HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Grappling with Long COVID’s long-lasting effects

OPINION

Having thoughts is difficult. Writing them down is difficulter. Writing them down every single day while trying to make sense of them is difficultest.

Before you judge me for not knowing my degrees of comparison as a writer who is officially submitting her 200th column for this website today, know this: the error is intentional. I am not stupid. My brain just is. And the intention of using the above example of a sub-par understanding of my first language is to illustrate the long-term effects Long COVID is having on my brain and how “difficultest” it is.

You see, I know that this is not the correct progression of comparison, but Long COVID has turned my brain into a frightfully daft place where in my head, sometimes those slap-in-the-face mistakes actually make sense. And they make sense for two reasons. The first is that I simply cannot remember how things work (this is not exclusive to language, but I will elaborate later). And the second is that in an effort to make sense of things and to convince myself that I am not stupid, I have now started to make stuff up and laugh them off because humour is, or rather was, the only way I could cope with what feels like the slow deterioration of a brain that was semi-functional to begin with.

Last year I had Long COVID for 23 weeks. That’s almost half a year. Couple this with being a new parent and just losing a dad and what you get is a zombie who has no idea what’s happening to their body, no idea what to do with a baby, and no idea how to grieve and process depression, while still trying to use her legs to somehow get to the bathroom without breaking a bone because she has lost control of her legs due to an unexplainable and sudden numbness.

Oh, I forgot to mention that whilst living through the slog of all of this, I also had to write a book. The only thing I managed to compose was a complete write-off. My brain didn’t work at all, thoughts and ideas were smudge and yet to me, they made perfect sense. It’s only when my wife read it and rose from the pages in utter shock at the gibberish, that I realised I had no idea how to work and I had no idea why I was trying.

I bled money to doctors so often during those three weeks I honestly do not know how we paid our expenses. No one knew what was happening. No one knew what was wrong. No one knew why I flipped words around, or why they simply fell off the page, why I couldn’t remember things and had no short-term memory, why I could not absorb information as fast as usual, why I lost my vision, became dyslexic all of a sudden, forgot how to spell, zoned out (more than usual) and managed to fracture my foot and my wrist with zero explanation. I mean I could literally do nothing. I even got a bedsore from lying down for so long.

Eventually, after resorting to several IVs of vitamin cocktails, I slowly managed to get my energy back and start using my body. I picked up a lot of weight from doing nothing, so I was happy to get back to the gym, even though I had to be strapped from top to toe like a mummy so as to not break anything.

Now, I don’t have to do that anymore. I take a vitamin D supplement every day, along with collagen, vitamin C and a B12. I’m probably peeing half the stuff out, but it helps more than the disappointment from a variety of medical specialists who had no idea what’s going on, and it’s for sure a lot cheaper than a R1,800 five-minute consult for no information or help whatsoever. So, my body worked. It works still. In fact, I don’t have to strap up anymore. My ankle braces and back support band are in a box.

But my mind took a bit longer, and so getting work done took a bit longer as well. But hey, I learned to live with it. So what if I worked a bit slower? So what if I wrote essays that were worse than the quality of a 5-year old’s comprehension? I’m privileged enough to sign up to online tools that can help me, like Grammarly, for example, or Hemingway. These are tools I never needed before, but now depend on in order to literally keep my jobs, because without them I would have long burbling sentences without even knowing – like that one I guess. Weak and passive constructions. And a better review process, because to this day, it does not matter how many times I check my work, I will still fail to pick up very simple errors.

These subscriptions are not cheap, but losing gigs is a lot more expensive. But the biggest cost is the knock I have taken to my self-confidence. I have started to feel stupider and stupider and more inadequate every day. It got better for a while, but now it’s back and the getting away with it by making fun of myself or using humour just isn’t cutting it anymore.

I hit rock bottom the other day when I couldn’t count the tennis score while my wife and I played a game. I was confused. Befuddled. Worst of all, I was adamant that I was right. In my heart I knew I was deeply wrong, but I had to be right because counting a tennis score and being really good at that one simple thing at least is something I have been able to do forever and then, all of a sudden it was gone.

Maybe I was just too stressed or had too much on my mind, so my brain short-circuited on a very simple counting technique, but then it happened the next day again. After many weeks of looking for something daily, losing things, misplacing them, forgetting meetings and appointments and reminding myself to remind myself where I have packed something, even though I have OCD and know exactly where it is, the tennis thing was more than I could take.

I think I have reached the apex of being very uncomfortable with my own degree of intelligence, or lack thereof. In fact, I trust my mind so little that for the first time in my life, I have asked for a break from playing my favourite sport in the world just so that I don’t feel like a dumbass on the court as well as off. It seems like a fickle thing. It isn’t.

The only way to escape this is to get out of my own head, but how do I lift this fog that refuses to precipitate?

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.

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