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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November - December 2023

How TV podcasts helped me regain my memory after Long COVID

Nisa Malli

A person wears a dreamy expression and a pair of headphones while walking

Illustration by Tobias Diuk

When my girlfriend of six years broke up with me by text, followed by a short call, I couldn’t comprehend it. It wasn’t grief, shock, or denial. My brain, damaged from 16 months of Long COVID, couldn’t read or write, splice voices from background noise, or parse words said fast enough to react. When our friends asked what happened, I couldn’t explain the literally, not just emotionally, incomprehensible.

Early media coverage of the virus’s neurocognitive impacts focused on smell and taste, driven by viral videos of patients unable to tell pickle juice from lemonade. But SARS-CoV-2 can affect every sense and most aspects of cognition. My experience was severe but not rare: impaired word recall and object recognition; executive functioning, such as following steps to do laundry; and spatial memory, even in my own apartment. Conversations were dream-like, disorienting, and difficult; technology use triggered sudden naps. The pandemic’s collective TV-watching, live-streaming era passed me by. My life became as quiet as I could make it, and all the more isolating.

Louise Cummings, a professor in the Department of English and Communication at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says that “language is breaking down” in adults with Long COVID. “Even a short, slow-paced conversation can induce a severe flare-up of symptoms,” she says, “necessitating many days of rest in some cases.” In her 2023 study, participants reported difficulty finding words (93 percent), losing concentration when talking (89.6 percent), recalling what was said (65.4 percent), or understanding speech (38 percent). Conservative estimates of Long COVID incidence are at least 10 percent of infections, and neurocognitive symptoms are among the most common and longest lasting. But while other types of brain injury (e.g., from a stroke) may show on a static scan, Cummings says “the disruption to brain physiology in Long COVID is likely…more subtle.”

Studies that do show this disruption use specialized testing not available to most patients. A University of Waterloo study found reduced oxygen saturation in the prefrontal cortex during cognitive tasks. Oxygen is fundamental to brain functioning, implicated in fuel metabolism and neuron communication. Numerous studies, including two from the University of California, San Francisco and CAMH in Toronto, found inflammatory markers in the brain and cerebrospinal fluid, known to impact memory and mood.

When my hospital network opened a Long COVID clinic and I was seen virtually, 20 months post-infection, the cognitive rehab specialist recommended a maximum of 20 minutes per day of cognitive or screen activity. She said I’d likely never work again: my brain was irreparably damaged. Like most clinics, there were no neurologists, cardiologists, or infectious disease specialists, no diagnostics or prescriptions; only virtual patient education on adjusting to illness, social workers and dieticians, and a PDF handout on attention and memory I couldn’t read. To get treatment, I had to find my own specialists, including in private practice.

Desperate for distraction while bedridden, I could only handle instrumental music: nigunim (Jewish songs in lilting rounds of nonsense syllables) or small classical ensembles. Slowly, I added podcasts, listening for short stints without multitasking. My favourite hosts were always two intimates whose conversations felt like lounging after a dinner party. I’d let the social ambiance wash over me, an experience that violated public health policy. Even when I couldn’t handle watching closed-captioned TV, I listened to backlogs of “Witch, Please” (“a fortnightly podcast about the Harry Potter world”); official cast and crew pods for The Good Place and Hacks; recap shows like “Out on the Lanai;” and “Race Chaser” (“dedicated to the discussion, dissection and dissemination of every single episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race”). It helped to hear familiar voices describing familiar things without pressure to contribute, to practice comprehension and memory in a low-stakes environment.

Some formats felt more accessible, even rehabilitating. Hannah McGregor, program director of Simon Fraser University’s publishing program and co-host of “Witch, Please” with Marcelle Kosman, suggests this could be due to pedagogical principles built into good podcasting. “Core to teaching is repetition,” McGregor says. “You need to articulate things multiple times for them to resonate with people, and ideally, you will articulate them in multiple different ways.” Podcasts, like all serialized media, are “a balance of repetition and change,” she says, a structurally predictable format with cues like segment intros or musical transitions. “Witch, Please” revisits every book and movie through different theoretical frameworks, glancing deftly sideways from critical theory back into fiction like the best undergrad class you never took. It uses the explainer format, in which one host presents research to the other, which McGregor says models “the actual process of listening” through active listening noises and follow-up questions, making it easier to stay engaged, especially for my overloaded brain.

Big Dipper, executive producer at the Moguls of Media (MOM) Network, says that “Race Chaser’s” comforting balance of structure and improv is intentional, supported by guiding outlines and a timed four-segment format. “All the character, uniqueness, and what stands out…comes organically from [hosts, drag queens Willam and Alaska Thunderfuck] in conversation, but I give them a strong structure to hold onto so that they can really have freedom…to improv and talk shit.” The hosts riff on a vast pastiche repertoire of Drag Race, queer canon, and cult classics, both reverential and sardonic, vividly describing the action on screen and outfits from hair to heel.

Big Dipper says the format made queens “far more accessible to their fanbase….long-form, true personalities, no facade.” The podcast is a love letter to other media and mediums, not just in content but in style. The leisurely intros and outros come from Big Dipper’s theatrical background. “I structure the majority of our shows [like this]: the cold open, theme song, intro, and an outro to let the audience down gently.” Cummings says frameworks like these can be helpful. “If an interview has a set structure, you are able to use a mental template of how it will proceed, to facilitate comprehension,” she says, compensating for the lack of visual cues. The format is comforting, says Big Dipper, because “nothing is expected of the listener” and you can “let it wash over you.” Listening helped me rebuild memory retrieval pathways for sound and images.

For me, podcasts were patient companions who didn’t mind repeating themselves, and a descriptive medium when I couldn’t comprehend multimedia. They kept me company when I was too sick to leave the house, when in-person events were banned, and my community fell apart post-breakup.

Even now, three years into this, large Zoom meetings and dinner parties are still challenging and nightclubs are inconceivably inaccessible. But I can listen in on other people’s friendships while they “improv and talk shit,” and doing so has helped immensely as I relearn how to comprehend, remember, and connect with the world.

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