health

'I've just had COVID. But it was day 7 that broke me.'

For many Australians, particularly those who live in New South Wales and Victoria, the last six weeks have been lived in a state of constant hypochondria. 

Am I tired, or do I have COVID?

Is that a flu-ey runny nose, or did I just eat something spicy?

Am I breathless, or am I so anxious and exhausted by the weight of my own 'personal responsibility' for a global pandemic that I'm forgetting to breathe?

But the morning I tested positive for COVID-19, there was no ambiguity. I was so certain I had the virus; the test was almost redundant. 

For me, it started with a swallow, and the deep, sinking sense of knowing the consequences of its hot, sore, spikiness.

But really, it started eight days prior, with my partner testing positive inside the walls of our one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that has no backyard or balcony. A place we live in for its proximity to the beach but was not designed with the intention of allowing two adults to live in complete isolation from one another for days on end. 

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My partner had a temperature and chills that evolved into fatigue and a spiky sore throat. I isolated as much as is possible for two people sharing a bed, a bathroom and a kitchen, when one of those people needs to be fed, given medicine and have wet towels put on their forehead. And I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

By day six, I let myself believe that maybe, just maybe, I was one of those COVID-immune medical anomalies. By day seven, I was convinced. 

Then on the evening of day eight, I swallowed.  

There's something surreal about contracting a virus whose spread has been a dominant topic of international conversation for two years. COVID has become a meme. A TikTok. A viral tweet. It's a green spiky thing and to date, it's infected almost 400 million people, at a conservative estimate. 

My partner and I made a number of unsavoury jokes about feeling a dirty bat flapping its wings in our chest when we coughed, but that's where the humour stopped.

Because for me, COVID wasn't a mild illness unexpectedly detected on a RAT and book ended by texts from NSW health.

I'm an otherwise healthy, 31-year-old vaccinated woman who tested positive for COVID almost 14 days ago and is still not okay.

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As someone who generally doesn't experience headaches, I haven't been pain-free in more than two weeks. I've sobbed because nothing, nothing relieves it.

Once I tested positive, I'd had plenty of time to imagine what would happen if (but more likely, when) my diagnosis came. 

The boredom. The frustration. The infuriating, extended sense of claustrophobia and obstruction. 

But I didn't feel any of those things. My motivation evaporated. I was overwhelmed by resignation. I got into bed and didn't move for days. 

I had already been experiencing what I had assumed was sinus pain - a pounding pressure behind my eyes, forehead and either side of my nose. But as time passed, and it didn't stop, and there were no other symptoms of sinus (like a runny nose), I realised this was actually a type of headache I'd never had before. 

The problem with the sensation in my head was that I couldn't do any of the things I'd counted on being able to do to pass the time. I couldn't read. I couldn't watch terrible TV shows. I couldn't play card games or scroll mindlessly on TikTok or focus on work. I was profoundly uncomfortable and unable to relieve it. But perhaps most cruelly, I was entirely unable to sleep. 

I was awake at three, four, five in the morning, with nothing to kill the time. Eventually I'd doze off but wake mid-morning, with the knowledge that I had another 24 hours of this, then another, then another.

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When you're isolating with COVID (especially when you're doing it for 14 days), you don't know which of your symptoms are caused by the virus and which are caused by the deeply unnatural behaviour of not leaving your home.

At no other time in my life have I lived in the same few rooms for two weeks. At no other time have I spent so long in bed, and then expected to get a restful night of sleep in the same place. 

So I waited for day seven with anticipation. The day my isolation would lift, and I would, according to NSW Health, qualify for medical clearance. The day I'd be able to jump in the ocean, go for a walk, go out to dinner, go to the holiday house where a group of my friends were staying - get back to the life I felt I'd left in mid-December, when Omicron made me paranoid and then made me sick. 

Day seven came, and I couldn't move. I was more unwell than I can ever remember being. 

I didn't have the symptoms NSW Health signpost as those that should extend your isolation (a cough, sore throat, runny nose, or shortness of breath), but I had a debilitating headache. 

It was a burning sense of pressure, and it was unbearable. 

I called a doctor for a telehealth appointment in tears, asking for any form of pain relief. I was prescribed a medicine that made no difference. 

By that evening, I was broken.

The thought that quietly crept in, despite my knowledge that it was irrational, was: what if it's always like this?

What if this pain never goes away? Or what if it's here for several more days or months and I can't do anything? 

I had no way of knowing when it would end. 

Right now, there are several concurrent discourses when it comes to COVID. There are those 'healthy, vaccinated' people who are asymptomatic. There are those who count down the days of their isolation as a formality, able to resume their daily activities as normal by day seven. 

One of my texts from NSW Health. Image: Supplied.

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Then there's the people who weeks on, months on, and a few who years on, aren't okay. And because this is a new virus, we don't know why. 

That's why I broke down on day seven. Because that number - seven - was the only indicator I had of a resolution. 

For the first time in living memory, we've set an external, arbitrary timeline for individual human health. First it was 14 days, then 10, now it's seven. 

Obviously that has to be the case. We need rules, informed by what we know about COVID's degree of infectiousness, that don't cripple the economy. Rules that don't infringe on people's freedoms. 

But our bodies don't stick to a neat timeline. We don't get better when it's convenient, or when a text message from NSW Health says we can leave our homes. We get better when we get better - sometimes in a linear way, sometimes not. 

Day seven is the day you're statistically unlikely to still be infectious. It is not the day all your symptoms resolve. It is not the day your life returns to normal, the day you can return to exercise or go to a party or work a full day or start to make up for the time you feel you've lost. 

It's been almost 14 days since I tested positive for COVID, and I've had a pounding, pressure headache for every one of those days. It's unlike anything I've experienced before, and I'm plagued by anxiety that perhaps I'll suffer like this for months - however irrational that is.

The world didn't magically open up for me again once my isolation was over. I jumped in the ocean but I felt detached from the moment. I went for a walk but as soon as I left I wanted to go home. I could leave my house, but my headache came too. 

For some of us, day seven will come and go without any internal indicators that our 'status' has changed. Our bodies don't work on timelines, and it's likely that any attempt to force them to will only slow us down. 

For more from Clare Stephens, you can follow her on Instagram or TikTok

Feature Image: Supplied.

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