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Health: curing long Covid with honesty

19 April 2024

Long Covid taught Brian Draper about faith and well-being while suffering from illness, Sarah Lothian reports


THE writer, speaker, and broadcaster on spirituality, Brian Draper, has been a Radio 4 Thought for the Day contributor for more than a decade. In recent years, his work has focused on what he describes as “soulful mindfulness”, and, before the pandemic, he ran walking retreats in Hampshire, where he lives with his wife, Katharine, and children, Eden, Mercy, and Betsy-Joy.

His understanding of faith and well-being deepened profoundly when he and his wife contracted Covid in March 2020, at the start of lockdown.

“It was quite a mild case, and we did recover, but we were both still incredibly sluggish, with low energy and feeling very strange. We wondered what on earth this was, and gradually, over time, reports started coming in [of] people experiencing the same things, and we realised we had this thing called long Covid.

Their symptoms were most acute for the two years after Covid. “We didn’t have it as bad as some of the people that we ended up knowing, who couldn’t climb stairs, for example. We could do that, but we were very debilitated energy-wise, having to sleep at times during the day, throughout all the lockdowns.

“It became not just a physical, but a mental and a spiritual marathon to just preserve our sanity and that of the kids, who were nine, 14, and 15 at the time.”

Further health issues added to Mr Draper’s health challenges: a ruptured appendix and a knee replacement in less than a year.

“I loved running outdoors to keep my mental, physical, and spiritual health in check. I went from very fit to a physical wreck really quite quickly, and had to adjust to a very different kind of lifestyle.

“Some days were better than others. I remember coming back with tears in my eyes one morning when I couldn’t even make it to the end of the road.

“I’ve since had periods of weeks, sometimes months, when I felt a lot better, but it’s not a linear process of recovery. It’s been a year since I was discharged from the Covid clinic, but I’m still not able to go for a really decent walk without paying the price afterwards. I would describe it as trying to drive with the handbrake on.”

Brian Draper. His long-Covid Thought for the Day prompted the biggest postbac

Mr Draper is careful to say that there are many people in worse situations, but emphasises the importance of facing what has happened.

“One of the things that I’ve learned, on this journey, is to be honest about where I find myself — and for my wife, as well, who’s had an equally challenging time. It’s not about saying ‘Why me?’ I mean, why not me? But it is important to recognise what has changed, and to grieve that.

“I’d stopped doing Thought for the Day for a year or more, because I was worried that I couldn’t put sentences together, and that’s a vulnerable place to find yourself.

“And it was so incredibly moving, then, to do a Thought for the Day about long Covid, and to have the biggest postbag that I’ve ever had from people, saying, ‘Finally, I’ve been represented; finally, I’ve been spoken for.’

“So, to be able to say, ‘This is a struggle, this is difficult, this is real’ — even though it feels weirdly intangible and hard to describe — was very, very important.”

Before the pandemic, Mr Draper’s most recent books, Soulful Nature (Canterbury Press 2020) and Soulfulness: Deepening the mindful life (Hodder & Stoughton 2016), had communicated the value of spiritual contemplation to a secular world, and won plaudits from celebrities such as Clare Balding and Alan Titchmarsh. Could concepts such as mindfulness sit easily with health challenges, especially in the wider context of a well-being culture?

“It has deepened my experience of how contemplative practice actually works,” he says: “not in some kind of magic formula, but in terms of giving you permission to sit with your feelings and learn to welcome them. I would liken it to befriending the situation.

“Our natural instinct is to try and push challenges away. But I began to talk to myself about learning to love the unloved days, instead of trying to get through them or beyond them — to sit well within them, especially because I knew that, up to this point in my life, I hadn’t unduly suffered.

“But I had seen other people who had been willing to face into their grief, or their tragedy, or their shock, or illness, with a deep Christian spirituality. And to see them walk with a new kind of presence, a depth, a beauty that doesn’t take away from the sorrow or the shock of what they’re experiencing, but does speak of something more. Not breaking apart so much as breaking open.

“I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else,” he adds, “and this is not me saying you should find joy if you’re really struggling and life is tough.

“But I can look for the treasure within my own circumstance; so I wanted to be present to what was happening, because the reality is that we all deepen through suffering — it’s part of the human experience. We can’t avoid it, though we spend a lot of time trying.”

Part of that journey was honed during lockdown, but also when the world sped up again, and Brian and his wife still struggled.

“Finding moments of contemplative passage through the day was important, and we had the opportunity to find a different kind of rhythm. When you pause to watch the sun rise, when you step out at midday, you remember to stand in the light and love of God.

“When you face west at twilight into the unknown, into the mystery of the melding of light and dark, it speaks to you in a way that is way beyond words.

“After dark, one thing I did an awful lot was to stand out and look north to the pole star. The sense that, within our darkness, there is one tiny pinprick of light can still orientate you.

“For me, that was a tiny little thing: ‘Nothing can separate me from the love of God.’ Just that one thing. But it mattered to me that I put myself into that position.

“That daily orientation of sunrise, noon, twilight, darkness, can be just one part of the process of awakening to, and living with, whatever circumstances we find ourselves. As a contemplative Christian, I’m convinced it’s far more than just a nice, helpful routine.

“Simple practices so often are the key. Things like gratitude, counting blessings, getting out for that short walk round the block (or whatever you can manage), journaling, practising kindness, practising stillness meditation.

“Allow the mystery of God’s spiritual presence to do whatever it’s doing with you, which, I believe, is a very real thing, even though it’s not always immediately tangible.”

Long Covid also refined Mr Draper’s thoughts on healing and recovery.

“I think it’s given me an insight into the long process of letting go that we must embark upon in life: of control, of health. We tend to wait until ‘the diagnosis’ before we start paying attention, being present, and really living as fully as we can.

“Getting beyond ‘wish you were anywhere but here’ has been a big shift for me. We spend our lives restlessly looking for what’s around the next corner. All we can actually do is open our hands and pray that we meet this particular moment with a degree of God’s mercy and love.

“If this space is unloved, if we look at it and think, ‘I don’t want to be here, actually,’ we can bring the love in God’s grace to this moment, and see it begin to change. Love will be here if we intentionally seek to bring it through our being; our openness to the moment.

He is grateful for the contemplatives, including Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, and John O’Donohue. “All these people have helped awaken us to the power and beauty of that desert place, which is a necessary and vital crucial part of the spiritual journey for us all.

“I think what I’ve begun to glimpse is that upside-down, inside-out beauty and truth of God’s presence — not there as a genie to hoick us out of difficult situations, but God’s presence waiting to meet us.

“It seeps into your bones. It gets beyond the concepts and into your heart. The ego — the restless chattering mind — doesn’t like it because it’s too simple, just as the ego doesn’t like the desert space, because there’s nowhere to compete or control.

“So, the soul stirs, and you do find that connection with God.”


Brian Draper is also on Youtube

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