What I learned from my brush with COVID

I’ve written about the importance of rest before, and I stand by that. Respecting our need for rest is fundamental, whether we are healthy or sick, and doing so becomes ever more difficult in a society obsessed with productivity and optimization.

I come by my comfort with rest naturally, I think. People tend to lean one way or the other, either biased toward more of a doing orientation, or (like me), more of a being orientation. There are plenty of people who can’t stand sitting still, and even struggle to relax while on vacation, and there are others of us who need to be prodded to get into any action because stillness is our comfort zone.

Even when I was a kid and I loved nothing more than challenging people to races, swinging on the monkey bars, exploring a nearby stream or playing a game of baseball (yes, I grew up in a very small town), I would still frequently look to my cat, napping away in a patch of sun, and think “she’s got it made.” The idea that all she had to do all day was eat and find different patches of sun to sleep in seemed like a pretty ideal way to live.

I got hit hard with COVID earlier this month and let’s just say I was channeling my inner housecat for a while there. I was sick. Sore throat, crazy congested sinuses, and just this bone deep exhaustion that still hasn’t quite lifted. Of course it could have been much worse, and I’m very grateful that it wasn’t.

For the first four or five days of being actively sick, I couldn’t do anything. I would get out of bed and migrate to the couch, where I spent the entire day reading or watching TV, or some combination of the two. I truly couldn’t bring myself to do anything else, I was just so damn exhausted and miserable.

When we’re sick, the need for rest becomes impossible to ignore. And that’s a good thing, because we need to rest in order to get better. I kept reminding myself of this as I sat on the couch, passively letting another episode of Insecure autoplay from my laptop. I needed to save all of my strength for my immune system so it could do its job and fight this thing off, I told myself, as I settled in for yet another thirty minutes of mindless consumption.

Sitting around doing nothing for a few days can feel lovely, especially when you’re expecting a baby and you know you’re about to essentially become a 24 hour a day nurse for the foreseeable future. And I definitely let myself rest. But by day six, even though I still felt exhausted, I started to not be able to stand myself. I wanted to DO something, to achieve some small little goal. I started by taking a shower, then doing a small cleaning of our apartment and a few loads of laundry before collapsing back on the couch. I felt exhausted by the simplest of household tasks, but I also felt good about having done them, and went to bed that night feeling buoyed by my efforts.

Maybe I overshot it, because the next day I was so tired I literally didn’t change out of my pajamas all day. My body was speaking, so I listened, and I rested.

The day after that I felt a little more energetic again, so I took a 20 minute walk and wrote in my journal for the first time in over a week. Again, despite expending energy on those things, I felt energized by having actually done something useful with myself.

And that’s this funny paradox with energy. Sometimes energy begets energy. Spending it actually leads to more, while doing nothing can begin to create an exhaustion of its own.

I’ve never forgotten a concept from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, that we are often more exhausted by the weight of undone tasks than we would be by the effort of actually doing those things. I feel the truth of that when I look around at my apartment and notice the water filter I have yet to clean, or the papers reminding me to call my insurance company. Even the sight of them feels heavy. The energetic drain of undone tasks is real.

So I made a little project out of undone tasks as I continued to recover in a slow and halting way. Each day I took a short walk and tackled a small task, something super simple, but that would give me the little jolt of accomplishment I find so energizing. There were days when I felt too tired to walk or do much of anything, so I let myself rest. And that rest felt all that more satisfying because I actually needed it.

As always, it’s all about striking a balance.

So which end of the spectrum do you lean toward? Are you someone who can’t sit still and is always doing, doing, doing? If so, here’s some encouragement to slow down and embrace stillness, even just for a short while.

And if you, like me, are at times in danger of becoming one with your couch, here’s a nudge to get up and DO something to remind yourself what you’re capable of.

Wherever you are, I hope you are well, and rested, and making space to do the things that light you up.