When Illness Becomes the Cure: A Personal Account of COVID-19

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9 minutes of reading

An abstract artwork depicting a person standing by water. The image of the person is repeated twice, side by side, with the person on the left including blue, green, purple, red, and pink colors, and the person on the right including a little blue and various shades of grey. The image is divided lengthwise by the water, represented by shades of blue, along with shades of green, and—above the water—shades of red and orange. There is plant life on either side of the figures, including large yellow flowers with black and white centers. Black lines outline the people's faces, their necks, and the inner arm of the figure on the right.

Now is the time of dark invitation
Beyond a frontier you did not expect;
Abruptly, your old life seems distant.
–John O’Donohue, “A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness”

Listening to and loving another human being is the foundation and framework by which Relational Psychoanalysis is built and conducted, the goal of which is to restore humanity to the person who was once estranged and disembodied from him or herself. In order to hear the depths of another human being speak, this deep-loving listening requires the kind of silence poets employ and mystics seek in their meditations and prayers; the kind of quiet we embody as we stand before the ocean or while we marvel at the hummingbird feeding at a Salvia. This kind of quiet allows one to be unutterably oneself in front of another. A listening and paying attention that is prayerful in its devotion. In this way, I see psychoanalysis as soul work, a sacred practice that can restore a person to their true embodied selves. This kind of soul work is even more important when physical illness disrupts the going-on-being the person once knew—something we have witnessed both on the world stage and in our own homes during this pandemic.

The Story

Now this dark companion has come between you.
Distances have opened in your eyes.
You feel that against your will
a stranger has married your heart.

Nothing before has made you
feel so isolated and lost.
–John O’Donohue, “A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness”

On April 29, 2020, I woke up with COVID, which a test I took a couple of days later confirmed. Like any good psychoanalyst, I did not think it was COVID, I thought it was psychosomatic: I was simply stressed, and it was showing up in the body, in my gut. As the day went on, I felt tired—tired enough to cancel work midday so I could nap in my office. Again, I thought: Wow, the stress is really getting to me, and I clearly need some rest. I finished off my day, declining a dinner invitation so I could go straight home to rest; I took my temperature: 101 degrees. Dissociation set in. Temperature. Pandemic. COVID-19. Did I have COVID? Or something else? I’ve been careful. I just thought I was stressed. But clearly, something more was going on. I had been sick before, with cases of flu, and viruses—having an elevated temperature was nothing new. I was trying to make sense of what was happening to me. I texted one of my best friends, an ER nurse, to tell her I had a fever, only to hear her say: “You need to get tested for COVID.” The reality began to set in.

My initial acute infection was mild to moderate, lasting thirty-one days. Two and a half weeks after I thought I had recovered, I was sick again. When summer neared its end, and my fever continued, my infectious disease doctor wondered what else could be going on and suggested I take an Indian White Blood test to find the origins of my fever. A “Hail Mary test,” as she called it. I felt awful and slept often. And it continued. More bloodwork, stool and urine tests, ER visits, telehealth doctor visits, changes to my diet, inability to exercise, and the most supplements I’ve taken in my life. Research became my pastime, trying to find the right doctor who could help or the book that might shed some light on my illness. I couldn’t wake up from the nightmare I was now living. I worked as I could to maintain my practice, manage my income, and, truth be told, hold on to purpose. This was the beginning of my long-COVID journey.

I kept thinking my call as a psychoanalyst is to live in the face of suffering and bear it. This is my chance to walk the talk. Or that was the attitude I chose to take. What else would I do? After all, I could work in contrast to what I was hearing from other long-haulers who were bedridden nearly 100 percent of the time. So, my life became about survival and fight. Horror and terror. Faith and dependence. Despair and hope. Paradoxes I was acquainted with in my conversations with patients on a daily basis but were now a part of the intimacy of my everyday life, in my very body.

For the past two years, I have had a crash course in chronic illness—dysautonomia, POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), multiple autoimmune disorders, ME/CFS—and the wild ways the body copes with the fury of inflammation and an immune system gone awry. I got my professional and personal will done, my medical directives to my doctor, and my trust in order. I developed Frozen Shoulder due to nerve inflammation, achy joints, and skin breakouts. I read books and contacted expert doctors, consulted with chronic fatigue coaches, had every organ scanned, and knew every virus in my body and what my blood says in any given month. I mastered my fear of giving blood by the sheer amount I had to do. I befriended phlebotomists, techs, nurses, doctors, and fellow long-haulers in town. I joined a medical team of our local Long COVID Clinic to offer mental health services to long-COVID patients. Whole worlds have opened up I never knew existed.

My Double Life

My Double Life
When the reverberations of shock subside in you,
May grace come to restore you to balance.
May it shape a new space in your heart.
To embrace the illness as a teacher
Who has come to open your life to new worlds.
–John O’Donohue, “A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness”

Oliver Sacks says any disease introduces a doubleness into life, with its own demands, needs, and limitations. The feeling of the chronically ill person is that the disease is both me and not me.  The split arrives because of everything we need to do and not do just to be here. It is this doubleness that set in on the day of the arrival of my symptoms. This is happening, but it can’t really be happening. I’m strong and healthy; this illness is not me. I will recover; I just need to find the right person to help me and learn what my body needs.

I’ve become quite familiar with this doubleness for the past two years and two months of my life, bearing my suffering while cultivating a consciousness that would allow me to make sense of the madness. Living the symptoms on an hourly basis, all the while showing up for others’ pain in my work and seeking new rhythms to my days. Sometimes, when I attempted to convey my illness to others, I got comments like, “well, you look good,” which both comforted and pained me. I so wanted my insides to match my outsides.  I worked hard to look functional despite how I felt and to center down to know my own reality so I could respond to my needs and get well. From my own spiritual practice, I was reminded to ask: Okay, it’s here now, what does it have to teach me? I remembered to be nonjudgmental and curious in a way that might invite something new. You are here: What do you want me to know? Why did you feel the need to come? How do you want me to change?

Those called to the vocation of psychoanalysis are called to bear the suffering of others, see the patient in their suffering to offer sanity in madness, and sort and sift to make meaning out of meaninglessness in an effort to help them go on being. The call to psychoanalysis is a call to bear the world’s pain. In no small way, I am bearing something of the world’s pain as I continue to suffer with long-COVID. I am not a commentator on the sidelines but a fellow participant in the drama of being human.

The Thing Life Asks of Us

May you find in yourself
a courageous hospitality
Toward what is difficult,
Painful, and unknown.

May you learn to use this illness
As a lantern to illuminate
The new qualities that will emerge in you.
–John O’Donohue, “A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness”

Jung’s psychology believes there is value in illness in a similar way that Buddhism sees the value and place suffering has in life. In Buddhism, suffering is a part of things and a way to a new vantage point—an opportunity, in fact, to experience more joy. Likewise, Jung believed that pathology has an unconscious purpose. Neither the symptoms nor the person who has them are pointless. He writes, “there is no illness that is not at the same time unsuccessful attempt at cure.” And, “It is impossible to tell at first glance whether we are dealing with a regrettably persistent fragment of infantile life or with a vitally important creative beginning.” And finally, “A man is ill, but the illness is nature’s attempt to heal him, and what neurotic flings away as absolutely worthless contains the true gold we should never have found elsewhere.”[1] Symptoms are our pearl of great price. Vocations as Jung calls them. Callings. Our healing fiction. Our task is to listen to the message they are trying to get across planes of consciousness. What possibly could be the purpose of my suffering? I must lovingly listen to the depths of me.

The Salvation that Resides in Our Vulnerability

May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness:
Ask it why it came? Why it chose your friendship.
Where it wants to take you. What it wants you to know.
What quality of space it wants to create in you.
What you need to learn to become more fully yourself
That your presence may shine in the world.
–John O’Donohue, “A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness”

At the beginning of the pandemic, we started with our all too familiar othering, drawing lines in the sand between people groups. Determining the “vulnerable populations,” who we needed to worry about, and who we needed to take care of and protect. We needed to care for our healthcare workers, so as not to overwhelm them, because what would we do if our hospitals were full. Protect the elderly, the brown or Black people, those with pre-existing conditions, frontline workers, and those who didn’t have the means to stay safe and healthy.

Now that might have been necessary at one level. But look at how, in doing so, we inadvertently split off our vulnerability and projected it into those people. We needed to worry about those people who might die from the virus. The vulnerable others. It’s no surprise we did this—consciously, we were taking care of others; unconsciously we may have been in denial of our own vulnerability.

Through long-COVID, I have discovered that this is where our greatest strength and power lies—our vulnerability. When all our defenses fall away, we recognize our tender humanity. We can then respond to it, protect it, and ensure safety from human catastrophe and disaster. We can recognize that we are at one with ourselves when we can sense our vulnerability and stay connected to it; concurrently, we are at one with others. It’s the only chance we have at true connection and true love. Why? Because this is our unification point—our shared vulnerability.

COVID-19’s Remedy

May you be granted the courage and vision
To work through passivity and self-pity,
To see the beauty you can harvest
From the riches of this dark invitation.
May you learn to receive it graciously,
And promise to learn swiftly
That it may leave you newborn,
Willing to dedicate your time to birth.
–John O’Donohue, “A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness”

Through my experience of becoming the other—the chronically ill—an expanding and deepening of my human experience has occurred. I now know more of what it is like for so many living with chronic illness—not to have answers, to be stricken. My surrender to this transformation has felt like death. Still, it has resulted in a more authentic liberation from my false self-states, paving the way for a more authentic inhabitation of my humanity.

Likewise, the pandemic indeed is a call to surrender to our transformation as a global human community. We have the opportunity to surrender to the horror and terror of our fragility. Yes, it will feel like a death, as it may already have, but if my personal story has any legs to it, it will also result in a more authentic liberation of our false lines in the sand between them and us, and recreate a more robust human community. The pandemic is a call to incarnate our universal vulnerability. But, do we dare become the other?

We have the chance to step more fully into the heart of the world’s suffering and bear it. This includes the cries of the planet and animals—to hear their cries, their symptoms, as our own. And to recognize that there is an undeniable, undebatable unity and solidarity in our vulnerability that we all now know. We have a chance to dedicate ourselves to stewarding our lives and the planet in a way that might sustain generations to come.

But where do we start? Thich Nhat Hanh might help. In his book True Love: A Practice for the Awakening Heart, he suggests a way to be with someone who is suffering: “Dear one, I know that you are suffering, that is why I am here for you.”[2] Such a simple phrase, but it contains everything necessary to meet the world’s wounds: “I am here for you in your suffering.” And somewhere in the gift of this common space, we will wait for our mutual transformation. For I am you, and you are me.


1 Sedgwick, D. (2001). Pathology and Purpose. In Introduction to Jungian psychotherapy: The therapeutic relationship (p. 28). essay, Brunner-Routledge.

2 Hạnh Nhất, & Chödzin Sherab. (2011). True love: A practice for awakening the heart. Shambhala.

Image Credit:

Artwork by Greg Rose/Haykidd Media.

  • Gabrielle Taylor

    Dr. Gabrielle Taylor is a licensed Psychologist and Psychoanalyst in private practice in the Los Angeles area. She is Core Faculty at Wright Institute Los Angeles where she supervises and teaches.

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