Life in Lockdown: Monday w/ Emma Houston

Life in Lockdown | 08 June 2020

A poster of a woman embracing a man made of stars. "I got you, just control your mind", said the universe

A Week in My Mind

Day 1

Melanie, CEO of Greenwich Dance, walked past my house a number of weeks ago as I was outside my front door, by the bins, doing a workout (we are neighbours). I would provide a date for this encounter, however all days, weeks and months have blurred into one. It must have looked like I was doing the most: a workout, BY THE BINS, in the morning, seizing the day, sweating, keeping in shape during Lockdown. Truth was, that was literally my first couple of attempts to workout since mid march. She mentioned to me about the blog series: a perspective from professional dancers and how they are keeping creative during this time. My mind immediately thinks “you ain’t been doing much of that”. Fact of the matter was, I had come down with a bad case of coronavirus mid-March, right at the end of a West End run of ‘Message in A Bottle,’ a new show by Kate Prince. 6 days a week of performing, being Dance Captain (including noting the show when I wasn’t performing). I performed 6 shows a week, a 2 hour show each day. Safe to say, I was physically fit Madagascar, anyone?
Then suddenly, I was in bed. Unable to move. Suffering progressively from all of the symptoms you’ve heard about. It was like I was in some sort of alternate nightmare reality. As I felt myself getting unwell (the first symptom being chest pains, then the dreaded cough, then breathlessness and disorientation): I knew what was happening. Just as the threat of coronavirus was reaching us all in the UK, it was too late. I already had it. But, I thought, I’ll be fine. I’m young, strong and healthy, not to mention physically fit. (I can’t get the song out my head).

A scientific illustration of a pair of lungs

I had been run down though, and pretty exhausted from the heavy workload of performing and the other roles and responsibilities I had. I’m sure my body is just having a slump, exacerbating my symptoms, I told myself on the Sunday (March 15th). I had been going non-stop since November on this job. Maybe it’s just my body finally being able to let go. It was indescribable how heavy my entire body felt. I was so disorientated; I did honestly feel like I was having some sort of mental breakdown. By the Tuesday evening, I had read more about how serious Covid19 was, how asthmatics were higher risk, and this disease goes straight for the respiratory system. I read about the horror stories, the deaths. I couldn’t understand how I’d already got the virus, and why the UK Government hadn’t acted yet to put measures in place to protect us. This had already hit China from as early as December. We had been warned. Being an asthmatic, I was worried for what this illness would do to me. But nothing prepared me for what was to happen next.

The next morning, Wednesday 18th March, I woke from my sleep suddenly, coughing, unable to breathe. It was 6.30am. It was hard to think rationally in that moment. All I knew was my lungs were BURNING, something was alive in there, clawing at me from the inside. It didn’t feel like an asthma attack, however later that is how I’ve described it as the closest thing I can relate it to. But any asthma attacks I’ve had in the past felt extremely different to this feeling, and often were induced by exercise: not from simply sleeping and being woken up unable to breathe. My airways were tight; I couldn’t get any air in anywhere. I tried to stand up, my rational brain trying to tell me it was fine. As I staggered a few steps, I realised I was in danger and needed to get to my flatmate before I collapsed. I grabbed my inhaler and made my way downstairs. I knew enough about asthma to know if I panic right now, it’s going to be a lot worse. But I could feel the panic rising. What if…?

The horror stories came flooding in, the deaths, the fear, the inability for me to categorize what I was feeling led me to feeling more and more helpless. I initially tried to call 111, however the automated voice said there was a 1hour wait. My flatmate was still just waking up, confused and concerned. I couldn’t wait an hour; this was an emergency!

I called 999 for the first time in my life. Gasping for air whilst giving my details and taking my inhaler, I feared the worst. But I also became incredibly present. I looked up online what I had to do during an attack, made sure I was sitting upright and staying calm. I caught sight of myself in my flatmates mirror: my lips were blue. Stay present. Stay present. I was making rasping noises, a desperate attempt to breathe.

I could go into more details of what happened in the next couple of hours, but it basically consisted of me sitting in one spot, by the window, waiting for an ambulance, meditating, trying to remain conscious. I was so tired, I just wanted to lie down. Finally, 2 and a half hours later, a paramedic called me back. Had my symptoms improved? I’m still alive and able to breathe at some capacity, I said. They didn’t have the resources to come get me, they said. They said there were people who were calling in who were in a worse condition than me. Worse? I felt my heart sink. Those poor poor people. Immediately, I was humbled by the knowledge, that right now, there were people in worse shape than I. Of course, I said. My heart went out to them. He arranged for a GP to visit me later that day. I was prescribed steroids, and told to take my blue inhaler as much as I needed to, but to call 999 again if something similar was to reoccur. He told me “on any other day”, they would have had an ambulance come out. That I clearly needed one too. But what if…?

I think about the people who died in their homes, with help that didn’t arrive.

A photo of Emma's lunch - vegetables and rice

So, for me, the following weeks consisted of my creativity being food related (getting out of bed when I could to go make a meal). When I had the energy I would make my room a little nicer than it was before, and tuning in to my own healing through breathing and visualisation.
Nearly 3 months on, I am not who I was before the virus (physically and otherwise).
I will share more on that in the following days.

Emma Houston sat on stone steps in the sunshine

So, for me, my creativity has not been through dance so much, but in other things.
Having your body (the one you train and work so hard to craft, shape and build into the vessel to express so much) suddenly hijacked by this alien infection -that still is triggered by any exercise today causing relapse in symptoms- is a really tough position to be in. My mental health outlet has always been exercise in some form: the last decade being dance for the most part. Dance became my moving meditation, my healer, my processor. Not being able to exercise, let alone walk up and down the stairs some days, meant my focus had to go to other things: some things I had been avoiding. Addressing my health in a more serious way was one of them. I tuned back in to other ways to find joy in art and pleasure in life itself, the simplicity of it. Curiosity in learning and ample time to be with myself and process years and years worth of experiences. Time to be still. Time to forgive myself. Time to be proud of all of my achievements in dance and more importantly, proud of my integrity that I’ve always fought to uphold. They are some invaluable tools that will serve me well, wherever this journey will take me. To my dancers reading this, I hope this gives you an insight into a bit of my story at this time. Remember, you are so much more than a dancer. Remember to reconnect with yourself, and cultivate presence and purpose that you will bring into your movement, your dance. I have no doubt this experience will come out as a positive for me. I’ve already learned so much, and grown so much. I am having to learn true patience with myself during this time. I get it wrong, push too much, think I can go back to taking a class with Kenrick just like I used to, then suffer the consequences. (However, the joy those classes brought me was SOOOOOO worth it :P. Thank you Kenrick for being a true leader).
Our body is always talking to us. Listen.
Till tomorrow 😉

Emma Houston

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