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News » Cover Story

Tomorrow Will Be Better

Surviving COVID-19, one fever dream at a time

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I'm a creature of habit. Each day starts with the same routine: coffee, dog walks, inspect the garden, a bike ride. But none of this can start until I've laced up my shoes.

For the past 10 days, I haven't had the strength to put on my socks, much less a pair of shoes. Instead, my world's been an endless cycle of muscle spasms, headaches, chills, sweats, drooling and a complete lack of taste or smell. You don't wear shoes. The idea of lacing up my boots is as offensive as the dirty virus flowing through my veins.

I'm barefoot and broken because I fell prey to COVID-19.

More than 7 million Americans have been infected by the deadly coronavirus, and now I'm one of them. I suspected I was infected, but nothing prepared me for the wave of emotion that descended upon me when Salt Lake County Health Department sent the results.

My wife was in the room when I reread the email for the hundredth time. My first reaction was guilt—a bottomless pit of guilt. What if I had infected her? She rides me for paying the cable bill late. I can't even imagine what she'd do if I passed COVID on to her. (Luckily, I did not.)

COVID means you're not catting around. COVID means you're not doing anything but taking a never-ending roller coaster ride of nausea, crippling muscle pain and a headache nailed to a rabid sewer rat's 9-volt battery. You can barely function enough to eat a handful of ibuprofen. Nothing matters when the headaches kick in—they're maddening and come in pounding waves.

Imagine pinching the base of your neck with a table vise and cranking the handle ... on the hour, every hour. It's immobilizing. It's grip-the-sheets-and-hang-on, waiting for the roller coaster to make it back to the station. COVID taunts by ratcheting up the pain, and there's no respite—no sleep and certainly no peace. COVID is a series of micro-battles. Getting out of bed takes 15 minutes. Finding the energy to brush your teeth takes half an hour. Reminding yourself to eat takes all day. Everything you once took as second-nature is foreign. My already heavy eyelids droop even lower and darker because I haven't slept for more than 30 consecutive minutes. And because I'm alone in the basement, separated from my family, there's no one to tell me there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

The only solace I found was in a silly turn of a phrase: Tomorrow will be better. Four words chanted ad nauseam to help beat back a throbbing headache. A quickly formed hashtag became my battle cry to calm down, to remind myself to breath and to believe I can survive this horrific illness. Tomorrow will be better because it can't get any worse than it is this moment.

The Work from Home Era
2020 was supposed to be the best year of our lives.

We booked a two-week trip to Italy, bought tickets for Pearl Jam in Denver, and looked forward to my brother's 40th birthday celebration in October. We talked about a trip to Montana, a visit to my mother's in San Diego and maybe a trip to Washington D.C.

Even if you didn't have the same travel plans, a 70-nanometer virus halted everything. The world changed dramatically, and we've been dealing with this pandemic in one form or another for what seems like years, and it's only been six months.

Since March 11, my wife and I have worked from home. She's a social worker, and I'm a communications writer. Before the world went topsy-turvy, I also bartended at Keys on Main in downtown Salt Lake City. You can work remotely writing copy but it's hard to make cocktails virtually. We found real estate in the house and made the transition. The kitchen became the break room. The backyard is now the gym. And the bathroom is still the bathroom.

Before testing positive, I'd wake up early and walk the dogs. After a lap or two at Fairmont Park, I'd shower, eat breakfast and make the short commute to my desk in the guest bedroom. I'd write until 5 p.m. and then walk the dogs again before settling in for beers and talking heads on CNN. Days bled into each other because the scenery never changed.

And I was convinced we were doing everything right. We social distanced. We wore masks. Sanitizer was everywhere, and hand washing became a favorite pastime. Our quarantine consisted of home-cooked meals, Netflix and staying away from other people. Takeout was reserved for a Friday night treat and cocktail hour with friends via Zoom replaced summer barbecues.

But 2020 had other plans for us. Remember the 5.7 earthquake that hit the Salt Lake Valley on March 18? Scared the snot out of us—bricks fell off the house and our sewer system ripped from the foundation. I figured if we didn't get COVID from the eight guys fixing the sewer, we'd probably be OK.

And somehow, it was OK ... until it wasn't.

The Test You Hope You Fail
At first, I thought I had slept weird—my shoulders and legs were killing me, my head foggy. I felt off, like I had a mild case of seasickness. My wife said I should get tested for coronavirus. I scheduled a drive-thru test at the University of Utah and was relieved when it was a spit test, not the Q-tip up the nose.

The U of U ran a well-oiled machine. There were teams of workers in hazmat suits directing traffic and interviewing folks. It took about 25 minutes for the nurse to get to me. I spit into the tube and drove homes with my fingers crossed.

But even before I got the results back the next day, I knew I hadn't been completely honest about social distancing. We cheated because cabin fever is as real as coronavirus. We'd sneak a drink on the patio of bars in Sugar House. We ate indoors at a cozy Sugar House bistro. It's ironic to think we avoided contact with friends and family for months, but a stranger passed along COVID-19. Where? The time I ran into a Maverik with my mask under my nose? Or from the shopping cart I grabbed at Harmons that hadn't been sanitized?

The email commanded me to self-quarantine immediately. I sunk into a deep, remorseful funk. The test is binary, but the results don't answer any questions. Even when I spoke with the contact tracer, we couldn't determine where I got infected because COVID is a sneaky assailant. It can live on surfaces up to three hours. And even with my frequent handwashing, I touch my face a dozen times an hour pushing up my loose eyeglasses. Short of living in a spacesuit, there's no guarantee to avoid COVID.

But that one email became the starter pistol for the worst two weeks of my life. Donning my mask inside the house, I retreated to our basement and began my quarantine.

The Madness begins
The first couple of days were bad. I couldn't regulate my body temperature, sweating more than usual. There was no bottom to my fatigue. It was difficult to text back friends offering their support. Television hurt my eyes, and podcasts annoyed me. I found myself in a constant stage of irritation because I couldn't get comfortable. And it only got worse three days into COVID.

I went to bed after choking down a bowl of clam chowder I never wanted. It was 10 p.m. on Wednesday, and I was exhausted. I had changed the sheets earlier in the day because they were stained and coated in my body's feeble attempt to push coronavirus through every pour in my skin. Clean sheets will be the armor I need for a night's rest, I told myself.

I took ibuprofen but my head pounded. The COVID headache is unlike anything I've ever experienced. My pulse became this dark, thick metronome thumping on the base of my neck. The pressure of the world focused just above my spine and beat mercilessly in four to five hourslong sessions. And worst of all, a metallic, electric current lined the surface of my mouth. I could taste the sickness even though I'd lost my sense of smell and taste days earlier.

I draped a damp cloth over my eyes and prayed for sleep. Outside sounds intensified in the dark guest bedroom tucked into the back of our home. My wife running the washing machine sounds like she's dropping down Niagara Falls in a barrel. Our dogs eating their dinner of kibble become a rock polisher at top speed. I can hear the pilot light to the water heater clipping along, and every car passing along the street is the Indianapolis 500.

My pillows knot under my neck and end up thrown to the ground. There's a fan in the corner blowing cool air, but I'm so hot it feels like wind coming off the Great Basin Desert. I fight for comfort but the pain in the muscles and joints prohibits it. Everything hurts and not in the way you'd imagine. It's constant—like a toddler tugging your pants leg. It's always there. Lack of sleep creates havoc on all levels. My body needs to repair and recharge itself, but I can't slip into sleep. Instead of passing out and letting my immune system get to work, I'm stuck in limbo.

It's hard to contextualize the experience without thinking of movies. Trainspotting comes to mind immediately. The end of 2001: A Space Odyssey when David Bowman went through the third monolith. The madness of the bees in Wicker Man. The viciousness of Requiem for a Dream. And Seeking the Monkey King. Over and over again, these short, violent vignettes crashed over me and raged in my ears. Soaked in sweat and exhausted, I still knew that I was hallucinating.

Boogeyman
I became convinced there was somebody in my room.

It wasn't a home invasion or my wife creeping down to check on me. Twisted in my sheets, I thought there was a man in the guest bedroom. He wasn't menacing, and I knew it wasn't real. But I could swear he was there. I become increasingly frustrated not knowing who he was.

Because I'm not a Victorian ghost hunter, I remember asking, "Yo, what's up?" expecting an answer. There was never a response but, cracking my eyes, I'd see movement sliding to the other side of the room. I scanned in vain only to give up and lie down again waiting to catch another glimpse.

And this repeated over and over again for a day and a half. The COVID headache, the intense muscle pains, the vivid blasts of images and a sincere conviction there was somebody in the room beat me into a mental mush. I was broken.

Throughout my life, I have always been an optimist. It's not a sunny side of the street optimism but an honest belief that things are going to be better. My life has been a perfect balance of excellent and horrible, and the scale tilts positive because of optimism. COVID robbed me of this long-standing belief. Tomorrow will be better mutated into a nightmare. I didn't want to go on.

In fact, I wanted to die. I honestly didn't want to live anymore. The pain was never ending, and I wanted nothing but relief. My skull pounded, my muscles contorted, and my lower back felt thrashed. I couldn't remember what "normal" felt like. All I knew was I didn't want this to continue. I prayed for it to end. Please God, make tomorrow better. But, in truth, I don't know the first thing about praying. I might as well have been talking to the stranger in the room because no one answered.

Wednesday night became Friday night. Six days after testing positive for COVID the marathon was over. The teeth grinding ended and throbbing pain had subsided. I found the strength to get out of bed. I walked upstairs (wearing a mask) and went into the bathroom. I looked like shit. Bags under my eyes, beard matted from spit, but something felt different. My head hurt but the pounding became a constant, more manageable pressure. It wasn't the COVID headache, it was something different and after 36 hours of hell, anything new was better.

I showered, took my dinner downstairs and watched TV. There was a calming sense tingling throughout my body, and I was able to climb back into bed and sleep for five uninterrupted hours. It was marvelous, healing sleep. There were no crazy nightmares. The kaleidoscope visions disappeared. I just slept and woke up feeling better. I had survived the worst of it, and somehow, tomorrow was better.

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Hurt but Thankful
I made a promise to myself when we were all told to stay home on March 11 that I would leave the quarantine better than when I went in. The work-from-home era was a chance to improve myself. There were projects I've been putting off for months—some as long as years—and I finally had the extra time to focus on them: tearing out the backyard concrete pad, grow a garden from seed, plant trees, fix the sprinkler system, organize our closets and hundreds of other small jobs. The first couple of months, we went full Marie Kondo cleaning out our closets, and we're better for it.

Hobbies kept me busy, or at least distracted. I constructed a shelf out of plywood, rebuilt a lawn mower, baked bread, brewed beer and actually used our dozens of cookbooks. I rode bikes, hiked the Uintas, walked the paws off my dogs and did my best to stay active.

I started reading fiction again. We made Instagram videos. The last time I played this much guitar, I was in high school. I tried jogging (hated it) but got into daily pushup contests. We're lucky to live in a nice home with space to stretch our legs, and I took full advantage of it.

And through it all, my sense of gratitude blossomed. I felt appreciative of what we have, the friends we've collected, and the life we've crafted.

COVID may have been a beast with thousands of people dying around the world, but this small patch of land in Salt Lake City seemed safe for us. There was beer in the fridge, food in the pantry and we had each other. But, in the blink of an eye, COVID showed up in my life and put everything at risk.

Not only was I stricken with a horrific illness that put me out of commission for two weeks, COVID took my drive—from brushing my teeth to putting on my socks to staying on task at work—everything became extremely difficult. I'm a communications writer, not a coal miner. My work is not physically taxing, but I found that trying to concentrate on any task for more than 15 minutes can be impossible. The day I came back to work, it took me the better part of a morning to answer a handful of emails.

Recovering from COVID meant I could be present again for my family. My wife not only picked up the slack, she made the rope. One positive test converted her into the family nurse, epidemiologist, chef, dog walker, gardener, janitor and watchman. We were both in the house, but we were both alone. It's painful to think about.

The Last Steps
I'm on the mend. The headaches and muscle pains are gone, but the fatigue persists. Before getting sick, I could easily walk the dogs 4 miles and think nothing of it. But my first post-'rona walk with the pups gassed me. Dogs don't understand viruses, but they definitely know when things are out of whack. I limped the mile course and collapsed when we made it home.

Two weeks post-quarantine, I can make it through the day without a nap and read a book for more than a quarter of an hour and not nod off. Things feel like they're getting normal. But know this: You do not ever want to contract COVID-19.

According to my father, a physician, I have sufficient levels of antibodies in my body to ward off the effects of COVID. I'm no longer contagious but rather have a temporary level of immunity. What does this mean? That I don't have to wear a mask? I can shake hands or give hugs? I can sit at a bar and have a drink, or go to a movie?

The answer is no. We still don't know whether being hit with this coronavirus provides immunity and, if it does, how long that immunity lasts. So, I wear a mask and keep socially distanced.

Yeah, things suck right now. We're living through a paradigm shift. The world has changed irrevocably, and we're grieving the transition. My life a year ago is an old friend who's moved away and will never return. I can look at old photos of us and think fondly of the times we had, but I know it won't be the same. And the new normal isn't established. We'll have to figure it out as we go. But the sooner we collectively agree COVID has changed the world, the better.

My optimism may be tarnished, but this, too, can heal.


Surviving Coronavirus
Symptoms differ for each COVID positive patient. My case was described as mild, but it was still a beast. If you test positive, you have to quarantine. You're going to be sick and isolated. Here's what I learned.

• Hydrate. The more fluids, the better. I was drinking upward of 5 liters of water. Sports drinks were good; orange juice hurt my stomach.
• Calories. My appetite was gone but I still needed to eat. Soup was good, crackers were better. I forced myself to eat granola bars and bananas.
•OTC pain meds. The only constant during COVID was 4 ibuprofen every four hours. Tylenol didn't work for me. Ibuprofen helped knock down the pain.
• Sleep, if you can. Sleep as much as you can. Rest. Don't push yourself.
• Shower. COVID makes you stink. Long, blistering hot showers were the only reprieve. Sanitize your hands.