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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

It’s not a thing you’re supposed to say, but when my husband got long COVID, it created some wonderful things for us. I don’t recommend it, of course, and maybe I’m a Pollyanna finding a silver lining in this very dark cloud, but honestly, it’s opening up a lot for us, for him, for me.

My husband is, or at least has been, a strong 55-year-old athletic man. His ability to transport his muscular five-foot-10 body up steep, tricky mountain bike trails earned him the nickname “Squirrel.” He prides himself on his logic and has a strong preference for evidence-based, scientific solutions. An avid espresso aficionado, he meets green and herbal teas with disdain. Red wine is cherished. And board games are out of the question. (He claimed he was too competitive and proved himself right when pressed.) He’s a self-reliant man who chops our wood, shovels our snow, and considers it his job to keep me and our dog safe. At least that’s how he was. At least that’s how I viewed him.

This summer, he contracted COVID. Until then, we had dodged it through vigilance and vaccinations. His illness lasted the typical three to five days with some lingering fatigue. After 10 days, when he re-entered the world, we both thought that he was well on his way to recovery, that he just needed to rebuild as you do after a bout with the flu. We were wrong.

After a few attempts at moderate and then easy bike rides, he shifted gears to walking. Soon he tapered those. The confusing list of new symptoms arrived – fatigue, heart palpitations, poor sleep, headaches and more fatigue – scaring him into staying indoors. He seized his typical tools: a new iWatch to track his vitals, visits to the Emergency Room, contacting doctor friends a few too many times, Googling every symptom. The results were meh. His tests were normal and as excellent as his doctors were, the best they could prescribe were sleeping pills. The internet provided stories of “long haulers” who have suffered for years and lengthy articles about health professionals who had no idea what to do. His anxiety, of concern well before we’d heard of COVID, reached new heights.

And my allergic reaction to anxiety bloomed.

As his anxiety rose, so did my boundaries, due to a deep-seated fear of being pulled into the undertow and drowning alongside him. I cooked his meals, took care of our dog and managed the household – but my compassion was a shallow well. One day, after a long bike ride, I was rushing toward the shower, when Ethan, lying on the couch, started to share his fears that his symptoms would last forever, that he’d never return to normal. Instead of sitting and listening, I stood by the bathroom door, undressing, quickly reassuring him that all would be okay, while mentally calculating the time needed to walk the dog and prep dinner. I faked compassion as best I could but I’ve never been a good actor.

We were muddling through the first month with this dynamic when something extraordinary happened, beginning with my husband: He changed – in beautiful and unexpected ways.

One night he rallied for a dinner out with friends, including my naturopath. She suggested he try lavender oil for anxiety. To my surprise, he tried it the next day. He’d argue this point but that was the day I think he cracked wide open, listening to options I never imagined he’d not roll his eyes at, let alone consider.

He agreed to acupuncture treatments. My skeptic of a husband is also trying cranial sacral massage, guided meditations, yoga and naturopathic supplements. On his way home from acupuncture he bought a deck of cards so we could play Cribbage, a game I’d been begging him to play for years.

But most important, our conversations have changed, on both sides. Over 24 years of marriage, we have often discussed the debilitating anxiety that runs in his family, but only now are we delving into the role it plays in my husband’s psyche, in our marriage and how it had been creeping further into his life, worsening with age. We are also talking about my weaknesses as a caregiver, especially when it involves an anxious spouse who wants company in his suffering. These conversations have loosened a chord inside me, allowing me to suspend my fear of a marriage overwhelmed by anxiety and I am opening to what my husband really needs. I’m listening to his true concerns, rather than what I think he’ll say. I see more clearly how protecting myself hasn’t allowed my husband to complete his thoughts – and when he did – I can now try to understand his fear, sadness and frustration. It doesn’t hurt that the lavender oil has worked like a charm but the real magic is coming from our deepened conversations. We’re trusting each other with more of our vulnerabilities and I’m trusting we are both strong enough not to drown.

We are extremely fortunate to be able to afford a wide range of treatments. We can free ourselves from most commitments to allow him to rest. We have a solid foundation to bind us. We have a community of friends willing to help. As subpar a caregiver as I am, I am healthy and when pressed, capable.

Over breakfast one morning, as we tallied my husband’s new calendar of appointments, I teased him that up until now he fought going to a doctor more than once every three years, traditionally preferring to manage any symptoms himself. Looking up from his eggs, his blue eyes piercing mine, he replied, “In the past, I’ve been able to tough things out. But now I can’t, and I want to do everything I can to fix it.” And he is, by engaging in treatments from within his normal comfort zone to far beyond. I never knew my husband was capable of this level of openness. I had grossly underestimated him. I am in awe of his strength and grateful that he has given me the opportunity to prove to both of us that I can be the partner he needs, even in situations that scare the crap out of me.

I read an article recently on Drs. John and Julie Gottman, famous relationship psychologists, and their advice on a healthy marriage. It was about the importance of acknowledging each other, listening, touching – in their words, “turning towards each other.” That connection adds to a “love piggy bank.” Long COVID had forced us to slow down enough to practice this advice. We are filling our love piggy bank – for ourselves as individuals as well as for our marriage – so that we can draw on it now and for the long haul.

Alexandra Loeb lives in Rossland, B.C.