Last Tuesday afternoon I decided to leave my office early in order to soak up the warmth of the sunny late spring day while walking the mile or so back home. I have been experiencing nerve pain in my legs lately, and so when I reached the pavement it was no surprise that I began dragging my legs (to minimize the pain and compensate for my diminished range of motion). However, as I limped down the street, I was surprised that I involuntarily picked up speed as though my turbo chargers were all of a sudden switched on. I reminded myself of Marty Feldman’s hobbling EYEGOR (Igor) character in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.
What’s worse, I had lost my brakes; I couldn’t stop! I just kept going …
I began grasping signposts and looking for places to sit; anything resembling a bench, chair, fire hydrant or other sturdy construction. Usually I am used to walking for a few tree lined blocks until the pain is intolerable, then I splay out on a bench in Madison Square Park until regaining enough fortitude to continue the second leg (no pun intended) of my trek home. Only this time my shuffling had become more animated while my whole body surged forward, off-kilter, as though about to fall down. At various points Good Samaritan New Yorkers stopped to ask if they could help. Although short of breath and obviously in distress, I thanked them and pushed on until falling to my knees 100 feet from my home. I was kindly helped into the elevator by the super. That’s when I believe I was engulfed by the first wave of COVID fog.
I did not have many of the viral symptoms I’ve read about—no fever, chills, sore throat—but I began to feel heaviness in my chest. Later it turned into a horrible hacking, dry cough with fever. I laid down and barely had the strength to pick up the phone. I home-tested and it was clear that after all the months of quarantines, social distancing, masking, vaxxes, boosters and otherwise avoidance of anything or anyone that could trigger the virus in me, I was in its grip.
But the strangest thing, aside from the unexpected positive test, was my crazy unanticipated walking problems. When I gathered enough strength I sent emails to my three primary specialist doctors. The first wrote back, “I have no idea what it could be, but you should take it easy.” The second wrote, “Your constellation of symptoms in not consistent with your troublesome leg and back—maybe you should go to an emergency ward.” The third wrote and actually phoned to ask me to describe everything in detail; he prescribed Paxlovid, the anti-COVID pill, and sent me a detailed list of what to do and not to do. That’s when the clock started. With the pill the virus was expected to only last for five days. What about the walking part? He didn’t know.
I was quarantined in a separate room in the apartment on a pull-out bed and restricted to a guest bathroom. Waves of the COVID fog rolled in and enveloped my consciousness and unconsciousness. I was in a quasi-magical and mystical dimension. I could not (nor did I want to) focus on anything for long. All those Daily Heller posts I had planned to write would not come through my fingers and onto the keyboard. What I did write was filled with so much gibberish and typos it seemed that my cognitive capabilities were gone. I could not concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes, other than an eerie sense that I was looking inside myself and watching my body operate as a machine (like Fritz Kahn’s Modernist “industrial palace” visualization of the digestive and respiratory system).
But the most incredible consequence of my particular variant (and I wonder if other sufferers have had the same experience) is that many of my daily disorders, including movement issues and insomnia, simply disappeared. It was as though my system is designed to handle only one major crisis at a time. The fog, while uncomfortable and unknowable, blocked out everything I did not want to deal with, either overtly or covertly. Of course, anyone who is even the slightest bit ill could not care less about fulfilling their daily routines and one-off responsibilities. When the one responsibility you have is fighting and beating the viral enemy and protecting (as best as possible) your family from catching it too, writing Daily Heller columns, meeting deadlines and editing other projects is not as compelling or important.
And yet it is all about timing. While I had a staycation from authorial chores, classes, panels and even daily movement exercises, I was unable to attend the one event that I had happily anticipated all month long: the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of my son Nicolas Heller’s first narrative short film, Out of Order. Coming out of the fog just made that loss of acuity and mobility even more painful.
We are told that the pandemic is “over.” I hope that the experts are right. But COVID is still out there, like so many other “conquered” diseases, just waiting for safeguards to stop getting in the way of our daily pleasures and resistance to be relaxed. Memo to self: Stay protected, do not politicize disease, healthcare and medicine, and remain vigilant.
Thanks to Mirko Ilic for generously allowing me to use his AC (After COVID) 2020 comic strips. They are perfect representations of exactly how I was feeling.