“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

-Victor E. Frankl

Having my world turned upside down with Long COVID has been a major  challenge in my life. It’s like the rug was pulled out from under me and everything I thought I knew was stripped away…I was a lover of sports, an athlete, a high-energy extrovert, a go-getter, a social director, a party girl, and a family event organizer. 

I also enjoyed writing, reading and taking courses to expand my mind and world. But all that came to a screeching halt when the SARS-CoV-2 virus wouldn’t retreat and doctors told me I had a condition known as “brain fog.” The term seemed preposterous and frightening at the same time. What is brain fog and how do you diagnose and treat it? And what is orthostatic intolerance and post-exertional malaise? These terms would become part of a new lexicon that centered around my condition known as Long COVID. I was living with a new reality–along with the uncertainty that comes with hosting a post viral syndrome which has no known treatment or cure. 

So here I am; an athlete who can’t compete, a writer who can’t write, an extravert who can’t party, and an active mom who can’t organize or participate in large family events and gatherings. Who am I now? Where is the Ellen I knew (and loved?)

Long COVID has given me the opportunity to explore this question. I thought I knew who I was, I thought my identity had been well-established and unshakable. But when it dissolved before my very eyes, I was left bewildered and lost. 

 I began to suffer, and it wasn’t the physical pain, the daily discovery of new symptoms or the shrugs of uncertainty from baffled doctors that was at the core of my suffering. Through meditation and mindfulness, I discovered it was the intense insecurity of who I was with this illness. I had been so entangled in my former identity, that I felt an incredible sense of loss– and an overwhelming feeling of “failure” because I couldn’t show up for other people like I had always done in the past.  I suffered because I wanted my identity to remain intact and I subconsciously craved external acceptance and approval from my friends and family. I wanted them to support and fortify my identity as a capable writer, a teacher, an energetic host, a good athlete, a fun neighbor, and a loving mom, wife, pet owner, etc. When I became ill with this mysterious illness and couldn’t do, and be, all those things, I wasn’t getting that reinforcement and I thought I’d lost my value and any sense of “self.” That was my greatest suffering. 

But with introspection I realized that I was taking my illness personally; that I was blaming it for stealing my identity; like a thief. I suffered because I thought I was left with nothing other than what I had internalized from past conditioning, expectations from others, limiting beliefs, and past habits and behaviors. I also thought identities were fixed and secure. I didn’t know they had the capacity to change and evolve–to grow with new circumstances.

 My greatest fear was that I would be abandoned because I could no longer show up in the same way; if at all. I couldn’t host friends or family, walk with my neighbors, let alone write the perfect book or be a good mom, wife and friend. 

But what I have discovered is that that “me” was a fabrication I created and believed. It’s the illusion that I took to be my total self-worth and identity. But it is not the real “me” because there is no “me” except the one that I design and identify with–and that can change and evolve, grow deeper and become adaptable and creative… 

I am not thanking COVID by any means. It’s been a tough and painful ride. But my illness has given me the opportunity to have everything stripped away– everything that I thought I was, everything that I thought made “me.” This has led to the discovery of who I really am deep down–a person worthy of love, peace, happiness and joy. I have discovered (to my surprise) that I am still a caring mom, a spunky wife, a fun-loving friend, a curious student and now–even more than ever– a grateful, kind and compassionate human being. I have a deep understanding of my true nature lying beneath the outer identity and the outer mask I was always wearing.

I now have a better relationship with my conditioned mind, and I have grown to believe I am “whole and perfectly imperfect,” just as I am.

Final note:  Of course I hope to get back to tennis (or even pickle ball), to ride my mountain bike, to hike, to paddle board and finish my young adult novel–but for now, I am satisfied with the simple things in life, like walks in nature, short strolls on beach and writing short blogs and meditations. I have accepted my new state; knowing life is dynamic and different causes and conditions happen all the time. Just like nature, I am always changing and evolving and there is hope that my body will realign with health.  

Finally, I have discovered that below my outer identity, there is a wellspring of limitless strength, boundless energy, and unconditional love for nature and humanity that can never be taken away. Trusting that these inner resources are available when I need them has been my greatest gift during this turbulent time. I long for a better tomorrow; but appreciate the special moments of today. 

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