I want to say Thank You and to apologize to everyone who sent me such nice messages. Jeff sent them to me but I haven’t been able to respond. So much love and prayers coming my way – I couldn’t help but get better. According to my Mom half of Portland and churches in 3 states were praying for me. And I am on the road to recovery. Getting there. More and more every day.
It’s exhausting and I’m not just talking about the last 2 weeks or so. The weeks before that were a just a prelude and it will surprise none of you that I have some insights to share.
It’s not the flu. Yes, I started out with cold symptoms. Then bad cold symptoms, and a raging headache and body aches. A headache that was blinding and beyond migraine. And I became stupid. I couldn’t form sentences at times or find the right words in conversation. Sometimes I couldn’t remember people’s names or even places. Jeff would remind me of a place we had been, and I couldn’t conjure the memory. No one said corona virus lowers your IQ. I thought it was the start of menopausal brain fog.
The fevers came after that, then the cough. It felt like I coughed constantly and then it would go away for a few days to fool me before roaring back worse. The fever would come at night and sometimes in the early morning in the dark. And then it would take a day or two off before returning with fury. We went through our supply of Costco Tylenol and Nyquil from Christmas in the US. The acetaminophen combo of which I learn now wasn’t so good for my liver. I thought ‘Wow, menopause sure sucks if this is how it’s going to go.’ At first, I thought it might be hot flashes the books talk about. That’s how fast it would come on.
I lived on cough suppressants and asthma meds and my old standby Benedryl. But it wasn’t the dry type of cough that people described in the news, so I thought it wasn’t corona. The timeline didn’t match up, either, so it had to be something else. And really, what are the chances? I struggled with my breathing and would take boiling hot showers at all hours. Our neighbors loved me in the middle of the night, I’m sure. But the steam from the showers helped.
The muscle weakness came next. I was already achy but it was the shakiness of my hands and my inability to pick up a glass of water with one hand or open a jar that began to worry me. Don’t look at WebMD for that. It’s a scary cocktail of possible diseases and none of them is corona. Yet. I’ve been having issues with a disk in my neck, so I thought maybe it was just that. Yoga would surely help the swelling in my arms. I just needed to improve circulation.
The cough continued on and off. And the breathing issues. I began sitting up at night in the guest room so I wouldn’t wake Jeff, who was ill himself. I used the time to do my check-ins on everyone I knew in the US to make sure they were all OK during this. My wonderful friends, Courtney and Joe, would sometimes keep me company as they went about their days in Phoenix and NYC, along with Em in Portland and pics of her little pup. A time-zone difference has an upside at times like these. I longed for Vicks VapoRub from home, convinced it would cure me and would have paid $100 for even a small jar, if it was available in Spain on any .es website. Sitting up helped me to breathe. And hey – the doctors had more important things to do so I thought Tough it out. You can do this.
I kept thinking I just needed to stretch and do more cobra pose to open my rib cage. Or maybe it kept coming back because I wasn’t moving enough – my usual walking. At the beginning I tried walking the stairs in our building but that quickly stopped as I was getting more and more breathless. But I told myself sometimes when you’re sick if you get up and move you feel better. I just had to find the right combination between moving and resting. I was sure of it. During this time, I was optimistically delusional enough to order a rowing machine, a stair climber, and a stationary bike from Amazon, but I wasn’t home when they arrived.
The vertigo and the dizziness came on strong – in combo with the headaches. Suddenly, I couldn’t sit on a chair without fearing I would fall off it. No joke. I would be sitting talking to Jeff and the floor became the ceiling and I had to hold my head to stop from feeling like I would fall off the chair. And then it would get better. But it was when walking became difficult to do alone that I knew I had to do something. That last day I couldn’t stand on my own without leaning completely on Jeff or I would fall over. And breathing was harder and harder. I was dizzy and panicky at the same time. I had given Jeff the passwords to my laptop and both my Spanish and American phones the night before – just in case. Along with banking instructions and the location of all the important documents. He silently took them from me, afraid of what it meant. Even I knew it was time to think about getting some help. I know now why optimists die alone at home. They wait.
Riding in the car my heart beat out of my chest. Like I was running a marathon. And I couldn’t breathe. If I could just pull down the zipper of myself and get out of this faulty sack of my body, I was sure I would be OK. I hadn’t like it much anyway in more than a decade. As if this was an option. It was the longest ride of my life.
I have only felt this afraid for myself one other time. It was in summer of 2006 when I discovered I had all those awful food allergies. Pre-EpiPen days. I woke Jeff up in the middle of an August night. I couldn’t breathe. He turned on the light, looked at me, freaked out and dialed 9-1-1. He took me down to the foyer and sat me on the stairs in front of the open front door at 3am, as we waited for the paramedics. My eyes were swelling closed and my lips and tongue were blue and huge. I could no longer speak. Usually calm Jeff opened the front door and paced waving his arms and talking to no one in particular – freaking out until we heard sirens meaning help was coming. I remember being totally calm and thinking curiously ‘This is where I’m going to die.’ And then thinking about my little son, Nick. He was upstairs asleep in his room, and I thought ‘I’ll never see him again.’ I started to tear up but then realized I had to choose between crying and breathing – I couldn’t do both. I’d never take breathing for granted again.
Those allergies have stalked me since then and have messed with my immune system with their frequent onslaughts. Steroids have changed my body into something I hardly recognize. I developed adrenal fatigue before they figured out it was the allergies. Back then they told me they thought I had MS, so food allergies seemed like a blessing after that. I quit my job after that summer for a few months because I was ashamed that I was too ill to keep up and I didn’t want to extend a medical disability I felt I didn’t earn. But I couldn’t figure out how to get better. I kept hoping and praying I would discover the magic potion of medicines. But that would take a long time and experimentation and patience. And it came with other annoying complications too. I hated having to quiz waiters about food content. And cringed when people invited us over to dinner and asked, ‘What is it again that you can’t eat?’ Even family never seemed to write it down, so I felt like every time it was a huge imposition – like I was being difficult, yet again. I had become one of those people.
For years I have been constantly fighting one bug or other, and I know people wondered why. ‘Kelli’s sick again.’ I could hear it whispered at work, and even by friends and it hurt. It felt like a personal failure – though I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that. And I caught everything that came down the pike. Because of all this I withdrew, and we stopped accepting many invites for dinners or parties or found excuses not to go. My trusted circle got very, very small. People who didn’t know me would mock ‘All those people who have food allergies now – that’s a thing apparently, ugh.’ (eyeroll) in front of me at business dinners. And I get it – people mock what they don’t understand. I barely understood it myself. So I would find myself eating many dangerous things so as not to call attention to my health but would be sick for days afterwards.
I worked with a lot of Bro Execs over the years that called me by my last name like we were all on a high school football team. Any woman in business my age knows you don’t whine about a weakness to a bunch of men at the office. You’ll be sidelined and never get promoted. They wanted a quarterback leading the team, not a bench warmer. So, I played injured much of the time. I would hold on to the Epi-Pen in my purse like a child’s security blanket. It’s why giving my last two Epi-Pens to my mother-in-law wasn’t a small sacrifice this past Christmas in the US, since I couldn’t get replacements for months and Jeff was constantly stressed out about it.
I think this was why my Camino was so important to me. After all these years, of all this stuff, I was able to complete something that was so physically challenging that no one, including me, would have believed I could do it. But I did somehow, and I came out of it feeling stronger. That’s why I love Spain so much. It’s the place that gave me a glimpse of what I used to be, if just for a moment. I was still myself somewhere in this messed up body. Like coming home.
I’m not looking for sympathy but to explain because all this baggage contributed to my not seeking the right medical attention when I should. Throughout I kept hearing ‘Kelli’s sick again’ in my head. I kept telling myself I just needed to be stronger. And to try not to make a big deal of it. I had to find a way thru it. To try to keep my chin up and not worry anyone. I kept trying different combinations of medicine and healthy foods. My meditation and mindfulness practices were on overdrive, which I’m pretty sure isn’t how it’s supposed to be unless you’re a full-blown manic meditation monk. If I had shaved my head and started wearing bed sheets and the curtains from the living room Jeff wouldn’t have been surprised. But I only got sicker.
In the car that day I told Jeff I was going to die, and I believed it. He reached over and told me that he wasn’t going to let that happen. But I knew I had waited too long. When he stopped the car, I couldn’t figure out how to open the door. Time slowed down like everything took a year. I looked at my swollen Popeye arm and then at the door. I couldn’t make my hand move to reach up to pull the latch. I knew what I wanted it to do. I just couldn’t do it.
So this past stretch was somewhat difficult. But I had a visitor in the midst of it – if only in my mind. It seemed so real to me, but I’m sure it was a dream because I wasn’t awake on that day. As I lay in there, I looked toward the foot of the bed and like a weird pinkish sepia projection from the ceiling, my Dad was sitting there. He was wearing a beige short sleeved shirt and khaki pants. I remember thinking ‘Wow, even in heaven he dresses like it’s 1975.’ But he looked decades younger than he did when he passed away.
He reached out and clasped my hand and said, ‘Hey, kid. It’s gonna be OK.’ I squeezed his hand as I told him ‘I don’t want to die.’ He just smiled and stood up. I noticed he had the large wad of keys clipped to his belt like he used to wear for all the locks in my parent’s grocery store. They jingled when he stood, and I thought ‘How many doors are there in heaven?’ He chuckled and then he was gone. He didn’t invite me to go with him, so I figured maybe it’s not my time.
I feel terrible Jeff had to go through this all alone in Spain under lock down. He couldn’t be with me and it was very hard on him with no support. He had to leave me in the hands of strangers, most of whom don’t speak a language he is confident conversing in, especially in an emergency. He didn’t even know their names, and their faces were hidden behind masks and shields, but he had to trust they would give him updates. Caring people from all directions have peppered him for information he didn’t have. He’s been sick himself and felt like he disappointed them with the few details he was given daily. So it was harder on him than on me, I think. But he’s much better now. So, there are small mercies.
I’m stronger and stronger by the moment. OK – maybe not so strong yet. But I can lift my arms at will again. My brain fog is gone but sleep so much I barely notice. I’m bone tired but I can pick up a cup of water with one hand just like a superhero. Yes, there are lingering effects that I will need help with over the next months. Hopefully, not long term and most will resolve in time.
I will not be posting much or responding to very many messages for a while – and for that I apologize. And also for leaving you all hanging on the blog, in text, and in WhatsApp. I’m so grateful for every one of you. But all these words and this rambling stream of consciousness took me 24 hours to write between sleeping for hours at a time. This illness took everything I had left so there is nothing in the tank. I’ll be back, tho when I’m feeling up to it. Jeff asked me what he could do for me after all this and I told him to just hold my hand while I sleep. I missed that more than anything these last weeks and its all I’ve thought about and wished for. And I’m very certain it’s all the medicine I’ll ever really need.