Learning to Breathe Again – Overcoming the Emotional Trauma of COVID-19

“I remember waking up in the morning. I went to the kitchen, watered the plants like I do every morning, prepared my ginger tea and then, I just started crying. The only thought I had was a simple question, why me?”

For those of you reading this, these words will sound like the words of someone coming to terms with tragedy, the end of a relationship or even the diagnosis of a terminal illness. In this case however, these are the words of someone trying to understand why they feel scared to walk to the supermarket alone, why they need to sit down after climbing the stairs, and why they are the one who has to learn to breathe again.

An ordinary dinner at home between four flatmates played witness to an uninvited patient zero and without warning, four positive Covid-19 tests. Not the after dinner digestivo these girls were hoping for. “I was sure I was healthy enough for this not to affect me.” This sentiment may seem all too familiar to those who thought COVID-19 was an illness for the elderly or sick but unfortunately for Fabiola, a 36-year-old Mexican women living in Dublin, she soon realised this was not the case.

Having moved to Dublin from Mexico 5 years ago, Fabiola has always considered herself a fiercely independent and resilient person having adapted to the challenge of starting from zero twice in her life already. Once when she spent 6 months living in London and the second being her move to Dublin with her first challenge coming in the form of understanding the thick accent of the Dublin bus driver when asking him if this was the bus to O’Connell street. Fabiola has carved out a successful life for herself in Dublin between her career in retail, her studies at university and the strong circle of friends she has made. With all of this, she had the world at her feet.

Her Covid symptoms deteriorated to the point where she found it increasingly difficult to breathe which resulted in her spending over ten hours in hospital. These hours in the hospital made her realise the fight she had on her hands to not let this virus take away the life she had built here.

“When I saw myself alone in this empty, sterile room in the hospital without even a nice picture on the wall, the sounds of the machines all around me and the doctors indistinguishable from each other with their faces covered in masks and protective clothing, I realised how alone I was in this country, how far away I am from my family and friends”

This moment of realisation might prove too much for some but for Fabiola, drawing on the strength of her experience of arriving alone in Ireland 5 years ago it was met with a simple reply “Don’t worry, you’ve done this before.” My interview with Fabiola was initially to highlight the struggles she was having with what is commonly known as ‘long Covid’ as she continues to suffer from fatigue, breathlessness, and muscle aches but what I discovered was an issue I had heard little about, the emotional trauma and stress of trying to put a life back together post Covid.

Post traumatic stress disorder or as it is known PTSD, is something we associate with soldiers returning from the horrors of war and not with someone dealing with the aftermath of a two-week illness trying to walk to the supermarket. Leaving the comfort zone of her flat proved more challenging than she had thought as her general fatigue and coughing resulted in an anxiety attack. She became nervous and worried that if something were to happen to her now and she could not breathe, would anyone help her?

“I try to get out more and more but, often when I go out, I feel this pressure in my chest. I didn’t realise this pressure in my chest was an anxiety attack and not from Covid. I consider myself a rational, social, and well-balanced person so I never thought this type of anxiety would affect me.”

Like with any traumatic experience in life, acceptance is paramount in being able to move forward and this is what Fabiola had to realise. Accepting that her body had gone though weeks of physical trauma along with the emotional stress of worrying about her health, her job, her studies, paying her rent was not easy. Born out of frustration there was one simple question going around and around in her mind, why me?

“I was sure I was healthy enough for this not to affect me. I’m 36, a vegetarian, I exercise, do yoga, go running, sleep well so I didn’t understand why I was suffering more than the others in the flat. I followed all the rules and precautions, yet I am the one who suffers the most and I have to question if I will ever be the person I was before, if I will ever have my old life back”

Not wanting to become a prisoner to the emotional prison Covid had created for her, Fabiola has a plan as she starts on the road to recovery. A consultation with a nutritionist is first on the agenda as she seeks to give her body all the help it needs to get her back to where she was before her illness along with more physical exercise and socialising outside the comforts of her flat. Patience is however, the most important part of the plan as she accepts that this will not be something that changes over night but, if she is to enjoy many years of physical and mental wellbeing, then these next months are imperative in reaching that goal.

“I have always been an independent person and that is what I want to be again. I don’t want someone to babysit me and walk me to the park. I want to be able to go for a coffee and read a book alone, have more spontaneity in my life and most importantly feel safe when I am alone. I’m not a patient person but I have to take care of myself now”

For many people, their memories of Covid-19 will be of social distancing, mask wearing, zoom calls and the frustration of having the simple pleasures in our lives taken away from us. For others like Fabiola, it will forever be a time of profound change and struggle and while the physical symptoms will fade, the emotional scars will take longer to heal. So, while we hope to soon return to those pursuits that we love while also feeling comfortable in the company of others again, for others like Fabiola that joy will be found in feeling at peace with every breath she takes.  

Cormac Breen

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