hard. America isn’t set up to eat healthy. Everything we do is about convenience when it comes to eating, and we’ve linked meals to socializing. Restaurants, even the “healthy” ones, won’t necessarily cater to this diet. So bring your own food. It’s hard to say no to the cheesecake or the ice cream or the pie or the fettucine alfredo.
It’s also hard to live with Longhaul COVID.
Are you still with me? Will you at least consider eating differently? Then let’s continue.
Thing No. 2: Functional medicine
The only reason I knew about this diet and about the various intolerances my body had to the foods I was eating was because I went to a functional medicine doctor. She ran a whole bunch of blood tests traditional doctors don’t. In the process, I learned about a whole lot of deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.
And I also learned about the foods that I could and should eat to help battle inflammation. She’s the one who helped me change my thoughts about food to an attitude that these things I put in my body are for fuel. Once I realized that, I thought I should probably put good gas in the car, so to speak.
I remember vividly when she was going over this diet. I was scared. Give up pizza? Bacon? Pepperoni? So I asked, “How strictly do I have to follow this?” I was already planning all the ways I could cheat.
Until she said this: “That depends. How bad do you feel.”
I felt like crap. So I committed to the change.
Functional medicine isn’t covered by insurance. The Western healthcare system isn’t really set up to cure you. It’s set up to treat you. That’s how the money keeps coming in. So I found the money to pay for it.
You can too. I don’t care what you have to give up to find the money. I don’t care if you have to start a GoFundMe or borrow from family or take out a loan. Your health is worth it and it’s not forever. So do it.
Why? Because it’s not just about the food and the supplements.
Thing No. 3: Ozone Infusion
My functional medicine doctor also told me about ozone infusion therapy, and at first, I thought she was nuts. Why in God’s name would I go to some clinic, let them drain a bag of my blood, then sit there while it’s dripped back into me after being infused with ozone?
Well, because it works. Or, at least, it worked for me.
That ozone is essentially O3. Oxygen as we breathe it is O2. That extra O in ozone looks for things in your body to bond to — things like undetectable traces of that insidious little disease still floating around your body.
When it finds it, it bonds to it and it renders it unable to reproduce and kills it.
So I did it. I went to the clinic and I watched as my blood drain and then waited as they injected ozone into the bag before reversing the process.
The only side effect was some fatigue the day of the treatment, but if you’ve got Longhaul, you’re pretty damn good at being tired anyway, so why not?
Yes, it’s costly and, yes, because it’s “alternative” in America, insurance doesn’t cover it. See No. 2, above.
Do it. Find the money.
I signed up for six treatments, one a week. After the third, I started feeling better. After the fifth, combined with the new diet, supplements and some of the things below, I was feeling … better? Yes, better. Not necessarily my old definition of “good,” but definitely better. I no longer needed multiple hardcore naps a day. I could walk from place to place without exhaustion or being winded. And I was thinking clearer.
Still, I needed to do more.
Thing No. 4: Sleep Help
Even before COVID and Longhaul, I’d had long periods of time with poor sleep. I’ve suffered from anxiety issues much of my life, and turning my brain off has always been an issue. Add a global pandemic and a variety of other issues, and I was sleeping really, really poorly despite being more exhausted than I’d ever been.
Lack of sleep is the enemy of Longhaul. Your body needs sleep to heal, and I wasn’t sleeping nearly well enough.
So I went to a sleep doctor. This, thankfully, was covered by insurance. She had me come in for a sleep study. I was hooked up to about a gazillion wires and then told “Good night. Oh, and by the way, we’ll be watching and listening to you all night. Sleep well!”
Eventually, I fell asleep.
Two weeks later, I got a call. The average person stops breathing a few times during the night. Did you know that? Yeah, don’t worry about that. It’s normal. But I was not breathing, on average, 53 times an hour. That’s almost once a minute! What the frick?!?!
Whether sleep apnea was brought on by COVID or whether I just discovered it because I felt so bad that I went to a sleep doctor, I don’t know. What I do know is that my APAP (a variety of CPAP) machine became my best friend.
Yes, it was hard to adjust to sleeping hooked up to the thing. But again, Longhaul COVID is also really hard. So I stuck with it. And I got used to it.
There was some improvement, but not enough. I was still not breathing about 15 times an hour.
So I went in for another sleep study. This time, they discovered a new kind of sleep apnea had emerged. Rather than the classic “something’s obstructing your airway” sleep apnea, this was central sleep apnea — the kind where your brain just sort of forgets to send the signal to breathe.
I got a different type of machine. All of a sudden, my number of incidents per hour dropped to less than one, on average.
It wasn’t that I was sleeping many more hours a night. It was that the sleep was actual sleep and not just a struggle to stay alive.
With that, the worst of the brain fog started to truly lift, and my body was in a better condition to fight the Longhaul stuff.
Thing No. 5: Brain care
I don’t need to tell you that trying to live your life and keep up with the responsibilities of being whatever it is you are for everyone else is hard when you feel awful. I am a husband, father, marketing guy, basketball coach and a whole lot of other things to a whole lot of other people.
Doing that in the midst of a global pandemic, when there is so much uncertainty and you feel like you’re letting everyone down, is hard.
So I got real serious real fast about taking care of me.
I found a great therapist to talk about my fears. I started going regularly to restorative yoga classes and used that time to focus and center myself. I meditated daily, at least 15 minutes.
One of the worst parts of Longhaul was that it rendered me unable to read. It’s not that I lost the ability to decipher words on a page. It’s that I couldn’t concentrate on them and was so frustrated that I would stop after a page. I was an avid reader before Longhaul, but I didn’t pick up a book for months.
Until a neuropsychiatrist told me the best way to get my brain back was to give it a workout everyday.
He recommended the online brain game service Lumosity. I started doing a brain workout daily. It felt ridiculous at the time to think that guiding trains into the right station or rapidly doing simple math problems would help my brain.
But it did.
I also committed to reading at least 10 pages of a book a day. It was brutally hard at first. Then, it was less brutally hard. Then, it was actually enjoyable again.
I still do Lumosity just about every day, and I’m currently reading every Stephen King book ever written.
I also started getting regular massages. It was a luxury, but it felt good. I combined it with my own personal mediation while the aches and pains were being worked on, and I left better.
Add all this stuff together, and I started doing a much better job of taking care of me and my brain.
Today, I’m back. My job involves a ton of creativity, and I find myself doing some of the best work of my career. I am doing so well that I started my own marketing company as a side business, Johnny Boy Marketing. The money I make through that helps me pay for some of this stuff … and then some.
More importantly, I’m living life again. I can go to a baseball game with my family and not have to worry that the walk from the car to our seats is going to ruin me for the rest of the week — or longer. My relationships are better. Everything is better.
I’m truly living.
In the process of doing all this stuff, I’ve created new habits. I’m not as fanatical about the eating as I used to be, but when I stray too far, my body lets me know I’m screwing up, so I correct course and return to what works. Ditto with the meditation and the yoga.
The bottom line? You can do this. Whatever your “this” is, if things are bad enough, what do you have to lose to try some or all of this stuff? There’s a whole world out there waiting for you to do your thing in it.
So start. Today. Right now. What’s your plan? Spend some time figuring that out. Enlist your loved ones. Use me as a resource. I’m available to talk and for support.
You’ve got this. I know you do.
John Agliata is a marketing guy, husband, father of two boys here and a budding improv guy. You can reach him at email@example.com.