I had Coronavirus while looking after two young children and this is how I coped
At about 3am I woke up in a panic, paralysed and pinned to the mattress as if someone was sitting on my chest. My breathing was fast, and with each exhalation I could hear crackling in my lungs – like Velcro tearing, mixed with whistles and whispers that I absolutely swear at one point said ‘mama’ as if an actual horror movie was playing out inside me. My crying woke John up, who calm me down by suggesting some CBT-style ideas, such as feeling the texture of the bedsheets under my hands and to focus on the light peeking through the curtains – helping me to refocus and get off the anxiety carousel.
Put the screwdriver down NOW!” shouts my husband John. He never shouts. I can hear muffled crying in the kitchen from my bed – I think it’s my 2-year-old. Yup. And there’s definitely crying from my 6-year-old too. FFS. I know they’re hungry – my phone says 9am – I instinctively know John hasn’t fed them yet, but from the sound of cutlery, he’s trying to. 9am, wow. I don’t think I’ve slept in for so long since the 90s. But this isn’t a treat. I’m physically unable to stand up right now. I’m on Day Six of Coronavirus and just had the most frightening night of my life.
He gave me a shot of Night Nurse – a paracetamol-based over-the-counter medicine that contains an antihistamine to help you sleep. He’s a doctor and I trust him completely; quite frankly he could have given me a Jaegerbomb and I would have necked it.
So Day 6 began and melted into four more days of physical exhaustion, emotional numbness, tearful staring into nothingness, promising crafts activities to my eldest daughter Poppy that never happened, watching my tantrumy, teething toddler eat Play-Doh and not having the energy to stop her, sitting in the garden’s sunbeams and watching John be everything to us all. He was double parent, good cop, bad cop, cook, cleaner, gardener, nappy-changer, argument breaker-upper, Lego builder, dishwasher emptier, groceries fetcher, hair brusher and pharmacist who monitored my temperature (hovering around 39 most days) and paracetamol intake.
Looking after two children while being ill with Coronavirus was, quite simply, utterly shit. When I did have the occasional short bout of strength in those five really bad days, I was impatient and intolerant, bossy and shouty – all the things you learn to control as you grow into parenting (because kids are supposed to be clumsy and forgetful and excited and feral and frustrating). I felt so guilty for not being ‘mum’; so guilty for not helping John and preventing him from working in the hospital he was so desperately needed at (he is a leading lung pathologist and manages a major mortuary in London). I felt guilty for moping around and complaining, because thousands of vulnerable and underprivileged families and key frontline workers are suffering far, far worse. I felt guilty for having a sunny garden that my girls could play in; for having more than enough loo roll and food in the freezer, for not allowing our parents to see their granddaughters. I felt guilty for crawling into bed in the middle of the day and cried myself to sleep.
It’s shocking how bleak and dark my mind became whilst ill, with no rational grasp on self-care and no impetus to pull myself into a positive headspace. I think that’s the hidden symptom not many people have touched on – this sense of mental ‘malaise’ and hopelessness – probably because it’s so hard to put into words and makes you sound so damn self-indulgent, pitiful and wallowing.
I wasn’t officially diagnosed with Covid-19, however my symptoms (such as a fever, high temperature and wheezing lungs), and the dozens of chats my husband had with his NHS ward-based doctor friends confirmed I was 99.9% likely to have it. But there were so many other odd symptoms I had too. Quite early on, about Day 3 and 4, I had horrendous nausea and all the vessels in my face burst from the force and frequency with which I was being sick, as you can see from this pretty hideous before and after Instagram post.
I looked like I’d had my photo taken with one of those sun-damage cameras, or like a really angry Seurat pointillism painting violently stabbed with red and grey speckles. It was so alarming it made Poppy cry: “I don’t want to look at you anymore it’s scaring me,” she said. Praise be for concealer; in my corona-survival shopping list below I’ve added the one that saved me.
The skin on my arms and legs was scaly and parched; the insides of my nostrils were so dry they tore and bled, and, most upsetting of all, for ten days I completely lost my sense of smell and taste. A new study has reported that 60% of Britons who tested positive for coronavirus had lost those senses, but at the time it hadn’t been linked and I was distraught. Honestly, I cannot even tell you how much this upset me: as a fragrance writer, smell is my absolute passion – whether sniffing, reviewing and describing perfume in articles, or inhaling the delicious smell of my girls’ hair and their warm pyjamas when I get them dressed in the morning. Over the years I’ve trained my nose to be as highly tuned as possible, and it’s intrinsically linked to flavour and taste. Because of that, I adore cooking. It’s my creative release, my therapy (I’m absolutely not ashamed to admit that last year’s Christmas gravy began its life in September when I made a stock out of pheasant and duck carcasses with champagne and port simmered lovingly for 24hrs. I nurtured it way more than I cared for my kids that weekend).
To have both of those senses shut down sent me to a strange, numb and dismal place. I couldn’t be bothered to eat and lost half a stone in a week. There was no point drinking wine or cooking interesting meals, because all I could detect was whether something was salty, sweet, acidic or bitter. Even when I got a little stronger and felt better, neither came back. By this point I had been inundated with messages from followers who also suffered temporary Anosmia – the technical term for loss of smell and taste – and said it was the single most disheartening part of their illness.
It took until Day 12 until they came back to about 60% capacity. Today, it’s still only about 75%, but I’ll take that. I know they will fully return eventually, because everything about this virus and our new-normal lives is temporary. I wish I had the mental strength to have believed this during that awful night. But what I do have now is hindsight, and a tried and tested set of products and tips that helped me get through the physical and emotional shitstorm of Coronavirus. If you’re going through it, you will more than likely get better – the vast, vast majority of people do and only have very mild symptoms. So for now, take comfort in these small but brilliant tricks and treats to make it as kind and bearable as possible:
L’Occitane Shea Butter Hand Cream, from £8 – £21.50, L’Occitane.com There is no better. It is the clotted cream of hand ointments, so pleasingly thick, moisturising and rich you will very possibly lick your own skin afterwards to check it’s not actually edible. (The brand also sent hand creams to NHS and HSE hospitals all around the UK and Ireland, and invited NHS/HSE staff to collect a complimentary 30ml hand cream in the week before the lockdown).
Vaseline Original Petroleum Jelly, £1.50, Superdrug.com This small pot of heroic gunk may not be the greenest, snazziest or trendiest thing around, but it saved me, big time. Coronavirus can bring on a stuffy nose and sinus congestion, so there’s a lot of mouth breathing and raw skin going on. Before bed, rub some on your lips (and the skin beyond your lip line) generously, and smother some inside your nostrils too. It feels a bit odd, but it will prevent your fragile skin from getting ripped raw.
Jo Malone London Basil & Neroli Cologne, £48, JoMalone.co.uk (or whatever your default everyday perfume may be). Even though I couldn’t smell anything, my two tiny worried girls could. Normality is a very distant concept right now (particularly when you look and behave unwell) so any kind of consistency is helpful. I sprayed myself with this cologne every morning because it’s familiar to them, and I’m absolutely sure the crunchy, juicy, sparkling, cotton-fresh, jungle-wet scent instilled some subconscious comfort into their little minds.
Molton Brown Milk Musk Candle, £42, Moltonbrown.co.uk The first candle I lit when I could smell again. Imagine your home being cuddled by the most reassuring maternal arms, as if to say ‘I know you’re stuck in here, but I am keeping you safe and sheltered’. The powdery, lactose, vanilla-soft scent brings a dreamy, creamy richness to the air, but it’s not cloying at all. It’s lightweight and nuzzly; the scented equivalent to superfine cashmere.
Mute your most annoying WhatsApp chats. Is there ANYTHING more irritating than seeing the words ‘Jodie has added you to the group.’ If I see another self-isolating meme or ‘forwarded’ home-schooling schedule, or plea from your godfather’s cousin’s hairdresser’s brother who is now doing vegetable deliveries but nowhere near your actual postcode, I will actually scream.
Don’t feel so guilty. With clarity, I can now confidently say that lockdown self-isolation gave John the opportunity to really step up as a full-time father – not an opportunity he gets very often. He was full-on 100% dad. While I skulked off to bed at 9pm he put together the weirdest fridge leftovers combinations for his solo dinners. As for preventing our parents from seeing us and their grandkids? They are currently clocking up a billion hours of future childcare, and we’re helping to keep them alive. We do Facetime bedtime stories and Dettol-sprayed doorstep deliveries, and my dad has figured out House Party so we can have family meals together.
Just over two weeks since I fell ill I’m back to my healthy self, ‘patchworking’ by slotting bits of writing into the evenings when the kids are in bed and on the weekends when John can take over. My cooking game is back on and I’m feeling superhuman, imagining all the antibodies coursing through me right now. And there are absolutely no bloody screwdrivers within reach anywhere in the house.