I’ve Had Long-Haul COVID for 20 Months, and These Practices Are Helping Me Recover
I contracted COVID-19 at the very beginning of March 2020. I had to go to the hospital for an ultrasound of a burst ovarian cyst, and when I entered the radiology center, I passed a sign noting that you should wear a mask if you were experiencing flu-like symptoms, and I felt a sense of deep foreboding. At the time, however, I was more worried about the pain in my abdomen than contracting COVID-19 from a New York hospital.
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As a city, we didn’t yet have a sense of how our lives would change in the coming weeks. I was a middle school teacher, and luckily for my coworkers and students, I stayed at home that week so I didn’t unknowingly spread the virus at work. When my throat began to hurt and my sense of smell vanished to the point that even my strongest perfumes weren’t making an impression, I thought, “Okay, I might have the coronavirus, but I’m young and healthy. I’ll be fine in two weeks.”
After all, I was a dancer and a yoga teacher, I ate healthy, rarely drank, took vitamins and supplements, biked all around the city, and I didn’t smoke. But it’s now been a year and eight months since that day — and my life has been completely changed.
By the time I realized I had COVID, the city was in full panic.
I was weak, and my lungs felt like they were full of water. Even the shortest breaths were painful. I coughed so hard that I pulled muscles in my back and torso. Sometimes, the tissues I coughed into were flecked with blood.
My doctor told me to stay home and advised me to only call 911 if the struggle to breathe was too much that my lips went blue. I understood why she didn’t want me to come in when I watched the news: The hospitals were chaotic. People infected with the virus were waiting on gurneys in the halls of hospitals because there simply weren’t any more beds.
For several days, it took all my effort to focus on inhaling and exhaling. I was afraid. My loved ones were calling and texting me, and I kept assuring everyone how fine I was, while privately I was making peace with the reality that I might die in my bed. My dog, Lily, wouldn’t leave my side, and kept touching my face with her tiny paws.
After the worst of COVID had passed, I began to notice that my body and brain didn’t communicate like they used to.
I tried to coax my body into some gentle yoga poses, but I couldn’t remember how to do them. I could see the pose in my head, but my limbs weren’t following my instructions. It was like my body was confused. I fell asleep on my yoga mat, exhausted from the effort. When I took Lily for short walks, I was so visually confused by uneven ground that sometimes I would just fall over. My feet didn’t know where to go, or how to compensate for balance. I called my doctor and she said that this was happening to other people who made it through COVID, too.
I dealt with other debilitating symptoms, too: Brain fog to the point that I didn’t remember how to spell simple words; trouble speaking, both because it was still hard to breathe, and because my words came out wrong and jumbled; wheezing; persistent chest pain; extreme exhaustion; increased nerve pain; heightened sensitivity; headaches; and despite my relief to be alive, I was also severely depressed and anxious. My doctor was very frank with me — she wanted to closely monitor me and my symptoms, but she explained that no one understood long-haul COVID, so no one knew how to treat it.
While I am not fully better yet, I have made some improvements over what has been almost two years of patiently listening to my body and trying to meet its new needs. I’m not a doctor, and this isn’t medical advice, but I can share some of what has helped me manage my symptoms.
I wish I had done it sooner, but I finally got myself a cane. I must have been working through some internalized ableism because I really, really needed a mobility aid when I first got sick, but I didn’t actually buy myself a shiny, turquoise cane until a few weeks ago. I finally decided to be kind to myself when I was hobbling around my favorite New England event, The Deerfield Fair, an autumnal, agricultural celebration with 2,000-pound pumpkins, caramel apples, and prancing draft horses. I was gritting my teeth with extreme nerve pain, wishing someone could carry me around so I could enjoy it all. That’s when I realized that I had seen my mother do the same thing: She had struggled with mobility for years, but she believed in toughing everything out — even when it hurt her. It was time for me to bestow the kindness I had wished for her upon myself. Now, I can do so much more with my mobility aid (and with much less pain). I still need to pace myself and rest, but I am so grateful for the assistance of a cane.
Mindfulness-based martial arts
I fell sick in the spring of 2020, and just a few months later in August, my mother died unexpectedly. That’s when — like a lot of millenials shattered by 2020 — I moved back in with my father. My family needed me, and I needed them. My father studies different martial arts forms, and ever since I was little, he had me shadow box with him, practice knife fighting (with wooden knives), and try out different blocks, locks, and escapes. He noticed that my coordination was like a jumble of wires and suggested I start training with him again. “Not like we used to,” he emphasized, “we’ll go slowly, just to get your muscle memory back. You need to light up those neural pathways again.” I should mention he is not a doctor either; just someone enthusiastic about health and mobility, and considering that he’s in his mid-60s and still goes surfing and hikes the White Mountains, I felt willing to try his methods.
First, we practiced punching. He held up a huge boxing pad, and I was supposed to punch it, gently, wearing my giant gloves. I looked at the pad, looked at my glove, extended my arm, and missed the pad. I started laughing, but that wild kind of laughing you do when you actually want to start sobbing. And then I started coughing. “That’s okay,” my dad said. “Try again.” So I did. After a few tries, I hit the very big pad that seemed so impossible to miss with my very big glove, and cheered. We did this every day for months, starting at 10 minutes a day, and when I was strong enough, we went for 20 minutes, and then 30. He would move the pad around for each punch, high, low, chest-height, left, right, and he called out the hand I was supposed to use to hit. It took a while for the directions to filter through my brain. I would go high when I should have gone low, left when I should have gone right, but after a while, I started making more hits than misses. We were teaching my body how to listen to my brain again.
Training with my father was one of the most helpful parts of my recovery, and after a while, I was able to graduate to kicking. We also incorporated elements of Tai Chi, which studies have shown can improve coordination and motor skills, especially in MS patients and autistic children. I still struggle with coordination sometimes, but much less often. I can walk on uneven ground now, especially now that I use a cane, and I can do most of the yoga poses I used to do.
I’m a yoga instructor, but I don’t believe that yoga fixes everything — or that it’s even suitable for everyone. Some people really don’t like yoga or find it helpful, and that’s valid. My body responds well to yoga, and studies suggest that yoga can be helpful in decreasing some types of chronic pain for certain disorders. However, I haven’t been able to do a full yoga class for most of the time I’ve been sick. Even now, when I’m going at my own pace and opting out of certain poses, I sometimes still need to stop and lie down on my mat.
But it’s that willingness to rest when I need to that has helped me begin to recover. Pushing your body relentlessly to its maximum capacity is ultimately not helpful. I have found a lot of benefit in practicing Yin Yoga, a type of slow, gentle yoga developed for people who are recovering from injury or illness. Yin Yoga also liberally uses props to support the body in each pose, and you hold the poses for up to five minutes so you can get the deep stretch without the exhausting effort.
On days where I have more energy, I do “slow flow” yoga, which is essentially a slowed-down vinyasa yoga. Vinyasa, sometimes called “power yoga,” is an active form of yoga in which the poses flow one into the other, making the movement more or less continuous. It often incorporates strength-building postures or sequences. Right now, a full-power vinyasa class would not be beneficial for me, so I opt for the slow flow, getting the benefits of strengthening and fluid movement, but at a gentle pace.
Remember that you can always let your yoga teacher know before class that you are working with some health issues and that you plan to go at your own pace. You don’t need to do the pose the teacher tells you to do, or even in the way they tell you to do it. Unless you’re somehow in danger of injuring yourself, your yoga teacher should agree with this (and if they don’t, I suggest finding a different teacher).
Pranayama is the Sanskrit name for yogic breathwork, and studies have shown that pranayama is beneficial for the respiratory system, the nervous system, and anxiety and depression. Although I’ve studied and practiced multiple forms of pranayama for over 10 years, after COVID, I needed to start at square one. My lungs had been through a lot. Before bed, and as needed throughout the day, I would lie on my stomach, which relieved some of the pressure in my chest, and do this simple practice. At first, it was painful, so I went carefully, but after some time, it became easier.
- Begin in a comfortable position.
- Inhale for a count of 5, allowing the chest and belly to expand. Go slowly and carefully if this is painful.
- Hold the breath in for a count of 3.
- Exhale completely for a count of 7.
- Hold the breath out for a count of 3.
- Begin the sequence again.
You can do this sequence for up to 20 minutes, but start at just one or two minutes if breathing is difficult for you, working your way up. As you progress, you can inhale, hold, and exhale for more counts — just always make sure the exhalation is a little longer than the inhalation.
Herbs for respiratory health
Even with all of my pranayama, my lungs needed some help. I consulted with my friend, certified herbalist Ylva Mara Radziszewski, and she suggested that I drink a strong tea of elecampane and Sweet Annie once every day for two weeks, and then drink a strong cup of mullein tea every day for two more weeks. At her suggestion, I checked with my PCP. When my doctor gave the OK, I tried it out — and it genuinely helped. With the combination of pranayama and these teas, by the end of the month my lung capacity had improved. I could breathe better and do more without wheezing or becoming winded. While there are many different types of herbs that have been used traditionally for lung health — some with clinical results, some without — many have contraindications for certain medications or health conditions. So before you hit up your local apothecary and start experimenting, please consult a qualified herbalist as well as your doctor to make sure you have the right treatment plan for your needs.
I got both doses of the Pfizer vaccine in March and April of 2021, and after that, my lungs recovered completely from the effects of long-haul COVID. While I’m just reporting my personal experience, according to Yale researchers, 30%-40% of long-haulers also experienced relief from some of their symptoms after the vaccine. This phenomenon is still being studied, and there is still much to learn, but researchers encourage long-haulers to get vaccinated (along with everyone else who is eligible).
Sleep is crucial for healing, and melatonin is one supplement that can help. Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland, and studies show that melatonin supplements improve circadian rhythms and help people fall asleep and stay asleep. Melatonin is not for everyone, however, so definitely consult with your doctor. When I was in my early 20s, I couldn’t take it because it increased my already hard-to-handle night terrors. Now, in my 30s, I still have C-PTSD but luckily melatonin doesn’t impact my dreams like it used to. I also started taking valerian root in a gel capsule form, which has promising results as a sleep aid with no risk of addiction.
The other great kindness I did for myself, my sleep, and my chronic pain, was to get a better mattress. Unsurprisingly, the mattress I’d had since I was teenager was full of metal springs, and was really uncomfortable. I did research on the best mattresses for chronic pain, got myself on a payment plan, and bought that thing. It is so much easier to physically stay in bed and rest now that my mattress actually cushions my body properly.
As always, consult with your doctor — but in my experience, CBD has helped tremendously with my nerve pain, my mental health, and my insomnia. CDB is derived from hemp, which either has very low THC or no THC (the compound that creates the ‘high’ feeling in marijuana). CBD is a great option for people who want the benefits of a cannabinoid, a compound found in cannabis, without the high. I take CBD daily, which has been found in preliminary studies to help treat chronic pain — although more studies still need to be done. If you try it, make sure that your sources are good: CBD isn’t very regulated, so go for a brand that is very transparent about their product with links to batch and testing information.
I try to take a hot bath every day now because they have been so helpful for my nerve pain. I like to get luxurious with it, so in addition to my half a cup of Epsom salt, I add essential oils like frankincense, rose, and jasmine.
Accepting the journey
I’m frustrated that I’m still sick, even though I am grateful for the progress I’ve made. The reality is that due to my symptoms, I had to quit teaching, stop performing dance, stop art modeling, and make other accommodations for my health that have been humbling. My body and life feel very different now than before I had COVID. However, the practice of meeting myself with kindness, approaching my needs with curiosity and care, and prioritizing rest whenever I can have been the most helpful to me. I learned to stop resenting my body for not doing what I wanted, and start loving my body because it’s mine, and it needs care.
Long-haul COVID ranges in severity and symptoms for everyone, and it is still very much a mystery to the medical community, so we need to be our own advocates. Learning to slow down and pay attention to how you feel, day to day, hour to hour, and do your best to cater to your needs without judgment, will be essential to your recovery.
Jezmina Von Thiele (they/them) is a 200-hour Kripalu certified Yoga Instructor with a Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga Certificate. They are a dancer, healer, artist, art model, and tell fortunes in their mixed Roma/Sinti family’s tradition. Follow them on Instagram at @jezmina.vonthiele and visit jezminavonthiele.com for more.
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