Editor’s Note: Giovanna Gray Lockhart is the chief strategy officer at The Riveter, an online community and content company for the 75 million working women in the United States. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On March 14, it began with just a headache and fatigue. I’m a 39-year-old mom of two small children and work as an executive at a start-up company, so if I’m tired and my head hurts, it’s not a cause for concern – it’s just regular life.
My beloved grandmother had just passed away, too, so I thought perhaps the symptoms were also related to the stress of my life and the sadness I was feeling. That sadness extended beyond what was happening in my own life too as I watched the news of coronavirus-related deaths unfold in China and Italy.
While I was practicing social distancing, I couldn’t isolate from my family. That just isn’t possible. Small children want their mommy, especially when their routines are disrupted and their teachers and friends can only be accessed by screens. They’re looking to you to make sense of it all, and your job is to consistently remind them that they are safe – even when you are sick and questioning the safety of your family.
It is also not possible to isolate from work when you’re trying to lead your company through a revenue-reducing pandemic. So I worked, I took care of my family and I went to the grocery store. I worked through the illness because I wasn’t totally sure that I had the coronavirus. I figured the mental fog I was experiencing was a result of all the stress at work and the uncertainty of how long we would all be stuck at home.
As the days went on, my fatigue got worse. I was on Zoom calls all morning (both for my own work and my kids’ school), and then by 2 p.m. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and would have to sleep for several hours in the afternoon. For me, this was so much more intense than the normal feeling that comes with juggling my daily responsibilities.
And then other things started happening to my body.
At night, I would have these intense lower back and leg aches. I had a heaviness in my chest, as if someone was sitting on it. It reminded me of when I delivered my son via cesarean section and the obstetrician said to me, “Now it’s going to feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest as I dislodge his head from your ribcage.”
I developed a persistent rash on my shins and was out of breath when I went up and down the stairs. My fever never went above 101, and even that only lasted for three days. I had a burning sensation in my sinuses as if I had gotten water up my nose in the pool. Then 10 days later, while making my family dinner one night, I realized I couldn’t smell the onions cooking in the pan. I Googled, I told friends. I found one article about how some Covid-19 positive patients were experiencing loss of taste and smell, but those patients were in the hospital and gravely ill.
My worry increased, but what could I do?
I was in touch with my doctor throughout this time. Each time I experienced a new symptom, I would email her. I wanted to go in and see her in person, but shelter-in-place orders meant I had to rely on telemedicine. I’d asked if it was the coronavirus. She didn’t think so. I didn’t have a dry cough or high fever and I hadn’t traveled recently. And even if I thought it might be, without severe respiratory issues I couldn’t get a test and there wasn’t anything to do except rest and stay home.
By the first week of April, my energy started to come back and I felt mostly better. I even apologized to my colleagues during one Zoom meeting: “Hey guys, thanks for being patient with me while I wasn’t feeling well these past few weeks. I’m back now and fully present.”
Truthfully, that was a lie. I was still experiencing shortness of breath and a tightness in my chest, mostly at night when the chaos of the day was over. Maybe it had not gone away? I read the articles about people in their 30s and 40s dying of strokes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally listed many of the symptoms I had had on their official list. So, I figured I had it and that was it. But my doctor said, “We need to run some tests. It sounds like you definitely had it.”
On May 5, I had a CT scan of my lungs, an electrocardiogram, a full panel of blood work and was given a clean bill of health. I tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies. I also learned that the likely culprit of my continued shortness of breath and tightness in my chest was anxiety. Now, before Covid-19, I had anxiety, which I manage with medication. During this time, I reached out to my psychiatrist and she said many of her patients were experiencing new and stronger anxiety but that it was important to rule out any medical issues first.
If I had not had access to great health care, I would still be wondering.
A recent Lean In study found that physical symptoms of severe anxiety during the pandemic have been experienced by 25% of women, compared with just 11% of men. The study also found that women who work full-time and are also mothers and partners are “more than twice as likely as men in the same situation to feel that they have more to do than they can possibly handle (31% vs. 13%).”
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For me, the illness, while working and raising a family through a pandemic, was a lot. And I know that other women are also feeling the pressure to successfully wear different hats – and then apologize if something fails for reasons out of their control. Under ordinary circumstances, this is a challenge, but things are magnified now.
These aren’t normal times, so we need to give women the space to feel more comfortable in giving themselves grace and with asking for help.
Along with this, testing is so crucial. The fact that many still can’t access Covid-19 and serology tests is not OK. If you think that you have or had the coronavirus and you are in an area where you can access a test, I encourage you to do so.
And if you are experiencing anxiety symptoms, talk to someone and don’t be afraid to ask for medication. Women are excellent at advocating for others, but we need to advocate for ourselves, too. Everything will truly fall apart if we don’t.