How I Developed PTSD With COVID-19

I had a serious case of the COVID-19 during spring 2020. Although I was never tested, both my doctors were convinced I had the virus when I described my experiences with it.

I contracted it at the beginning of March 2020. The coronavirus went at the end of April 2020 and I was left with a secondary chest infection, which I feel was pneumonia due to the swelling in my lungs. This cleared with three courses of antibiotics at the end of May 2020. I am now suffering from post viral fatigue and experiencing long tail COVID.

My Experiences with COVID-19

I initially had difficulty breathing and the flu symptoms were mild. I thought I’d recovered after just over a week, but I was very wrong.

About two weeks after I thought I’d recovered, it hit my like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t breathe, my oxygen levels were low, I had fatigue that completely knocked me out and chills like I’ve never experienced before. I was in bed with a thick jumper, a thick scarf and under my thick duvet, and I was still cold.

I was confined to my bed unable to breathe and stay awake. I now know that this would have been classed as an emergency that would have required hospital treatment. I am pretty certain, now knowing the state I was in, they would have put me on a ventilator, my organs had slowed down and I couldn’t breathe. The survival rate at that time was very low with the ventilator, it was about 50%. There was a good chance I wouldn’t have made it back.

The first five days were the worst, and then I could breathe a tiny bit more, but I was still confined to my bed, unable to stay awake and unable to breathe. My oxygen levels still felt low. The times I needed to get out of the bed were extremely difficult and took up so much energy.

At the time, because of the government’s messaging, I didn’t think I had the coronavirus. I didn’t have a fever or a continuous cough. The other symptoms were never mentioned at the time, and in many respects, apart from the loss of sense of taste and smell, the list of symptoms to look out for in this country hasn’t been updated.

This does infuriate me because it is so dangerous and can put peoples’ lives at risk. Other countries such as Germany and the US list all the symptoms that can be experienced. This is a more comprehensive list of symptoms listed in the US:

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention: Symptoms of Coronavirus

Even though I didn’t think it was the coronavirus, I knew this wasn’t a normal illness. I’ve never had anything like this before, but I didn’t really think about it. I guess I tried to convince myself that this was okay and whatever I had would pass. The flu symptoms were mild so I didn’t think it was that bad. I just needed to rest. I couldn’t do anything else because I was pretty much out of it.

Everything slowed down, my organs slowed down. There was a point when it felt like a switch had been switched on, and I could feel my body was working again. This was at the end of April. I later found out from my doctor, that this was the point where the virus had gone and I was left with the secondary chest infection. The secondary chest infection, which I feel was pneumonia due to the inflammation I felt in my lungs, cleared after three courses of antibiotics.

My Emotional State During the Illness

I was calm for most of the illness, even when my oxygen levels were low. I was struggling to stay awake, and when I was awake, I didn’t really think about it. I treated it as a normal illness that just needed rest. I didn’t worry. During some of the time I was awake, I could write messages to friends and family.

There is a phenomena called ‘happy hypoxia’ that is being seen with some Covid-19 patients with low oxygen levels. The patients are calm, not showing any distress, and talking. When I read this article, The Guardian: Happy hypoxia: unusual coronavirus effect baffles doctors, it struck a chord and I feel this is how I was during the illness.

I think I only started to worry and feel distressed when I became more conscious, had a little more energy, and I didn’t seem to be getting better. I was in bed resting but there was not much improvement. Even after the chest infection cleared at the end of May, I was pretty much confined to the bed and suffering from fatigue, brain fog and some flu like symptoms. This is when I started to look for articles to help me make sense of what was going on.

These are the articles I found that helped me understand what was going on in my body. It also made me aware that others were going through this as well, so I didn’t feel alone.

Financial Times: From Blood Clots to Covid Toe: ‘The Medical Mysteries of Coronavirus’

The Guardian: Lingering and Painful Long and-Unclear Road to Coronavirus Recovery: Long Lasting Symptoms

In some ways it was a relief to know what I was experiencing was normal amongst a small percentage of people recovering from the virus, but there was a part of me that was scared to see what the virus was capable of doing during its time in my body.

I didn’t feel scared as such, but I as I write this I am now realising that I might have been blocking those feelings unconsciously. It felt like my rational mind took over. It was trying to make sense of what was going on, and I was relieved when I found the answers. I was in survival mode.

When I Realised I Had Developed PTSD

About a week before I was due to start the BA (hons) Fine Art course in September, I had an overwhelming feeling of terror and anxiety. I felt I couldn’t cope and that it was too much. It was only when I made the connection with the illness that those feelings subsided. This is when I knew those feelings weren’t due to me starting the course, those feelings belonged to my experience with the virus, when I was severely ill.

I developed PTSD without me even being aware that I was being traumatised by my experience. I was shocked that I was completely unaware of such intense emotions during the illness. I was completely calm for most of the period. These intense feelings completely bypassed my conscious thoughts and went straight into my subconscious. They were contained in an area of the brain where they lay dormant, until it was triggered by an experience that inadvertently produces the same emotional response.

When I realised what had happened, everything started to make sense. Looking back to the months prior to this realisation, I noticed that I seemed to get very upset and emotional when I heard other people’s stories about their experiences with the virus, but I felt numb when it came to my own experiences with it.

My emotions had become disconnected from my experiences with the virus. The emotions are there, which is why I am triggered by other people’s experiences and I can feel their pain. Blocking these emotions was automatic, I had no control over it, I wasn’t even aware of them. I know the brain did this in order for me to survive the illness. I wouldn’t have been able to recover if I felt these intense emotions. I needed to be calm and not frightened so that my body had the energy to heal.

I know I was close to death. It took me a very long time to say the word death, the nearest thing I could say was, “I was close to that door”. This wasn’t a normal experience, as much as I was trying to convince myself it was.

It’s strange because even knowing others are going through this, and I am part of that group of people, I feel very disconnected from everything. Again, I imagine that might be another way of my brain trying to protect myself, by stopping me realising how serious this actually is. I don’t want to feel this numbness. It’s like a wall that comes up. I have started therapy again to help with this, and to help my brain start processing the trauma.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health

There are going to be many people who are going to be traumatised and develop PTSD and other mental health problems, caused directly or indirectly from this virus. They will need the help and support with this, but getting that help is extremely difficult through the NHS. It’s awful to know people will be waiting months or even years to see a therapist and get the help they desperately need.

I know how extremely lucky I am to be able to afford to have therapy privately. I could not have waited months or even years for help. I was feeling desperate and my anxiety levels were extremely high. I couldn’t cope and I felt the despair of not being able to function properly, and the PTSD and depression added to this anxiety. My mental health would have deteriorated and the likelihood of developing suicidal thoughts was high.

After a decade of austerity, everything is stripped to the bone, including mental health services. Once again, it will be the poorest, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged who will suffer the most. This is shouldn’t be the case, help needs to be available for everyone. I feel this is the government’s responsibility to ensure these services are available for everyone.

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