The Secret Symptom of Covid-19

It’s just the flu,” I told myself as I sat in the walk-in clinic exam room, post nasal swab. Of course, I knew that I could have Covid-19—I had a cough and that’s why I was getting the test—but it was also out of an overabundance of caution, paranoia really. I always wore masks, sanitized my hands—I was the person who did everything I was supposed to.

But I also had gone to my cousin’s wedding a week ago, in early November. After months of skipping out on seeing friends, of living the life of a hermit sequestered on some far-flung mountain instead of that of a young 20-something, I wanted to do something normal.

The wedding was beautiful, too, outdoors on a family ranch, rolling hills surrounding us. My cousin walked to an altar between two trees, overlooking a river. My family and I sat on the rocky bench furthest away from the other guests and kept our masks on (mine covered in gold sequins to match my sparkly jumpsuit). At cocktail hour we huddled away from the other guests. We kept our masks on waiting for dinner, and sat far away from the crowded dance floor. But there was a lot of dancing and booze that night. And as we boarded a chartered bus back to a hotel in town, some of us had masks on and others did not.

A week later, I had a cough and headache—like someone was snapping a rubber band behind my temple—and a burning sensation in my nose, the kind you get when accidentally snorting water. I was so nauseated I couldn’t finish a bowl of tomato soup.

When the doctor came into the room, he sat on the counter and looked at me. My stomach clinched.

“You’re positive,” he said. I stared at him, dumbfounded.

He shrugged, sliding off the counter, and handed me a packet of information. Drink warm liquids, it advised, take flu medicine to alleviate symptoms. He told me to come back if I had shortness of breath and sent me on my way. 

When the lockdown began last March, politicians and public health officials adopted a campaign of personal responsibility. Mask up. Stand six feet apart. Avoid social gatherings. Stay home. You could play a montage of public messages for days: “Individual behavior is the key to reopening,” said Marvin Odum, the city’s Covid-19 recovery czar, on April 30. “It’s up to Texans whether or not we remain open, or open up even more,” said Gov. Greg Abbott on May 5.  “At the end of the day, personal responsibility to your own actions is really the bottom line of this,” League City Mayor Pat Hallisey told NPR last July.

I’d dutifully reported these statements, and I did again two days after my visit to the doctor—I only took one day off work because my symptoms were mostly manageable, plus sitting at home unoccupied felt awful. That afternoon I turned on Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s Covid-19 press conference, as I always did. Hidalgo and other officials stood behind a podium and urged Houstonians to be careful over the upcoming Thanksgiving holidays, to social distance, and to avoid large gatherings. It was nothing I hadn’t heard or reported before. But this time it felt like every word they uttered was aimed directly at me.

“Honestly, them telling people how to not get Covid is just giving me a guilt trip,” I messaged my boss. She replied with a frowny face.

After I signed off for work for that day, I lay on my couch, watching The Great British Baking Show and wallowing in self-pity. Why had the press conference bothered me so much, exactly? Case numbers were going up, and people needed to be careful—I knew this, but it still hurt.

The personal responsibility campaign is on the whole good. Helen Valier, a UH medical history professor, says it works in much the same way retired British psychology researcher James Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model of risk management does—a slice of Swiss cheese has holes in it, so if you stack a bunch of slices together, the holes are all covered.

In the case of the pandemic, those slices are community-wide actions, like handwashing, mask wearing, social distancing, everything public leaders have been pleading for us to do for months, says Valier. “And so, if you put enough of these things in place, you’re vastly reducing the transmission events.”

The narrative of personal responsibility is imperfect, though. We’re constantly bombarded with rhetoric that people have to be responsible to blunt our risk of catching Covid-19, a public shame and blame game that belies the reality of this pandemic.

“No one can be completely risk free,” says Dr. Daniel Katz, a local psychologist and owner of Houston Therapy. “We can do things to mitigate that risk, but that’s just statistics, right? Mitigating risks, there’s still a chance.”

Even my doctor, perched on the counter two days before, had told me that coronavirus is so widespread I could’ve gotten it anywhere, not just the wedding—after all, while my sister and brother-in-law also attended the wedding and came down with it, my mom never got the virus, and later we’d come to find out that about 13.5 percent of the Houston population had been infected with the virus by September.

But I still felt like a failure. I failed to stay safe and to do what I’d been telling others to do for months.“That’s the shame” of the messaging of the personal responsibility public health campaign, says Katz. “Or the guilt. I’m a failure. I failed to do this. Or I’m irresponsible.” And that shame, when combined with quarantine and isolation, can be hard on us, he says. “It’s like I’m being punished.”

In fact, I did feel like I was being punished. Every day for three weeks, I chugged what felt like a gallon of water with Mucinex, brewed licorice tea because the box said it was immune boosting, and mixed cans of frozen orange juice. I spent way too much on food deliveries, and learned the hard way you could momentarily lose your sense of taste if you brushed your teeth and then immediately ate Goldfish. I spent Thanksgiving alone, my first big holiday away from friends or family. Every couple of days a new symptom would appear. A scratchy throat, a cough, a headache, or stuffy nose. I got nausea, dizziness, and chills, and at one point a red eye—seriously, I thought, are you kidding me? One day my energy would seem to return, but then I’d be greeted with back pain for 36 hours—I couldn’t bend more than 45 degrees.

Although I’m typically an open person, I didn’t want anyone to know of my situation, only immediate family, a few close friends, and my boss. I was ashamed. And as empty orange Gatorade bottles piled up in my kitchen and I was confined to ordering yet more grocery deliveries to my 628-square-foot apartment, I was, in fact, emotionally exhausted. 

Why had these people who consistently broke the social-distancing rules, flaunting their mask-less adventures on Instagram, been left unscathed? I was frustrated and disappointed I had gotten it instead of them. I was overwhelmingly sad. One night I played Christmas music in the hopes it would cheer me up. But as Bing Crosby’s croons echoed around my bathroom, I called my mom in tears.

“It sucks that I have to do this alone,” I told her. “I know no one can; I just want someone to come and take care of me.” And I was scared. I’d been reporting the daily updates on Covid-19 for months now. I knew the number of Covid-19 deaths in Houston every day. I knew my moderate case could suddenly get worse.

That strong emotional response is natural, says Katz. “Most people, if you receive a diagnosis of a disease that is possibly fatal that the whole world is up in arms about—that would give anyone quite a fair amount of stress and anxiety.”

study published last November in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, found that nearly 20 percent of Covid-19 patients have developed a mental health disorder, such as depression and anxiety, within months of their diagnosis. Katz, who works as a clinical therapist, says Covid-19 has exacerbated mental health diseases in his own patients, and that quarantine can also exacerbate those feelings. “We need other people. We’re social creatures,” Katz says. “This kind of isolation is terrible for mental health issues.”

After my quarantine finally ended, a couple of days after Thanksgiving, I went for a walk—just 20 minutes can significantly reduce depressive symptoms, after all. It was a blustery and overcast day, but I felt the same giddy sense of exhilaration I’d experienced the first time I drove a car without my parents after I got my license. Freedom.

As I had done while I was sick and as I have done countless times since then, I reflected on my illness, wanting to find some greater meaning to it all.

The truth is my experience with Covid-19 was one mostly of feeling ashamed. I was desperately afraid that people would judge me for getting sick, especially because I went to a wedding. And because we live in a society that loves to publicly shame. But in the end, I also felt lucky and grateful—that I didn’t get sicker; that I have a job where I can work from home; that I have insurance and the means to pay for my groceries and rent.

And, if you’re wondering, I have (mostly) come to terms with my love-hate relationship with personal responsibility. It’s essential to us making it through the pandemic. It gives the public back some of the agency that this vicious, merciless virus has stolen away from us. I can name so many uplifting ways Houstonians have stepped up to help—how a Timbergrove Manor house set up a social-distancing practice dummy, Germaine Covid, in their yard; how families put stuffed animal bears in their windows for social-distanced scavenger hunts; and how so many of us (myself included) have made face coverings for ourselves and others, donated food and money to those in need, and just worked to help each other get through this.

And in the long run personal responsibility even got me through—I isolated so quickly that I don’t believe I infected anyone else. I don’t know what I would’ve done had my actions hurt someone else. 

For me, that has been my saving grace.

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