Battling Grief, Mental Health and COVID-19 in the First State

Adobe Stock/fran_kie

Wilmington resident Rachel Lee Garofolo describes testing positive for COVID-19 during the anniversary of her mother’s murder.

At the end of November 2020, I felt congestion and fatigue. I prayed it was just a cold. A couple days later, after a drive-through COVID test, restless nights and the loss of taste and smell, I feared the worst. At 4 o’clock in the morning on December 3, I checked my phone and received the diagnosis no one wanted: I was positive for COVID-19.

This isn’t a woe is me account; it’s about compassion for those who have had my experience or know people who have.

When I received the diagnosis, my already high-level anxiety was thrown into hyperdrive. Was my husband going to test positive? How did I contract the virus? Who had I been in contact with who might also test positive because of me? Most of all—was I going to end up on a ventilator and die like so many before me?

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I had been incredibly careful. I always wore a mask, always sanitized and washed my hands, never went out to eat at restaurants. But I still contracted COVID-19.

The following weeks were miserable. I experienced a range of symptoms: intense fatigue, headaches, chest tightness, dizziness, even hives all over my body. I monitored my symptoms daily, checked my pulse oximetry and temperature once an hour, and practically had my primary care doctor on speed-dial. I developed a daily mantra, repeating to myself, “My body is strong, my body is capable.” It was the best I could do to keep myself positive.

The worst part, however, was the two-week isolation. Thankfully, my husband tested negative; I kept to my bedroom and he to the basement, a floor level between us. Our only contact was FaceTime and texts. Life goes on, of course, and my illness coincided with the ninth anniversary of the murder of my mother, Marsha Lee. I was unable to grieve properly; no hugs, no visiting her grave, no sharing tears with my loved ones. For someone who has mental illnesses, the solitude and the constant “being in my head’ almost destroyed me. For an unknown reason, my bipolar medicine wasn’t taking effect and I ended up having a hypo-manic episode. I don’t remember much; it was a terrifying blur.

Adobe Stock/fran_kie

Post-COVID isn’t any better. It has been months since I tested positive, and my life is busy with both medical and mental health doctor visits. I was certain I had some life-threatening illness because of a range of post-COVID health problems, and it didn’t help matters when I received the report of my modified barium swallow that implied my symptoms were all in my head.

The aftermath of COVID-19 that’s most common among survivors is brain fog. I can’t express words properly, my short-term memory is terrible, I have moments of confusion and struggle to concentrate. As of August 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Long COVID is a range of symptoms that can last weeks or months after infection… even if the illness was mild.” Scientists are researching those who experience long-term post-COVID conditions, but there aren’t any clear answers yet.

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My anxiety and depression turned into anger. I was sick of not feeling well, of not finding adequate research into COVID’s long-term side effects. Mostly I was angry because I felt alone in my struggles.

For some, including my friend Jessica, simply knowing they had COVID-19 was enough to induce panic attacks. Not knowing who else we had infected or what could happen to them during our convalescence was excruciating. We were diagnosed with a deadly disease and found a new reality of scary isolation and rejection from a few close to us.

Nevertheless, through all of this I have gained profound gratefulness that I survived when more than 600,000 Americans didn’t. My long-term conditions aren’t pleasant, but by taking life day by day, I’m improving. Contracting COVID-19 made me realize that I was taking my health and my relatively young age for granted. It encouraged me to be proactive in taking my health seriously. I receive constant support from my family and friends, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

You are not alone if you are struggling with either being currently COVID-positive or having long-term side effects from the disease. You will get through it.

Your body is strong. Your body is capable.

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