Illness anxiety disorder & Covid – Reflecting on lessons learned

Jul 30, 2022 | Burnout, General, Illness Anxiety

June was an intense month! So many things were happening. It felt like I couldn’t stop writing if I tried. I bought two new journals because I was running out of paper in my current journal and I didn’t ever want to be caught out without a Peter Pauper Press journal (my absolute favourite journals – I love both the artwork and the feel of the paper).

But beyond all the writing I was doing, I was finally dipping my toe more firmly into the sharing of my writing.

June was the month when my husband and I finally collaborated on something that we had talked about for many years – merging my poetry with his artwork. And I made a lot of plans for the artwork. Revamping the website with the new art and branding. Creating videos. Sharing on social media. I had attained that ever elusive momentum. I was on a roll. Nothing could stop me!

Until it did.

woman sick with cold or flu

Our turn to get the dreaded virus

July brought covid into our home. And it wasn’t the ‘milder than the flu’ strain that I had expected. In fact I thought it was the flu because so many people had said that they suffered a lot more from the flu than from covid. But nope, it was Covid.

My kids got it first. My oldest began to complain on July 4. She felt tired with a headache. I didn’t think too much of it as those tend to be common complaints for her. The next morning she woke up with a dry throat. Again I didn’t think much of it because she was sleeping with her door closed until noon, and since it’s winter in Australia the heating was blaring down on her. But later that afternoon, her sister began to complain too. They both had a sore throat.

By the evening my youngest was in a lot of pain in her legs. She had a fever. She had a headache. I spent the night in her room with her, knowing that I was likely to catch what she had, but between my anxiety and her pain, I couldn’t be apart from her.

The next morning I woke up with sore legs. I was in  denial – unwilling to accept that I was sick. The girls had recently gotten sick and  my husband and I were spared. I was hoping it would be the same this time. When my legs ached I passed it off as pain from sleeping in my daughter’s bed instead of on my Tempur mattress. But by the time the evening rolled around there was no denying it. I was sick too. And then my husband started to complain of the same kinds of pains.

For a few days we were really knocked on our asses by this virus. Fortunately the kids started to get better really quickly. They were back to normal by the end of the week. But my husband and I took longer to recover. Actually, I am taking the longest to get ‘back to normal’. Twenty-three days and counting.

Look, I know we are all sick of hearing about covid.

woman sick with cold or flu

Wait, don’t go just yet!

If you decide to click off of this page, I don’t blame you – but before you go, consider that this isn’t your typical covid post. This is more of an Autism at Midlife, typical Jamie style post. I am going to reflect upon illness anxiety, how the illness impacted me mentally, and areas of growth that I can see in myself.

Being sick has given me the opportunity to challenge a lot of my beliefs, and to see where I have changed over the last year or so.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you may know that I have a history of illness anxiety. This goes by a few different names. It used to be called hypochondria or hypochondriasis. Sometimes I call it medical anxiety or health anxiety. This anxiety has at times become completely debilitating for me. It tends to consume my life. It is often expressed as OCD and at times I have gotten very stuck in a cycle of noticing a sensation in my body; obsessing about whether it’s a sign of illness or impending death; checking my body to see if I still notice the sensation; and repeat. I used to check in with Dr Google a lot too, but I have (mostly) broken that habit. Instead I seek reassurance from trusted humans now from time to time.

The last time I had an actual significant illness was in January of 2021. I don’t know if it was food poisoning or some kind of virus but I could not hold food down for many days. At this time I still adhering to highly restrictive eating rules, so I was afraid to even take an electrolyte drink. I think it was probably the sickest I had ever been – certainly the worst illness I had as an adult (and even after having covid and the lingering after effects, I still stand by this being the worst).

I was also in the phase where I was doctor avoidant. Sometimes people with illness anxiety disorder are constantly seeking reassurance from doctors – but I had become doctor avoidant, so I did not seek any medical attention. Eventually I did recover, but my husband now admits that even he was worried.

in bed feet sticking out

I was feeling too sick to worry about being sick

Usually my illness anxiety comes down to worrying about cancer. But this illness really stuck with me. I would often worry about getting that sick again when I would feel any stomach related sensations. I have spent 18 months with this worry swimming around in my head that I could get that sick again at any time. And I just wasn’t sure if I would be able to cope. Especially since I had a massive mental breakdown with severe illness anxiety and panic attacks in August 2021.

I didn’t know how I would handle getting sick until I got sick.

The funny thing is that when I did get sick I was too sick to worry about being sick.

Let that sink in. Over the years, I have spent ridiculous amounts of time worrying about how I would cope with being sick. I have tried to come up with some kind of plan of action so that I am prepared; I have tried to be in control of things so that I don’t get blindsided.

But when the time came, I was too sick to worry about being sick. I was too sick to think in the way that my mind usually works. In fact, I started to see that a lot of stuff was happening on autopilot.

When I got sick, my body did what it needed to do. My eyes couldn’t stay open when I was too fatigued, prompting me to sleep. My body sought fluids when I needed them. I found that the things I required for comfort were quite simple. Bed. Rest. Sleep. Hot water bottle. Did I mention sleep?

sleeping woman with dog

My mental energy was diverted

The ‘energy’ that I usually spent on ruminating, thinking, planning, and controlling everything was diverted to fighting the virus. I didn’t have to ‘deal with anxiety’ while I was so fatigued. And that made me realise a couple of things. First, that the anxiety was about anticipation of being sick rather than about actually being sick. Second that my body knows what to do, and that I don’t have to (and really can’t) prepare for how to heal when I am really sick. Yes, I can have things at the house that will be useful in case of illness. And I can do things like sleep more. But the internal process of fighting the virus – I had no control over what my body systems were doing. They did their job without my worrying, directing, or input. 

After those first few days, when I was no longer as fatigued and in as much pain, I found my thinking brain coming back online. I did have a few flashes of anxiety, but they were completely manageable (and from what I understand, it’s common to get anxious about this particular virus thanks to all of the messaging we’ve received about it over the last few years).

My thinking brain was much quieter than usual though. Maybe it was in a kind of survival mode. I’ve had some brain fog. But overall I was grateful for a less noisy brain. I didn’t notice as much background noise or tinnitus. My mind was a lot quieter overall.

woman thinking

It was getting a little too quiet

But there was one voice in my head that became too quiet for my liking. My writer’s voice was missing.

I don’t know if you know what I mean by writer’s voice. What I mean is that there are times when I ‘hear’ myself writing in my head. I know that the thoughts that I am thinking are meant for a blog post or a poem.

It’s like having the narrator of a story in my head. Kind of like on the old television show The Wonder Years – Kevin Arnold has his ‘present-day’ voice, which is the ‘narrator’ voice. But when they show him as a kid living out the story, his voice is distinctly different. On a television show, this difference is made apparent by the actual sound of the voice. One is a grown man; the other is a child.

However, it’s much more difficult to explain the difference between my writer’s voice and my typical thinking voice. There’s no difference in the sound of the voice. But there is a marked difference that I take note of.

There’s something in that writer’s voice that compels me to write down an idea to flesh out later or to take out my journal and write, or to hop on the computer.

When I was sick the creative side of my brain, including that writer’s voice, was dormant. And with the voice being quiet for 20 days, I had started to wonder if I was ever going to get it back.

When will you return sign

Oh yeah, I forgot about that!

In fact, I didn’t really even remember that I had a ‘writer’s voice’ until it came back. I just knew that I wasn’t writing. 

Nearly three weeks after contracting the virus, I started to ‘hear’ the writer’s voice speaking to me once again. This was a relief because I was starting to lament the timing of my illness. Just when I was getting some momentum, I got sick. And now I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get back on track.

See, I don’t really know how to be a writer. There’s no method to it for me. I have read about, and tried practicing strategies such as Morning Pages, and I have read The Art of War. I have tried to have structure to my practice of writing. And without fail, it fails to become a habit.

So when that writer’s voice disappeared, I didn’t know if I’d write again, or how I would ever get started. I was hoping that I could pick up my notes where I had jotted down ideas in the past and get going. But I never got to that stage because the writer’s voice started to speak all on its own.

And that brings me to another area of growth. In the past if I had started to build momentum on a project that was something I was doing just for myself – I would have used the broken momentum as a reason to stop moving forward altogether.

I wouldn’t pick up where I left off. I would just think that the timing was wrong. I would tell myself what I ‘should’ be doing instead. And that would have been super easy to do while I’ve been trying to catch up on all the other things that I have fallen  behind on since I got sick; and while I am still navigating the kind of fatigue that made me get up and have a nap in the middle of writing this very post.

But this time, instead of giving up, I have changed my expectations and accepted my limitations and have just been doing things on a different time frame than I had planned. 

This week I finally put the new branding on the website. I have added an Instagram post with one of the poems and new artwork. I have set up a Facebook page and added a couple of posts. And here I am writing the first blog post in over a month.

This time I am not giving up on myself.

My thinking mind won’t be the one to silence the ‘writer’s voice’. And I can’t wait to find out what my ‘writer’s voice’ has to say next. 

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