Personality Changes

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is part 10 in a series of blog updates on my health status.

I have had to do a lot of apologizing lately—to my favorite client for a terse email, to the lovely woman who cleans our home for a sharp text, to my husband for an insanely impatient rant. Or two. I’m left wondering if my short temper and bad judgment is simply due to the stress of the pandemic. Or is there another reason?

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to an article about how COVID is causing mood and personality changes in patients as well as the general public. This makes sense to me. To some extent, all of us are suffering from stress and anxiety because of the many changes the pandemic has brought about, but research is showing that some patients with COVID are experiencing significant mood and cognitive alterations, including psychosis.

There are many explanations for these changes, including the virus directly affecting the brain as well as the inflammation that comes from the fevers associated with COVID. The inflammation can alter both brain structure and chemistry.

I never got a definitive diagnosis of what virus attacked me in April, but I certainly had symptoms comparable to patients with COVID, including a high fever for 10 days and severe headaches that lasted more than a month. Clearly, my brain was suffering during this time.  I couldn’t drive for five weeks because the movement of on-coming traffic made me dizzy, confused, and frighteningly agitated.

I wonder if my personality has been altered by changes in brain structure and/or chemistry. If so, is this a short-term or long-term issue? Will I feel like myself again, or will I need to not only adapt to the new normal in our world but also the new normal of my personality?

Pondering these questions makes me think of Marcie, a cat with a “purr-sonality” I found both fascinating and frustrating.

Marcie was estimated to be 12 years old when Scott and I adopted her on January 3, 2018. We met her at a very well-funded animal shelter where most cats waiting to be adopted had private kitty condos with cat furniture, toys, and brushes, as well as windows to the outside world that provided the avid bird watchers hours of excitement.

Marcie was a quiet, reserved little old lady who sat like a stone statue on Scott’s lap while we gently petted her, asking ourselves, “Is this the right cat to add to our family?” I was mourning the loss of Lucy, a neurotic tuxedo cat I’d had for 14 years. I needed another cat to fill the furry hole her death left in my heart. Scott was less than enthusiastic about adopting another cat, but he went along with my plan.

After about five minutes of gentle petting, Marcie couldn’t help herself. She emitted a quick, quiet purr. It was more like a gentle rumble emanating from her tiny, bony body. She weighed less than 5 pounds at that point. That fleeting purr made me quickly fall in love with her.

She didn’t make a sound on the drive home that cool, rainy afternoon, but once we brought her into the house, she let us know she was not happy by growling every time we approached her. Our cat Charlie was ecstatic to see another kitty in the house, but Marcie wanted nothing to do with him, growling at him every time he walked up to her. Sadly, she treated him like this throughout her time with us.

For the first month, we continually reassured ourselves by saying things like, “Oh, this will pass. She’s just getting used to her new home, her new brother, her new surroundings, her new food.” But her temperament never changed. We have a short video of me talking to her, asking questions like, “Do you like your new home? What do you think of your new brother? Do you like the food we give you?” Her response to every question was the same. “Grrr, grumble, ererer, grrrrr!”

Our vet laughed when we told her this, saying, “So you’ve never had a tortie, eh? This is called ‘tortietude.’ These cats are notorious for being rather grumpy.” That was an understatement. Nearly every time I got within a foot of her she’d growl. And nearly every time I said her name she’d growl. I honestly never heard her meow. Maybe she never learned how.

On rare occasions, she’d let me brush her long fur and she’d purr, sometimes even acting like she liked the brushing and attention. Scott never got this response from her, and therefore never bonded with her, but I loved her spicy spirit. I can relate to being grumpy with the world, especially now.

We’d only had Marcie for five months when we learned she had kidney disease. This may have partly explained her foul mood; she likely never felt good. We switched to kidney formula food, took her to the vet clinic for fluid treatments, bought her a water fountain to encourage hydration between fluid treatments, and made her life as comfortable as possible during her final six months.

On her last day, I made the bed like every morning, laid out her “Princess Pillow” blanket, gently placed her on it, and petted her despite her growling. I then noticed her labored breathing. “Oh, sweet girl,” I said. “It’s time, isn’t it.” She looked up at me, starting purring, and I knew. Her sudden personality change let me know. It was time to let her go.

As I move forward with healing my body and brain, I’m following advice from experts who recommend mindfulness training, gentle daily physical activity, and—my favorite—napping. It gives my brain a chance to rest and my body time to relax.

Maybe that’s what we all need right now, time to rest and relax from the stress, anxiety, and personality changes brought on by COVID.