“The Perfect Storm: How My Covid Nightmare Became a Karmic Blessing” by Melinda Rothouse, PhD

I awoke the morning of February 15th, 2021, my mind bucking like a wild horse as frigid air filled my fragile lungs. It was my birthday, and I greeted it wrecked with Covid as the Texas deep freeze set in from Winter Storm Uri. I had already been trapped in my house, alone, for weeks in quarantine as my tests continued to come back positive. The tree branches shimmered with a light coating of sleet in the morning sun, gorgeous icicles forming along the rain chain. So unusual for Central Texas, the wintry weather had felt quite fresh and exciting at first. Then the snow arrived. Inches of it blanketing the trees, the bamboo outside my office window, the yard. More than I’d seen in 16 years of living in Austin. Life came to a standstill, the streets suddenly so quiet and still.

But then the deep freeze set in. The power went out around 2:30 am. I received an automated text from the City of Austin saying we would be experiencing rolling blackouts and that the power would be off for no more than 40 minutes at a time. But mine didn’t come back on. Not for the rest of the night or most of the next day. The temperature went down to eight degrees that night.

That morning, I dressed myself in multiple layers of fleece-lined leggings, thermal tops and sweaters, my winter vest, a wool sherpa hat, a scarf, and gloves. I glanced at a text from my mother, replete with the usual array of cheery emojis, checking in to make sure I was still alive. As it grew colder and colder inside my house, I began to panic, my mind blunted with hypothermia layered upon on the Covid brain fog. How long could this go on? The news coming from ERCOT was not reassuring. We might have to wait until the temperatures got above freezing for an extended period, which could be days away.

The cold wafted up through the floors, the beautiful pine wood floors of my lightly insulated hundred year-old house in East Austin. I felt the tremors of anxiety rising in my chest, in the spot right in the center of my sternum that anchored both my Covid symptoms and now a sense of primordial dread. What to do? How to survive the cold? I scoured the internet for advice: candles, flashlights, heavy blankets, thermal sleeping bag. Boil water on the stove. DON’T use the gas oven to heat the house! Go out to the car to warm up and charge your phone, but crack the windows so you don’t get carbon monoxide poisoning. The power suddenly and gloriously came back on at 3:00 pm. I rejoiced. The thermostat read 44°. It stayed on for two hours and then went out again, not to return for another two-and-a-half days.

My 17-year-old cat complained loudly, moving from sunbeam to sunbeam seeking warmth. Why had I done this to her and what was I planning to do about it? I don’t know, kid, we’re in the same boat here. That night I made her a nest of blankets on my bed, covering her with another layer once she settled in. My heart ached for her, for myself, for all of the thousands of people without power or heat. She rarely emerged for the next three days. I brought her food and water into the bedroom and placed it on the bedside table so she would only have to move a few inches to eat and then get right back to hunkering down.

During this time, a slogan from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition kept finding its way into my addled brain, like a sick joke: “Always maintain only a joyful mind.” So absolute as to be absurd, it haunted me like any good koan. I am a longtime meditator and mindfulness teacher. I’ve spent years with my butt on the cushion, cultivating a regular practice, sitting through dozens of retreats and workshops. But what does it mean, to “always maintain only a joyful mind” in the face of such extreme and life-threatening circumstances? Is joy even an option in such a state? Is it possible to maintain mindfulness with brain fog, let alone brain freeze? Unless you are some kind of Zen master, unless you are Yoda, it’s pretty damned difficult.

It seems no two Covid experiences are the same. My symptoms began several weeks earlier, after a busy Friday morning of teaching and client meetings on Zoom. By Noon I was completely drained. I coaxed myself to continue with my daily activities, with a cup of hot tea and a few minutes of meditation. What my body really wanted was to sleep. But I didn’t. I spent a lot of time outdoors that weekend, as a strange fatigue crept upon me, along with body aches, disrupted sleep, and a slight tightness in my chest. I figured it was allergies, as we were just rounding out Cedar pollen season, along with an extra-high mold count. I called my allergist’s office first thing Monday morning with a growing sense of dread, as the chest tightness and labored breathing continued, to ask for a rescue inhaler (I hadn’t had to use one in years). The nurse practitioner said I should go ahead and get a Covid test just in case. “Of course,” I said, “happy to go get tested. I’m sure it’s not Covid.” But the next morning I received a text message prompting me to view my results. “POSITIVE,” it read.

I live alone and work from home. For most of the 2020 I’d seen only a handful of people in my little bubble, mostly outdoors with social distancing and masking and all the precautions. When I tested positive, I personally contact traced everyone I had seen in the prior two weeks to let them know. None of them developed any symptoms. Several got tested just to be sure and were negative. As far as I can tell, I did not get it from or give it to anyone I know. Invisible. Untraceable. But no less real.

These were the times before vaccines became widely available, and though I had been extremely careful all year, I believe I was exposed when I took my car in for service. I sat in the waiting area of the dealership with my laptop, pulling my mask down periodically to sip coffee while waiting on my oil change and tire rotation. I contemplated the carefully typed sign posted over the coffee utensils warning customers “DUE TO COVID 19 PLEASE WEAR A RUBBER GLOVE WHEN HANDLING THONGS OR CONDIMENTS.”

“It’s going to be a while,” they told me, “we’re really short-staffed today” (presumably everyone was out sick, I realized in retrospect). It was the longest I had spent indoors in a public place with strangers since March of 2020. It also happened to be inauguration day, a hopeful cap to what had been a devastating year, between the pandemic, the toxic divisiveness of the political landscape; police brutality and the Black Lives Matter protests, the Capitol Riot, and the incessant coverage of it all in the media.

In my personal pandemic roller coaster, I had begun and ended an intense romantic relationship over the spring and summer of 2020. He was my Covid companion for the first six months of quarantine, but then it imploded when he accepted a job that required him to be on the road 90% of the time. My hair began falling out by the handful, and when I went to the dermatologist to inquire about it, she assured me it was stress-related and should clear up on its own. But she took one look at the oddly shaped mole on my shoulder and decided to scrape it and send it into the pathology lab for analysis. Sure enough, it was melanoma, which which had to be surgically removed (thankfully it had not spread), leaving a massive scar on my right shoulder. My first cancer diagnosis, my sister joked at the time.

I am a fairly even-keeled person, sensitive and passionate, but also emotionally grounded, especially after years of therapy and meditation practice. Yet in the period between the election and the inauguration I harbored intense anger and resentment, bordering on paranoia and even rage, to the extreme of wishing people dead. Not just political figures but also some of the people closest to me. The world felt hostile and toxic and I held it all inside my body with no outlet, no hint of resolution. I walked around my house screaming at people who weren’t even there. Though perhaps understandable, I knew it wasn’t healthy. I “shouldn’t” be feeling this way. I didn’t want to feel this way. And yet as Carl Jung wisely observed, “there’s no way out but through.” I knew I couldn’t simply deny or repress my emotions. I reached out to my therapist in mid-January, mostly to let off some steam and call a witness to the chaos of my mind. I believe, on some level, that the stress and negativity of the world penetrated my energetic and physical being, weakening me and perhaps allowing the virus an opening. Indeed, I started feeling symptoms two days after Biden and Harris were sworn in. Though tremendously relieved, I was also emotionally exhausted. 

As my Covid journey continued, more odd and varied symptoms emerged: malaise, extreme fatigue and body pain, weakness in my legs, lightheadedness, and a brain fog so intense I literally could not focus. I moved around the house in a haze, often staring out into space for long periods of time. I would wake in the morning, stagger into the kitchen, and attempt to make coffee, but then feel lightheaded and have to decamp to the couch for a few minutes just to work up the energy to continue. Serial tasks like feeding the cat took three times longer than normal. I would forget what I was doing halfway through and wander off, kitty fixing me with a plaintive stare until I regained my senses. Impossible to focus on any more complex, work-related matters. Strangely though, I never had a fever. Didn’t lose taste or smell, at least initially. No dry cough. For the first week and a half, no respiratory symptoms at all except the tightness in my chest and breathing issues, as though I had to will my lungs to push the air in and out.

I railed against the illness, attempting to will myself better. It was a damned inconvenience and I returned for testing after a week, then again after 10 days, but the results remained “positive.” Meanwhile, even two client sessions on Zoom per day left me physically wrecked and mentally drained. After a week and a half, I felt a hopeful respite but then the sinus congestion, phlegm and cough set in. I couldn’t breathe through my nose without a decongestant nasal spray and I began to despair, fearing I would never get better, never feel good again. Mom, a retired physician, advised me not to sleep on my back and to practice postural drainage so my lungs wouldn’t get clogged with fluid. I tossed and turned from side to side, repeating my personal Covid mantra over and over in my head: Rest, Healing, Peace.

I feared I might not be getting enough oxygen, but I didn’t yet have a pulse oximeter (a concerned friend in another state ordered me one online and it became a lifeline). At what point do you go to the hospital for a chest x-ray? How do you know when the time has come to seek serious medical attention? On a telehealth call, my doctor determined that because I was speaking in full sentences without gasping for breath, I should simply clear my schedule and rest. “People who rest get better faster,” she said, “those who push themselves and try to go on with their lives have problems.” Ahhh, ok. Permission to focus my attention solely on healing.

I’ve felt worse in my life, with bouts of acute bronchitis, perhaps even undiagnosed pneumonia. Though I trained as a classical singer, my lungs have always been sensitive, and thanks to the particular alchemy of the Central Texas allergy spectrum, had received an asthma diagnosis a few years previously. Perhaps, had I not known it was Covid, I might have chalked it up as a bad cold or even a mild flu. But with the novel coronavirus also came a daunting array of mental and emotional tribulations, fueled in large part by the fear and anxiety generated by everything we were hearing about the disease at that time: the horror stories of young, healthy people dropping dead; the ventilators; the bodies stacked up in refrigerated trucks. As I struggled for a full breath, minute-by-minute and day-by-day, I ruminated: Will I have to go to the ER? That’s the last place I want to be right now. Will I make it through the night? Will I become a long-hauler, with permanent organ damage and lingering symptoms for months or years? Take a baby aspirin every day, my doctor said, to help with circulation and to prevent blood clots, even stroke.

When the lungs can’t get enough air, anxiety becomes a constant companion. I began to panic as my inhalations grew faster, shallower, making it even more difficult to catch a breath. This in turn bred more anxiety, resulting in a dangerous downward spiral of hyperventilation, of fight, flight, or freeze. Paradoxically, the antidote to both anxiety and breathing difficulties is to consciously extend the exhale, which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” mode. Easier said than done when you’re in the midst of a panic attack with Covid. But it is possible, it turns out. I spent hours lying in bed, consciously coaxing my diaphragm to deepen and relax.

At times my toes were completely numb from the cold. My next-door neighbors texted that their indoor thermometer read 32°, shortly before they (and nearly everyone else on my block) left to stay with friends or family who still had power. Always maintain only a joyful mind, my brain teased. Fortunate to have a gas-powered hot water heater and stove, I finally succumbed to the temptation to immerse myself in a hot bath, despite the fear of peeling off all my clothing and then having to emerge, dry off, and dress again in the freezing cold. I hadn’t showered in days. Finally ready to take the plunge, I removed the wool sherpa hat, which I had been wearing constantly, even to bed at night, only to discover that my long, luscious wavy hair had formed into a single mangled horn, a magnificent dreadlock that I feared I would never be able to untangle. Yet the warmth from the bath raised my core temperature enough that I almost felt human again.

Each day I contemplated my escape. The roads were icy and snow-covered, so any venture out into the world would be risky. But each day I decided to remain, determining (with the help of daily calls with my father, who loves dispensing advice) that the risks would outweigh the benefits. Well-meaning friends who never lost power or heat tentatively offered shelter but with my Covid status uncertain (my follow-up testing appointments were canceled repeatedly because of the weather) I didn’t want to put anyone else at risk. Indeed, one friend who had also lost power, but regained it a full day before mine, literally texted me “I wish you could come here but I can’t risk getting Covid.” Of course I understood. But then I was livid, the heat of rejection spreading across my cheeks.

So let me get this straight, I argued with her in my mind: You’re telling me that you would sooner see me freeze to death in my own house than put yourself at any risk? I felt utterly and primordially abandoned. I had asked mutual friends to go check on her and her young son at one point when I became worried after her phone died. They trudged a mile in the snow to get there. We had been cheering each other on for days. But now I was completely alone. It hurts even now, writing about it, in that same spot right in the center of my chest.

I wondered, with bitterness swirling on my tongue, is this what we’ve come to as a society? Have we grown so suspicious and afraid of one another, so filled with compassion fatigue that we are unwilling to lend a hand to a friend in a life-or-death crisis? Indeed, hundreds of people across Texas died of hypothermia and other freeze-related mishaps during the storm, on the streets and in their own homes, 246 at the latest official count (finally tallied a full year later), but likely hundreds more, according to independent reports based on tallies of excess deaths.

Pandemia is the Spanish word for pandemic. Somehow it touches into the psychological component of this collective calamity have been experiencing as a global society for most of the last two years. Pandemia – not just a noun, but also a state of being. The caution, the fear, the suspicion of other people, the isolation, the masking and social distancing out of concern for the greater good (or the opposite, in many cases). How is it that something so simple and seemingly normal, like taking your car in for service, could be potentially deadly? Our brains simply cannot parse it. The virus is invisible—we can’t see it, or ever know for sure where or how we got it—yet how powerfully it binds us together while simultaneously breaking us apart, into our separate little boxes, underscoring both our radical interconnection and our deep isolation.

At times the only thing I could do was keep breathing. Even as my chest ached from coughing. As long as I breathed, I lived. This offered comfort as my mind oscillated between panic and despondency, anger and despair. A couple of friends sent me guided healing and breathing meditations, and when I could literally do nothing else, I listened to them, following the invitation to slow my breathing and visualize my body healing. One instructed me to imagine my body as a rich, lush and healthy functioning ecosystem, and I found myself in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, teeming with life and energy. These meditations eased the anxiety and allowed me to rest. Paradoxically, once I stopped struggling and simply surrendered to the process, it became a turning point. The disease was not progressing on my timeline, or according to my agenda. Once I accepted that and threw out all expectations of getting to a negative test result by a certain date, things opened up and I was able to simply abide within the circumstances I had been dealt.

It’s too much to contemplate, too much to hold, for all of us. Whether we’ve actually gotten sick with Covid or not. Whether we lost power in the freeze or not. The pain, the fear, the anxiety of living for so long now with the pandemia and how it touches us all in very real, very personal, and also in very common and universal ways. That level of toxicity turns corrosive as the trauma of compounding crises pile up like the horrible multi-vehicle accident in Dallas during the storm, where semi-trucks plowed full speed into dozens of already crashed cars, coming eerily to rest on top of them. 

The power came back on at 3:45 on Thursday morning. It was still 37 degrees in my house after a full day of warming temperatures. Sweet relief. I will never take these basic services—heat, power, clean water to drink—for granted again. All I could manage to do that first day was sit on my couch with a heating pad underneath me and the cat (once she finally emerged from her nest) on my lap, staring out the window. I had survived, despite all the best efforts of our Texas governor, ERCOT, and the powers that be. Despite all the terrible political decisions that led to the severity of the pandemic, despite all the hate. Too many were not so fortunate.

The friends and family who did reach out to me with texts, phone calls, and words of encouragement, checking on me daily both during my illness and during the freeze, bringing food and healing herbs to my doorstep (including the same friend who couldn’t risk getting Covid), kept me going, helped me not to feel so completely alone and forsaken, oriented me toward the light in a time of intense darkness. My mom and I became closer during this time than ever before—my dad once described our relationship as conflicted since the womb—partly because she was so worried about me and partly because in my illness I truly needed her support. We all need our communities, perhaps now more than ever, and I see this deep urge toward relationship and connection even in the often-misguided efforts to manage the pandemic. We are wired for communion.

But Covid deprives us of communion, isolates us from our loved ones and from our social connections. One of the hallmarks of the coronavirus is that it attacks the lungs. In Chinese Medicine, the lungs are associated with grief; sadness and unexpressed grief can lead to lung disorders and breathing problems. And grief is now our constant companion. We are all living an extended season of loss. We’ve collectively lost over 800,000 friends, family members, loved ones, spouses, colleagues in the US alone, and more every single day. We will never be the same, as a country, as a global society. And we will all be grieving this experience of the pandemia, along with the natural and human-created disasters that have swirled around with it, for a long, long time.

Nearly a year has now passed since my ordeal, and many others that followed it in the tumultuous ride that was 2021. Since my recovery, which ultimately took several months, my mind does feel a bit more joyful, more able to roll with day-to-day challenges, to pace myself and not overdo it, to choose my battles more wisely. And, having subsequently been vaccinated and boosted, I now have what’s termed “hybrid” or “super” immunity. Turns out that first having Covid, allowing the body to fight it off organically, and then receiving the vaccine and booster, is the absolute best protection against future infection. Though I still take precautions, I can move about the world with less fear, which is an incredible blessing.

It reminds me of the Taoist teaching story of the farmer and his son, the farmer responding to a series of life’s ups and downs with the same stoic equanimity; while others around him offer their judgements, “Oh, how wonderful,” or “Oh, how awful,” he simply responds each time with “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

I will never be the same after this experience. But maybe I am emerging stronger, more resilient, more able to weather the storms that periodically rage throughout my world, for whatever remaining time I have in my one wild and precious life. I’ve learned that in order to maintain a joyful mind, you have to cultivate one, intentionally and deliberately, in “regular” circumstances. Whenever possible. Just a few minutes of mindful breathing per day can lay a good foundation over time. Cultivating a regular practice prepares us for the inevitable crises that seem to come faster and more regularly in these pandemic times.

When people ask me how I’m doing now, I tell them I’m grateful to be alive, and that feels like an accomplishment.

Melinda Rothouse is a professional creativity, leadership, and career coach, consultant, educator, and facilitator based in Austin, Texas. She holds a Ph.D. in Psychology with a Specialization in Creativity Studies. She is the founder of Austin Writing Coach and co-founder of Syncreate, which offers creativity coaching, consulting, workshops, and retreats designed to enhance creativity in life and work, and to foster communication, collaboration, and community. Melinda is the bestselling author of Syncreate: A Guide to Navigating the Creative Process for Individuals, Teams, and Communities, co-written with Charlotte Gullick (Mandorla Books, 2021) and A Mindful Approach to Team Creativity and Collaboration in Organizations: Creating a Culture of Innovation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). She is also a longtime meditation practitioner and mindfulness educator, and leads contemplative arts and photography workshops and retreats both in the U.S. and internationally.