Personal Essay: Catching COVID: crumbling into crisis

[Image Description: the Oxford city sign, which reads ‘Welcome to the city of Oxford, a cycling city,’ as a gravestone. Including the red text, the sign reads ‘Goodbye to the city of Oxford, a cycling city, during COVID tho. Stay in your room, but also study. It’s OK to be sick so long as you recover quickly.’]

Essay & Art by Aiden Tsen

Trigger warning: suicide attempt


In October 2020, I started studying Chemistry at New College, Oxford.

It was a long-shot dream. When I got my autism diagnosis at 13, I gave up any hopes for my future, consigning myself to a life where I wouldn’t leave secondary school with good GCSEs, get any A-Levels, get a job, go to university, or help anyone. But then I started volunteering with disabled people and realised I could help other people. And when I did get good grades at GCSE and A-Level, I started to seriously think that maybe going to a prestigious university was an option.

I was so happy when I got my Oxford offer email on 14 January 2020. Words can’t express how excited I was. How proud I was. How proud I still am. It’s a brilliant achievement for anyone, let alone for an autistic, LGBTQ+ person of colour with a chronic illness who’s been suspended from school before. For someone like me.

In October 2020, I tested positive for coronavirus.

It was the first week of term - I actually entered self-isolation on the first day of academic teaching! I lost my sense of taste and smell, so I barely ate. My college mostly has single-person rooms, so I was in a household of one, isolating alone. So were a number of my friends. I know people who cried multiple times every day of self-isolation.

That makes it sound bleak. In all honesty, I was mostly fine during self-isolation. I don’t feel the physical sensation of hunger anyway due to my sensory processing issues, so although I was malnourished, I didn’t care that much. If I wanted to, I could video call my family back home in London. I got ahead on my work since lectures were recorded. And I only had my first cry of self-isolation ten minutes before freedom.

What I was emphatically not fine with was the inner ear infection I got due to COVID. Viral labyrinthitis. When it kicked in, I couldn’t move my head at all, my world was spinning that much. The next day, I wasn’t able to hear anything. I was scared I would never be able to hear again. (Luckily, my hearing returned.) I got the paramedics called on me twice in 24 hours. Neither of those led to hospitalisation though.

In October 2020, I was hospitalised for the first time.

Three days after being released from self-isolation, I had a really bad flare-up of joint pain, one of the symptoms of long-COVID. I’d had it during sixth form long before anyone had heard of COVID-19 and bats in Wuhan, yet it had been good on my gap year. Now, it came back in full force. I couldn’t move my legs at all. I was in an unfamiliar city surrounded by unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar room, on my own. I was terrified to be awake. I was terrified to be asleep. If I think about it for too long, I become terrified again.

Despite everything, I remained hopeful. I tried my best to get back on top of my work, and I did manage to do so for a time. I kept talking to and reaching out to my friends. I’m a stubborn person, so I wasn’t going to let one silly hospitalisation wreck my education if I could help it.

I couldn’t. Exactly one week later, I was hospitalised for a second time. Once again, I gave up on all my hopes for my future. I didn’t want to be alive any longer. One night, I went on a bike ride without my shoes planning not to return. On a busy roundabout with bad lighting, I considered cycling straight into the path of a van. Were my bike any less precious to me, I would have given away my one and only life.

In November 2020, I withdrew from Oxford.

Nominally it was by choice. In reality, it was either that or my tutors would force me to, but I wanted to pretend it was my decision. Now, I’m glad with how things worked out. At the time though, it meant I had to be the one to say, “I want to suspend my studies at Oxford.”

I could hear the exact moment my heart broke into a billion pieces. It’s the most broken I’ve ever felt. More than following a breakup. More than having to start using a walking cane. More than having to take a gap year for my health. Having to give up on that dream after fighting so hard to get there was true heartbreak.

Where do I go from here? I asked myself that accursed question countless times during long, sleepless nights in lockdown London that made me feel completely and utterly alone. Where on this planet can someone like me exist? 

I’m still in the process of figuring the answer to that second question out. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to make a space like that out of my own blood, sweat and tears.

Luckily though, I’ve started to take steps to answer the first one. I now run my art account and blog and am volunteering again, now in an additional strategic role. I do public speaking on autism and am working on a bunch of other projects. Despite everything, someone like me can still help others. Despite everything, the life of someone like me is still precious.