Lessons Learned From a COVID Survivor

On the night of March 13, 2020, after seeing my last client of the night, I officially closed down my office. I remember now, I didn’t wipe down the pen after I gave the couple their credit card receipt to sign, and likely did not wash my hands for twenty seconds before and after the session. I did not use Lysol to spray the door handles as they entered or exited, and I certainly did not wear or even own a mask at the time.

I soon became one of the most careful, some may say “neurotic” (and by some, I mean my children) people I know when COVID was beginning to be a “real thing.” I have a sixteen-year-old son with Cystic Fibrosis, which is a disease that has a severe impact on his lungs, digestive and pancreatic systems. So the decision to close my office was a no-brainer for me. At the time, I was also confident it would only be for a few weeks, so I planned to do phone sessions. I also hoped that I had given my clients enough coping skills and support to get them through this VERY temporary time. Truly, this was my thought. I think this was a thought many of us had.

Hmmmmmmm.

It began getting really real on March 15, when my mom’s best friend’s son was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was on a ventilator in Michigan after coaching a basketball game ten days prior. He was an ex-college football player and remained in good shape, and had no problematic medical issues in the last twenty-two years since retiring his helmet. He was forty-four years old; not the demographic the research was stating we needed to be worried about. This story ends well, at least, he was released after thirteen days on the vent and went home to be inundated by media to tell his personal story.

Remember how there were dozens of YouTube videos and news reports and social media feeds on the safety of washing down all your groceries, the Amazon boxes, and any other items that were delivered to your door? How COVID was found to live on plastic and metal surfaces for twenty-four hours? No—three days—no eight days—maybe up to two weeks—then no, not at all! And then there was all the info about how it travels in the air and on your clothes. So you must undress in your garage and burn your clothes if you dare go out. We must never have any visitors, and all parents must become hand-washing maniacs and learn how to make masks out of your clothes—but certainly not the ones that have seen the light of day since 2019 because of course, those are already COVID-infected!

I had to learn how to do therapy by video and it was downright exhausting to have four in a row, when I was used to seeing up to eight clients in a row in person. I began telling clients every session of the importance of self-care, time alone, time for coupleship, time with family, time with children individually, to practice grace with each other in your household, to be mindful of COVID complaints (see early April blog), to avoid COVID fights, and to make sure you have time alone (did I already say that?).

With the exception of taking a run, walk or bike ride alone, I was constantly in my house with my family, who began getting on my every nerve, despite everyone having their own room in the house. By June, I knew we needed to get the heck out of dodge, so I planned a cabin getaway up north with my family, and my best friend and her family would rent the cabin next to us.

We ventured up to Pinetop, AZ and washed the two-bedroom cabin down like it had been a crime scene, leaving no square inch unbleached. We took hikes and went boating, completely enjoying the two days of nice, fresh air. The next morning, I went to my friend’s cabin, and her husband greeted me at the door as she sat on the couch with a mask on. She developed a huge headache and was feeling a little fatigued. When she woke up her gut told her she had gotten COVID. It came on fast. She had been exposed to four people that week and one of them must have been the culprit. Four days later, back at home, I had a headache and lost my sense of smell. Tests confirmed I also joined the COVID ranks. So I quarantined myself in my bedroom for the next twelve days.

The first thing I experienced was anticipatory anxiety. My first symptoms were a really bad headache and loss of smell. My friend who I got it from was really sick with extreme fatigue, fever, headache, difficulty breathing, and cough. She could barely make it to the shower without being exhausted for an entire day. I feared what my disease would look like. Will my son get this? What will happen to him? I am not hugely prone to anxiety but this was new-level, serious stuff. The next huge emotion that hit hard was guilt. I felt a reoccurring surge of guilt about exposing my family outside of our little bubble to the world where COVID exists. Why did I need to take that getaway? Couldn’t I just have been satisfied with going on our (now truly boring) bike rides and lounging in the pool? Why didn’t I disinfect better? The flood of bad parenting decisions made me feel like I could drown. It was lifted temporarily when I would text my family throughout the day to make sure they were all still symptom free (they were and none of them ever contracted it).

I was also completely dependent on others for my food. Being a pretty independent woman, asking and accepting help is honestly a struggle I have. “I can do it all myself” is an unhealthy mantra I admit to having at times, and under normal circumstances I usually can. My mom always said, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Hmmm . . . apple falling from a tree thing comes to mind here. Well, when you are not welcome in the kitchen for fear of getting others sick, you have to rely heavily on others to meet a basic food and water need. My family did great with delivering my food prison-style to my door, knocking and leaving it outside my cell, as I was reminded of the words I preach to others in therapy: “It is so healthy and often times necessary to ask for, and accept help when offered.”

Well, it is over, I have survived COVID. I still have only 25 percent of my smell after a pretty lengthy amount of time but I have learned to rely on my optimistic attitude about it. Like I was able to help my eleven-year-old after he vomited the other day (a task usually bestowed to my husband), and I can cut onions like a champ and clean up dog poop without gagging, and now I can reinvest all the money I will save on perfume and scented lotions! I learned it is much harder for me to be dependent than I originally thought; I learned that there is only so much Netflix/Apple TV/Disney Plus/Amazon Prime one can watch. I was reminded first-hand how much having great coping skills to deal with high anxiety and guilt are of the utmost importance. Despite complaining at times (okay quite a bit) that my family and husband drive me crazy under quarantine, I realized how much I really do miss when I can’t spend time with them.

Stay well out there, we WILL get through this.

~ Shanna Larson-Paola, LMFT

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