lifestyle

I’ve had long Covid for almost a year – art has saved me


As the weeks passed, I remained unable to complete even the simplest tasks at home (Picture: Gary Dadd)

Sitting on the sofa in March, struggling to catch my breath after walking across the living room, I wondered if I was ever going to feel normal again.

It was hard to believe that I’d gone from being a fit and healthy 46-year-old special needs teacher who cycled to work every day, to someone who could barely get out of bed. But recently, just making it downstairs has felt like a huge achievement.

Since becoming ill with Covid-19 in December last year, my life as I knew it has completely changed. 

What started off as an annoying cough in early December, quickly developed into a feeling of total exhaustion. My whole body ached and breathing was a struggle.

I did a Covid test when I first noticed the cough but the results were negative. Then, after weeks of constantly coughing and feeling so tired that I couldn’t get out of bed, my doctor said we had missed the period when a test would show up as Covid positive.

I wasn’t surprised at all; there had been so much of it around at that time and working in a school – where children were often staying home because of the virus – made me feel very exposed.

I just assumed that I’d get over it quickly as other people I knew had. But after yet another week of my breathing being very laboured, I called my doctor again and he referred me to the hospital.

On 20 December, I underwent an ECG, which found my heart was working as it should, blood tests that didn’t detect any signs of infection and checks on my oxygen levels, which, although on the low side, were considered normal.

Even though I could barely walk, I was told that I was a lot better than the patients who were being admitted and was put on a waiting list for referral to a long Covid clinic and sent home to recover. But getting well was a struggle.

I’ve always loved drawing and would spend hours in my bedroom as a teenager sketching the faces of my favourite actors and musicians (Picture: Gary Dadd)

As the weeks passed, I remained unable to complete even the simplest tasks at home, like moving from my bedroom to the living room downstairs or making a cup of tea, without getting out of breath. And every morning I’d wake up in pain with a sore neck and aching joints. I’d never known anything like it and it made me feel decades older.

During this time, the UK was in its second national lockdown. As I’m a single dad to my 15-year-old son, Thomas Charlie, who lives between his mum and I, lockdown would’ve been very lonely if it hadn’t been for my lodger, who was brilliant company and took my mind off things, especially when I was having a bad day.

But it was art that really saved me. I’ve always loved drawing and would spend hours in my bedroom as a teenager sketching the faces of my favourite actors and musicians. While at Cambridge University, I designed posters for various clubs and societies. Art has always been the way I’ve expressed myself and I’d had a website for a few years where I sold my sketches. It’s the thing I turn to when I want to understand humans and the world around me.

In January, I still hadn’t recovered – I struggled to walk more than a few steps without getting breathless and had painful aching joints – so my doctor diagnosed me with long Covid. On good days, I’d sit on the sofa with my iPad sketching portraits of faces – some famous and some just because they had a huge amount of character.

Sharing art had become a part of my life, and when I was ill it was one of the only ways I had to connect with the world outside my four walls.

In April, despite still finding it hard to walk more than a few steps without getting out of breath, I returned to work full-time but found it much harder than I’d expected. I remember driving home from my first proper day back at school feeling like I couldn’t wait to crawl into bed.

I knew it would take me a while to re-adjust to the pace of teaching again but as the weeks passed, it felt like something had fundamentally changed. It was as though my body was so busy fighting Covid that it had no energy left for anything else. I could barely move most nights, let alone make art.

Then, four weeks after going back, my body suddenly gave up. I felt so breathless that I couldn’t speak and my legs felt like they were made of lead. I had to hold on to the children’s support rail on the wall to stop myself from collapsing.

Luckily, one of my assistant teachers was able to take over. And later that day I was told by my manager to go back on sick leave. A colleague drove me home and I remember feeling desperate, not knowing how I was ever going to teach again, pay my bills or support my family. 

As the weeks passed, I devoted more time to art (Picture: Gary Dadd)

I’d had a complete relapse and despite being seen regularly by a Covid clinic over the next few weeks, I realised that I wasn’t going to get better without being proactive.

The first thing I did was join a Facebook support group called ‘Yoga and Meditation for Gentle Covid Recovery’, where I learnt how to pace my activity depending on how my body was feeling and to rest after the simplest of activities like making myself a coffee. I then started working with a registered breathworker, who taught me a different breathing pattern, which I turned to whenever my breathing became laboured and short.

The more I connected to my body through the practices I was learning and then sat down to draw, the more I realised that I’d been pushing myself for years. Although my teaching job was incredibly rewarding, it was also hugely demanding. And I began to realise that I’d been running on empty for a long time.

As the weeks passed, I devoted more time to art. Somehow, depicting other people’s facial expressions helped me accept my own difficult emotions. I might have felt trapped in a body that was struggling to work properly, but drawing other bodies moving and interacting with the world gave me hope. And started me on my healing journey.

In July this year, I decided to resign from my teaching job to focus on being an artist full time and it feels incredible. I now make money from commissions as well as selling original pieces and prints. I’ve exhibited locally, have an exhibition coming up in Margate and am going to be taking part in one of the UK’s major art events – Art Fair East – in December.

I know that if I hadn’t made the decision to devote myself to art full-time I’d be trapped in an endless cycle of long Covid recovery and relapse. But I’m not completely recovered.

There are days when my body feels like lead, when I have no choice but to lay down and rest. Those days are rare though. Now, I can move, walk and cycle again with relative ease. I do something I love and it gives me the space to listen to my body.

I would never have chosen this path, but I am truly grateful that Covid gave me this gift.

As told to Yvonne Gavan, who is a journalist and host of The Tenderness Revolution podcast.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk

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