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In my long battle with the virus I have learnt lessons for life


In my long battle with the virus I have learnt lessons for life

Road to recovery is fraught with seemingly endless pain and anxiety, but there are life-affirming lessons in all of it

Image: Aadesh Choudhari on Unsplash

“Bra you’re such a loser that you couldn’t even infect your children with Covid-19!” 

Gosh, I needed to hear that because, for the first time since I was informed that “SARS-CoV-2 was detected” in my sample, I laughed for what seemed like forever. The joke was my friend’s response when I called to tell him my children’s results came back negative. He has the most delightful, sometimes dark, sense of humour and had struggled to make me laugh for days. He was brave enough to take them for the test – despite my asthmatic daughter being ill with the dreaded “flu-like symptoms”.

This virus not only has its way with your body; it relentlessly attacks your mind. 

I was imprisoned in my bedroom with my sweet children calling now and then: “Mummy, are you okay?” Every time I heard that it took my breath away. My husband had died in November 2019, and I feared that this virus would take me too. I remember calling my eldest and telling her where my will was and about my financial affairs. She went silent and nodded slowly, but soon her face went red – she was on the brink of tears. I stopped. Then I started crying. It was cruel of me; however, I thought it was the right thing to do.

Soon I was sleeping again. The exhaustion was crippling, and the headaches were debilitating. My bedside table looked like Dis-Chem’s dispensary. I had everything I needed to treat the symptoms but not the causes. I slept with my asthma inhaler in my hand because I often struggled to breathe. One evening I had a horrible nightmare which I cannot recall now. I woke up but could still hear screaming, my ears were ringing, I was drenched in sweat, and the room was spinning. I looked for my husband, but he wasn’t lying next to me.

For some reason, a wave of sanity swept over me - I was having an anxiety attack.

I couldn’t breathe. I was going to die! For some reason, a wave of sanity swept over me – I was having an anxiety attack. I realise now that I must have had several of these when I fell ill; nevertheless it had not occurred to me. I reached for a sedative and started relaxation techniques. I suffer from anxiety, a result of years out in the field as a journalist.

Being caught in gang crossfire, covering the rape and murder of countless people and recounting stories of suffering and pain took its toll on me. I sought professional help from a brilliant psychiatrist and an equally fantastic psychologist. I never thought that our sessions and meds  would assist with fighting a bloody virus some day.

Eventually, I fell asleep. When I woke, my son was cleaning my windows wearing a mask. “Mummy I’m going to bring you the herbs Ma [my mother-in-law] sent,” he screamed. In no time a piping-hot brew of Wilde Als (or Wormwood, according to Google) was at my door. I could only see his eyes. He smiled but it could not mask his fear. 

“How are you feeling today?” he asked. 

“I’m okay, my baby. I’m feeling really good,” I lied. 

I had to lie to them. I had to see them happy, even if it was from a distance. I wanted to hold my children so badly; I wanted to kiss my son’s cheeks and play with my daughter’s beautiful curls. I wanted to look at them up close and see my husband’s eyes, his nose, his mouth. 

Many times, when the pain was too intense, I would think that if I should go, I’d be with him again. We met when I was 17 and had a novel-worthy love story which I will write some day. I would toss and turn so much that the bedding would end up on the floor. I have no idea how I managed to snap out of it, but I had made a list of things I would do with the children. Morocco – I was going to take them there just like my husband and I had planned. I visualised walking through Chefchaouen looking for bargains to adorn my home. It was enough to get me excited and smear a dumb grin on my face when one of my children brought me coffee in the morning. Because I couldn’t taste or smell, I would imagine the rich aroma and savour every mouthful.

I was in a constant state of confusion – just deurmekaar. Sometimes I would have to read things more than once before it made sense. Therefore helping my son with his schoolwork was impossible. My sister-in-law lives in Kuwait and would video call me several times a day just to chat, but I knew she was gauging my condition. She helped my son with his work and would call on her fellow teachers to join the sessions.

Because I couldn’t taste or smell, I would imagine the rich aroma and savour every mouthful. 

When I was strong enough, I would take to social media and chat with my friends, who became the most incredible support system. They augmented the help from my husband’s family, who left warm meals at the door every day. I told the in-laws to take a breather because friends had delivered bags of ready-to-eat dishes, sweet treats and even flowers to brighten up the home. These were the heroes in my life. They would call, pray and send messages of inspiration. I grew up poor, and I was taught to be proud, never to accept handouts. At first, I felt awfully embarrassed, but then I realised – and this was a process – that it wasn’t handouts, it was love.

On day 12 of isolation, I naively thought I was better. Life was great because I smelled my lethal fart under the covers! I never thought I’d be so happy about a poep. So with my sense of smell returning, I was ready to start working. I had left the newsroom two years ago and joined the University of the Western Cape’s media office. My manager and our director were saints. “Take it easy, rest. Please don’t over-exert yourself,” they said over and over. 

“When you start working I need you firing at 100%,” my manager would say. 

But no, that day I was ready. I got into the shower and almost collapsed. I was back in bed with every inch of my body in pain. Then my nose started bleeding. This prompted ugly crying. Oh, the self-pity foul. 

I messaged my manager, and I could almost hear him say: “What did I tell you?” But he didn’t. Instead, he wrote: “That’s why I’m saying rest. We can’t prolong this thing. The only recovery is rest.”

The guilt was eating me alive because the workload was insane, and I could see my colleagues on WhatsApp working at full speed. We are a small team, but their talent, compassion and work ethic are simply inspiring. 

I wanted to be there for them; however, I had to hold back, so I stopped reading the group messages. 

The children could come into the bedroom by now, and at night I would hear my daughter check if I was still breathing. One day the heavy feeling on my chest disappeared. I found the children outside in the sun playing with the dogs, and I joined in. I swept the house, washed dishes, tidied up and worked through heaps of schoolwork with my boy. That was too much for my body. I found myself exhausted and in bed – again! Dammit, when was I going to learn?

I slept and slept and got a call from my director who said: “Bokkie, do you think this illness will just go away?” She took time to spell out exactly how I should structure my day and what breathing exercises could help. I followed her advice and started feeling more energetic. 

Why fret about the inevitable future that you have no control over – live because you are alive. 

As the days went by, more people I knew and was close to tested positive for the virus. Some were admitted to hospital; others had very few symptoms. One friend’s voice note from hospital left me cold: “I can see how people are suffering. They are dying every day.”

The fear in his voice was palpable. I recognised it immediately. That is how I felt after my diagnosis. I’ve realised this small yet powerful lesson: why fret about the inevitable future that you have no control over – live because you are alive. 

I am still on my journey to recovery. Who knows what lies ahead, but I’ve come to understand the power of my mind. It is not in control of me nor is SARS-CoV-2 – I am in control.

We have to learn from this pandemic and not cower in the corner anymore. Appreciate all your blessings, love the ones you’re with and fight the fear.

• Nashira Davids is a former Sunday Times journalist.