It was a lazy Saturday morning, and I sat curled up on the couch with a coffee in hand. My cell phone rang, and I was surprised to see a friend’s daughter calling from the West Coast. It was 6 a.m. her time. I picked up with a little catch in my heart. I knew she wouldn’t call this early without a reason. I was right. She was very concerned about her parents and hadn’t slept well, and she knew that I would be awake.
Her parents, Frank and Sharon, like so many others, had been infected with COVID-19 in 2020. Though physically recovered from their brush with death, the fire had spread to their marriage, their relationships, and their mental health through severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and a suicide attempt. This was the reason for her call.
Prior to COVID-19, Frank and Sharon had lived a normal quiet life. While no marriage is perfect, it seemed that they had a pretty good one. Drastic changes in life were about to occur and neither were equipped to deal with them. Frank was diagnosed with COVID-19 and required immediate hospitalization. His respiratory status declined rapidly and would require ventilatory support within 12 hours of admission. Frank, while gasping for air, said, “I don’t want to die.” The medical team sedated him and placed him on a ventilator.
Sleep, blessed sleep, or was it?
Two days after Frank’s admission, Sharon began to feel sick and also tested positive for COVID-19. She entered into home quarantine for 14 days. The support system she would typically have was gone, and she was alone.
Days turned to weeks and then the doctor finally delivered good news to Sharon. Frank was doing better. She shouted with joy, but the words that came next tempered her response. His body had become severely weak during this time, and he would require weeks in the hospital before he would be safe to return home.
Sharon’s emotions ran high as she thought to herself, “He will survive, but will I?” She was suffering from her isolation. Life out there would never feel safe again.
Weeks later, they were reunited when Frank returned home. Happy ending, right?
Unfortunately, no. They had each experienced a trauma that profoundly affected their lives. While physical healing had occurred, the greater battle was yet to come. It was their second pandemic.
Unfortunately, stories like Frank and Sharon’s are more common than not. However, in this couple’s anguish, they were also living in shame.
“Why are we not feeling better about life? What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with you?” they asked themselves.
All of the shame, fear, anxiety, and stress they were feeling became someone else’s fault. Unfortunately, these emotions are more easily attached to the person in front of you rather than to a virus that can’t be seen. Words were spoken, “We need a divorce. I need to take my life. I can’t live like this.”
It can be difficult to manufacture hope when you can’t see past your pain and fears, but know that it’s possible and that it’s there for you. It’s what will allow us to survive and sometimes thrive while still suffering. Let me share a little wisdom that I’ve learned by working with dying patients throughout my medical career and how hope could help Frank and Sharon and those like them.
Look to your faith traditions to find hope. If faith isn’t part of your lexicon, then look to the creation itself and seek answers. As a member of the Western Cherokee tribe, I know my ancestors sought spiritual answers from their physical world.
Write down all of the bad things that have happened or could happen because of your second pandemic. Now write down all of the good things that have happened or could happen as you not only survived, but now can thrive through both pandemics.
Know that this season of suffering has an end date. You’re better prepared for the next season of suffering.
Don’t make long-term decisions while in the midst of short-term suffering.
You aren’t alone in your suffering and shame. Recent studies show severe emotional stress in approximately 30 percent of COVID-19 survivors. Finally, shame should never be attached to your emotions. Shame pain only makes you isolate, which is the worst thing that you can do.
Finally, seek professional help. Time is your friend only if you feel better today than yesterday. If not, you may need to seek professional help to find your hope.
For Frank and Sharon, their first step of healing from their second pandemic was accomplished by increasing their situational awareness. The same can be for anyone who has survived COVID-19, but is still struggling. Perhaps you haven’t recognized your COVID-19 experience as the source of your emotions.
Frank and Sharon also started to understand that they weren’t alone. Neither are you. Their third step was wearing the mantle of hope, even when they didn’t feel like it.
Once you’re aware, you can find the help you need from other people and professionals. One of my favorite resources for diagnosis and referrals is the National Institute of Mental Health’s overview page for PTSD.
Remember: Don’t let the pandemic that robbed part of your life continue to steal your days going forward. Life is short, and it’s meant to be lived.
Dr. Pamela Prince Pyle is a board-certified internal medicine physician, who was one of three physicians selected in 1992 by Carolina Health Specialists to start the first hospital-based internal medicine practice outside of a university setting in the United States. In 2009, Pyle started traveling to Rwanda for medical work with Africa New Life Ministries and was instrumental in the founding and growth of the Dream Medical Center in Kigali. She’s the author of “A Good Death: Learning to Live Like You Were Dying,” coming in 2022. To learn more, visit her website at Pamelaprincepyle.com