By Billy Rhoton, as told to Stephanie Watson
It seems like COVID-19 is all anyone is talking about. And with good reason. So many stories about those who died from it. So many stories about those who were sick and survived. But no one is talking about what the survivors face on the others side of COVID, so I'd like to tell you my story.
It should have been a great day. I was on my way to my first day at my new job. I went back to college in my late 30's to learn architectural drawing -- 3D modeling and drafting -- and I had just gotten a job doing exactly that for a small design/build shop in Atlanta. I didn't sleep too well because I was excited and a bit nervous.
I'll never forget the date, March 19, because it was my father's birthday. I called him from the car on my way to my first day. I asked how he was doing, and he said he felt great. He asked me the same. I replied that everything felt as good as ever. I was lying.
I thought it was nerves. Anxiety. Something. I packed a lunch, but I didn't feel like eating it. I wondered if they always kept the office this warm.
My girlfriend came over for a celebratory dinner. We got food from the neighborhood restaurant up the block. We opened a bottle of wine. All my hard work was paying off.
"Does this wine taste off to you?", I asked. She said no. We sat down to eat. "I think there's something wrong with my food." I wasn't hungry anyway. We hung out for a while and then said goodnight because she had an early morning. She went home.
I woke up in the middle of the night, just cooking with fever. I'd been reading horror stories from places like Seattle and NYC. People just like me, healthy, relatively young (I'll be 42 next month) people just dropping dead. I was immediately terrified. I think some part of me knew.
I Can't Shake It
The next morning, I had to call in sick to my brand-new job. I had a fever and a headache. My girlfriend had gone home. I was alone with the virus. Little did I know what I was in for.
I called my doctor. They prescribed a strong migraine medicine for my headache. The pain just wouldn't budge. I couldn't do anything to shake it.
Days. Days upon days. My fever would go up during the day, come down overnight. Until one day it just parked itself at around 103. I called my doctor. There were no tests available. I was given a "presumed positive" diagnosis, and was told that if I could stand to let the fever do its job, then I should try and let it cook itself out. My headache persisted. Always with the headache.
I had zero energy and no appetite. I was wiped out. The slightest activity took everything I had. I should mention here that I have a dog (his name is Cyclone), and I still had to get him outside several times a day. Five minutes of dog time would require five hours of recovery time for me. I was out of gas. And I was alone. I was alone and no one could help me.
I don't know exactly how many days passed, but I found myself on the couch one evening almost completely unable to breathe. I just couldn't get the air I needed into my lungs. I think that if I had been able to get one good breath then I would have felt so much better. But it wouldn't happen.
A started conversation in my head --
"It's time to go to the hospital." "NOW!" "Call 911, we're dying."
"If I go to the hospital, am I gonna come home?" "Probably not."
I had read so many stories about people being put on ventilators and never coming back.
So I asked myself, do I die alone in a cold hospital bed or do I just do it here at home? I picked up my phone. I dialed 911. I never pressed SEND.
I closed my eyes, and in my mind, I said goodbye. I said goodbye to my friends. I said goodbye to my girlfriend. I said goodbye to my family. I said goodbye to my 10-year-old son and my 8-year-old daughter. I remember hoping that they would be ok without me. I closed my eyes.
At some point, I must have fallen asleep. I drifted in and out of sleep for the next day or two.
My fever would break in the night, only to creep back up during the day. This happened for three or four days in a row.
And the headache never stopped.
One night the fever broke, and it didn't come back. At some point I realized that my headache was gone too.
Slowly, I began to feel better. Not like myself, but better. After a couple of symptom-free weeks, I was able to see my children and my girlfriend again. I was able to start working from home at my new job.
All I could think was, "Holy s$#t, I made it!" I was really just so happy to be here. I was feeling better, and it was springtime in Atlanta (nothing is better than springtime in Atlanta). Everything was gonna be ok.
It took a long time for me to begin to notice the changes in myself. Normally, I'm a really outgoing person. I enjoy being in the company of others. I laugh a lot.
But I know that the me writing this isn't the same me who got sick. I'm withdrawn. Distant. "Sometimes I don't know where you are when you're sitting right next to me," my girlfriend wrote me in an email when I asked what changes she noticed in me.
And she's right. I'm so easily agitated now. Irritable. Everything seems so loud. Nothing seems possible. Or worth the effort. I have trouble focusing. I can't maintain a conversation. I get headaches. I have panic attacks. I'm coming apart. This is the part that no one talks about. I cry over music. I cry at television. I can't sleep. I'm so tired. I self-medicate.
And I can't get away from thinking about COVID-19. Every time I put on a mask to go to the grocery store, there it is. Every time I try to relax on the couch where I decided it was ok to go, I have to get up and walk around. It's all right there, in my face. And it's all too much. This is the part that no one talks about.
I think that the worst part for me is knowing that I was ok with letting go and not being here anymore. Having gotten ok with dying makes living difficult.
My friends tell me, "O, man, we really care about you." Well, I don't really care about me right now. I don't care about them. I don't care about much.
My therapist says I have PTSD.
The first and biggest step has been to recognize that this is going on with me. I just didn't see it for a long time. I'm trying to be more mindful of what is happening with me, both internally and externally.
I've started taking an antidepressant. I've been trying to get more exercise outside. I'm riding my bicycle, and Cyclone and I have doubled up on our walks. We're up to almost four miles a day.
This experience has been awful. One thousand percent awful. But I've had an outpouring of love and support from my family and friends. Just acknowledging and recognizing what's going on with me, talking about it, has helped a lot. Once I could see it for what it is and call it by its name, that made a big difference.
I have good days, and I have bad days. Sometimes I have several of each in the course of 24 hours. But I'm going to get better. I have to believe that I will.
Billy Rhoton lives in Atlanta, Georgia where he draws buildings, sings songs, and believes that Black Lives Matter.