Opening and Closing: A Coronavirus Story

In News by Lavinia Plonka

By Mary Rudd, GCFP (In collaboration with Donna Ray, LMFT and Feldenkrais® Trainer)

In March 2020, I became ill with COVID-19 while caring for my husband, Rick, who had been suffering from symptoms of the disease for five days. Earlier that month, we had returned home to Kentucky sooner than planned from a trip to California, following the advice of our state officials. Since we had been traveling, we followed local protocols for self-isolation. For nine days, we carried on as usual with our lives: exercising, doing yard work, working from home, and walking in the neighborhood. As we are in our mid-fifties and both dedicated to a healthy lifestyle, neither of us considered ourselves at risk for a serious bout of this disease and doubted that we were carriers. We had taken all recommended precautions on the flight home. 

But one evening, more than a week after arriving home, Rick began coughing. By the next morning, with a fever and the sensation of heavy weight on his chest, he called our doctor to schedule a test for COVID-19. A few days after the test, he learned he had the virus.

Just as Rick reached the peak level of exhaustion with his sickness, I began feeling body aches and fever. Because I had experienced the flu twice before, I thought that if my own sickness did not get much worse than it was, I would weather it just fine. 

Like many people who have had limited or no exposure to the nuances of the illness, I felt that I was healthy enough to remain in the mild to moderate range. After all, I had just a flu-like cough and fever. Nor did I have any of the underlying health conditions that were then cited as a likely cause of the most severe illnesses. 

Additionally, as a Feldenkrais® practitioner, I observe my breathing in my ongoing personal practice. Knowing the familiar sensations of my breathing patterns and having the ability to check in with myself, focusing on what I am doing in a given moment allows me to feel as though I am free to choose how I respond to situations. And I knew my daily Awareness Through Movement® lesson would help me be aware of any alarming changes in my breathing patterns. My thinking was that my trained awareness would allow me to alert my doctor without delay in the unlikely event that I began experiencing symptoms of serious oxygen shortness. 

For all of these reasons, I felt well-equipped and unafraid as the symptoms of COVID-19 began to take hold in my body. But after a few days of steadily declining health, I realized that I was probably going to suffer a worse case of the disease than I originally thought. By the fifth day of fever, I had descended into a moderate and fairly miserable level of suffering.

By the tenth consecutive day of fever, I experienced violent coughing, persistent headaches, dizziness, and nausea, and my strength was diminishing as nutrition intake and exhaustion became concerns. Nighttime was especially difficult, and sleep, when it occurred, was often interrupted by a new, piercing headache, increasingly loud ringing in my ears, and dark, violent dreams. It was impossible to find comfort, it seemed, and I kept my light on at night through the worst of the ordeal. 

Increasingly weak, feeling reactive and chaotic, and worried about the extended duration of my illness, I decided to shift my attention towards mobilizing myself to more proactive self-care. I found ways to take in fluids, even though the thought of doing so was nauseating. And I tried to stay focused on hopeful thoughts rather than fearful ones. As my attention shifted, I felt more aware of my needs, and I noticed that my breathing had become labored and uneven. 

On the twelfth evening of fever and accompanying symptoms, fatigued and emotionally depleted, I lay in bed, stared at the ceiling, and began thinking about my loved ones and friends, letting go of the “managing mind” and entering a more imaginative way of being. I called up scenes of fun and joy from the past with the people in my life, hoping to access the positive emotions they would usually bring. Simultaneously, and with complete spontaneity, I began gently opening and closing my left hand, as I entered a more balanced state of presence with my thoughts and emotions.

This spontaneous shift into a quieter, gentler state caused me to turn my head and look at my left hand, then look back at the ceiling. I lay there, alternating my attention between my breathing and the increasingly slower, more coordinated and flowing movement of my wrist, palm, and fingers.  

Experiencing the hopefulness that comes from doing something familiar, I was now able to pay attention to myself with curiosity and became aware of how hard I had been working to breathe in recent days. The sensory juxtaposition between the soothing unfolding and folding of my hand and my most troublesome symptoms brought to my awareness something deeper: my subconscious fear that these long days might lead to a turn for the worse. 

My prior experience with the opening and closing of the hand, what practitioners sometimes call the “bell hand lessons,” offered an instant antidote to my fear. Although I was initially unable to feel the familiar sensations of the lesson in my chest, my breathing, and other parts of myself, I imagined that those connections and changes were happening, nevertheless. I imagined the sensations I might feel in each side of my chest as I opened and closed my hand. I imagined my jaw and throat letting go of tension and my headache diffusing in waves. I imagined my breathing gradually syncing in a smooth rhythm with my undulating hand. 

Hours later, I woke up. The light was still on and I was drenched in sweat, breathing with the gentleness of a sleeping baby. And though I would still endure two more days of fever, and the same medications were required for my symptoms, I never returned to the heightened state of “noise” that I had previously experienced and was able to settle in and rest for long stretches of time.

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In Feldenkrais® lessons, we act with the knowledge that our nervous system is intelligent enough to self-organize for the most efficient path to action. Over time, a Feldenkrais student develops an ability to use directed attention and movement to sense and feel distinctions in the body, which is information for the brain as it makes changes in our system.  In sensing changes that occur through a mindful approach to movement, students increase awareness of the possibilities for more ease and flexibility. When our habitual patterns become clear, we realize that we have choices about how we move through life, increasing our sense of agency to live as we wish.

Awareness Through Movement lessons help us discover the primitive connections deep within us. Movements involving the hands are highly impactful partially because they are basic to how a human infant begins to form a sense of self. As babies discover their hands and fingers – opening and closing their hands, grasping another hand or looking at an object when touching it or bringing it to their mouth – they are building the tools to feed themselves and perform countless other tasks that are key to survival.

An integral part of our communication and interactions with the environment, our hands enable our many forms of work, play, discovery, and emotional connection, resulting in a highly connected position within our brain’s sensory map. We speak, think, feel, and move our way through the world with prominent hands. The same hands that we use to feed and clean ourselves also help us arrange a bouquet of flowers, play a musical instrument, and swing a baseball bat. We hold hands with others to say what we can’t say with words. Awareness Through Movement lessons focusing on hand movements and sensations can create profound integration through a person’s entire self because they function as part of the person’s entire action. In the instance of my story, memories and feelings about the people I cherish in my life coincided with my hands coming into gentle action to soothe and comfort. 

To engage in a Feldenkrais practice is to reconnect with an inner knowing. It is an inner knowing of oneself in deep relationship with and through our body, our emotions, and our thoughts. We learn that we can access one part of ourselves through another part, that one part affects the other, and that, together, the entire system can stabilize and achieve harmony. It is through self-regulation that we can look beyond perceived limitations and recognize the possibilities for this moment and future moments. Self-awareness can bring us out of despair and into hope. 

During the twenty-plus days of my illness, I accessed the available, supportive community resources, especially ongoing check-ins with my doctor. However, I grew in the knowledge that health and well-being are not confined to treatments, tests, and diagnoses. Well-being includes an ability to access our internal resources when we need them. We can cultivate an ability to listen to this inner wisdom.

To be well is to be personally and intimately aware of the significance within our own life; it is to be alive to who we are and to what we dream for ourselves.  

I wish to express my gratitude to Donna Ray for her teaching, her mentoring, and for encouraging me to share my story and the information contained in this article. Visit Donna’s website at http://www.donnaray.com

Mary Rudd spent 30 years as a teacher, administrator, and literacy and leadership consultant in Kentucky. Mary now devotes her professional life to somatic education, which she views as a natural progression in her passion for the science of learning, teaching, personal growth and wellbeing, embodiment, and contemplative studies. She resides in Danville, Kentucky and works with groups and individuals using the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education in her studio, WiseMoveStudio.

You can visit her website at www.wisemovestudio.com