That for the first few weeks after you get out of hospital, you’ll turn into Bambi, wobble on your legs, trip over your feet, tremble at every loud noise. Even as you think you’re getting stronger, there will be days when you fall back until it’s as if the words stay alert have been written on your heart.

That you won’t be able to stop thinking about your hospital room, and who might be lying in the bed now, and how their family might be feeling. Even when you’re doing other things, you are still half in that room and half in the world. You are not sure which feels more real.

That your hair will fall out in handfuls. You’ll look it up on Google, and feel better when you see this is probably a result of those high fevers you suffered. You’ll even pull out the clumps in your hairbrush for the birds to use in nests, until later you’ll start wondering if your hair still contains the virus, if you’re contaminating nests, if birds will start dropping down dead from the sky.

That it’ll all be your fault.

That you’ll feel continually ashamed as if you’re contaminated, dirty.

That people will whisper about you as you go by. She’s the one who… Even when strangers come up to you in the park and say how happy it made them to know that it’s possible to recover from the virus, you’ll hear the whispers. She’s the one who…

That the night before you have to go back to hospital for your six week x-rays, you can’t sleep at all. You’d thought you were getting over it but you realise that the whole thing happened so quickly first time round – the ambulance, the oxygen, the visors and PPE that the nurses had to put on to even bring you some water, the messages from people who still didn’t realise what was going on, the lack of any control you might have on the situation – that it might just happen again.

And even though you go to where you are told to go in hospital, even though you have all the right forms, the radiologist still casually looks at your notes before spotting that one word ‘covid’ and shouts, STAND BACK, and then makes you walk at a safe distance behind him. The rest of the waiting room stare at you, shuffle a little away from the chair you’ve been sitting on. There’s no point in saying that you’ve had two negative tests and you may be the safest one there because you still feel ashamed, and you understand their fear. How you understand that.

That your fingernails have ridges on them now and you can’t stop looking at them. It’s as if your body has been tattooed with where the virus got you, and it’s strangely fascinating.

That you will find yourself surreptitiously judging how much your friends and family can take when you talk about what you went through, how you feel now, what still makes you scared.

That you’ll keep saying, I’m so lucky, I’m so lucky, but actually you’re thinking, why me, should I have dieted more, was I too careless, what did I do wrong.

That you will feel you have to relearn so much about how to be alive, and especially how to breathe. Having to rely on oxygen has made you lose confidence in your body’s ability to do it on its own. You buy an Oximeter online, and catch yourself sneaking off far too often to test your oxygen levels. 

That, medically, you’re left on your own. You have to get your information from Google, from survivor forums, from the articles your friends send you and you wish you hadn’t read but that you’ll pass on. You realise no one knows anything, not even the doctors, and that forever in the future, you’ll wonder if every illness, every pain you feel, is due to the virus.

That you feel a strange connection towards everyone who has been hospitalised like you, and you realise it’s the same connection you feel when you hear a Bedfordshire accent. It’s as if all survivors belong to the same landscape now, the maps of your life have been redrawn.

That you remember when one of your best friends was diagnosed with cancer and he told you that he felt he’d entered into a different world, he’d crossed a line. That was then, he said, this is now. I don’t belong in the ‘then’ any more. You’d thought you’d understand properly what he meant. Then.

That to begin with you will think people are mad when they tell you that you might have PTSD. Because surely that’s for soldiers who fought in Vietnam, people who have suffered serious abuse, everyone who has gone to the edge. Even after you agree to talk to a therapist, you’re still apologetic – it was nothing really – until in one of the sessions, you admit to yourself for the first time how close you came to dying. And then you cry with the relief of not having to hold it in anymore.

That you will realise that you don’t have to be anything, do anything to make other people feel better. You will go a bit crazy – order rose wines, Liberty fabrics, hardback novels, poetry books, dark chocolate – just because YOU feel like it. You’ll drink champagne in the park and not care if you’ve turned into a character from Absolutely Fabulous because you want to celebrate being alive.

That you’ll take it for granted that you can breathe without thinking.

That there will eventually come a time when overhearing how really it’s just like a bad case of flu, that it’s been so positive for us all, that wouldn’t it be lovely if it could go on forever, does it even exist, will no longer make you shake. Instead, you’ll find something to agree with there. Because it has been good to slow down. You grow seeds, make a dress, send handwritten letters, write poems. You take it gently, and you laugh again. So much laughter. How good it feels.

And that one day you will be able to hear an ambulance go by, to think of that hospital room, the nurses, and you won’t immediately flash back to your experience. You’ll have created enough distance to be able to stand back and wish that person well. With all your heart. And you’ll make sure that you do that – every time and with all your heart – because whoever they are, you and they belong to the same landscape now. It’s not the one you’d choose but it’s yours. You’re making a new map, and you have no idea where it might take you.

 

When I was talking with someone recently about feeling ‘over-whelmed’, I had the sudden urge to look up what ‘whelmed’ means.

Definition of whelm
transitive verb

1: to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2: to overcome in thought or feeling : OVERWHELM
whelmed with a rush of joy
— G. A. Wagner
intransitive verb

: to pass or go over something so as to bury or submerge it

Hmm… somehow I thought it might be more positive – like we all hope one day to ravel ourselves together, or to become hibited, or to have our spirits pressed. But no matter, it danced its way into one of the many lockdown poems I’ve been writing recently about what’s going on right now. I’m going to share my practice on here more – there, if I say I’m going to, I’ll have to do it. Enjoy!

Top hat and tails
Sarah Salway

When we ask each other what we miss most
the answers spin off like arabesques:
crowded pubs, hugs, a train to nowhere
essential, evenings in sold-out theatres
forgetting real life, planning holidays.

Then there are the second drink answers:
enough years to play with grudges, politicians
who aren’t out to kill us, a tomorrow
where we might finally make that difference,
but maybe the more interesting question

is what we will take with us into new normal:
having time to pick up a dictionary and look up
whelm – to be swept beneath by a wave. Over
under, we’re cheek to cheek now, swimming
into the future, backwards and in high heels.

Like most of us, I’m guessing, my diary is pretty empty these days. Even counting the Zoom meetings, drinks and quizzes BUT… I’ve taken a huge leap of faith and got myself a new diary which begins at the end of June.

empty page
Who knows what will be happening then? And to cheer me up, I bypassed my normal black to go for a splash of colour because, let’s be honest, every little bit of excitement helps right now. I can’t be the only one.

orange diary

So here’s a little diary poem for you.

An empty day

It’s hard to remember the excitement
of having only those few free hours,
reading with only a neighbour’s cat
padding into the garden to break
my concentration, sleeping in the sun,
news headlines muted as a blackbird
sang somewhere at a safe distance –
not knowing then the fear of losing
myself somewhere in lockdown,
to think I once called that empty.

*Just one word rhymes with orange apparently. And that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “sporange,” an uncommon botanical term for a part of a fern.

fern