A drawing of a woman caught between two worlds; one is in pink, and depicts Ancient Greece, the other, on the right hand side, is of a modern home environment in dark blue. A speaker emits noise on the kitchen worktop.

How audiobooks are getting me through Long Covid

Helena Sheffield’s life has changed enormously since contracting Long Covid – which left her unable to read. Listening to stories, though, has offered her a lifeline.

Helena Sheffield

I’m almost three months into Long Covid, and I’m in the middle of a relapse. Lying on the sofa, from which I’ve barely been able to move all week, I have one goal for today: to remove some scraps of nail varnish. They’ve been on my nails for weeks and today their ugliness feels like a taunt.

By around mid-afternoon I feel the faintest echo of energy and I seize the moment. I prop myself up very slightly, resting my head on two pillows instead of just one, and I press a cotton bud against an offending patch of varnish. At the pressure, my arms start to shake, energy trickling out of them like sand in a merciless egg timer. Suddenly I am light-headed and dizzy and my thoughts, usually so outspoken, become unintelligible. Nausea trembles in my stomach. I remove the second pillow, close my eyes, and don’t move again for two hours.

My experiences with Long Covid have been minor compared to some people’s: I only deal with severe fatigue, shortness of breath and occasional brain fog. Nevertheless, I have spent most of the past six months lying on a sofa, unable to move much, look at screens or – nightmare of all nightmares – read.

Audiobooks have therefore become a lifeline: a way to keep my mind from wandering into dark corners, keeping my days filled with stories when I can’t consume them in print. I have always loved audiobooks: the Harry Potter cassette tapes were the soundtrack to my childhood, and Jane Austen CDs that of my teenage years. I now have multiple audiobook apps on my phone and have at least three titles in constant circulation.

'Those of us managing extreme fatigue clung to audiobooks as the gentlest form of entertainment'

But where they were formally handy entertainment to accompany me on walks, they have taken on new meaning over the last six months. There are times when the brain fog and fatigue are so bad that my mind feels bruised and words feel like an assault, so I’m relegated to soundscapes of ocean waves. When I begin to emerge from this state, audiobooks are the perfect way to ease me back into the world. Their slow pace, their gentle narration, seem like a balm to both mind and body.

When I realised this in my early days of Long Covid I turned to some of the Classics, needing stories I knew well but that had relatively low stakes: fast-paced adventures or fight scenes would be far too much to handle. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Picture of Dorian Gray accompanied the first months of my confinement (Did I start relating to a frail Victorian invalid? Absolutely), distracting me from my body.

After my relapse in October I joined a number of Long Covid support groups online: one of many small things I’ve done to reclaim a sense of control. I needed to know that things could get better; I needed to see that my weakened lungs, which were keeping me up at night with breathlessness, were normal and manageable. Scrolling through hundreds of posts from my fellows, I no longer felt like I was fighting this alone, and I was filled with admiration of these incredible, resilient ‘long haulers’.

I quickly noticed how often audiobooks were recommended in these groups. Most people agreed that reading required a surprisingly large surplus of energy, and those of us managing extreme fatigue clung to audiobooks as the gentlest form of entertainment.

So, for those of you with Long Covid – or indeed any other chronic conditions that have had so little light shed on them until now – here are my recommendations for audiobooks to listen to, when listening is all you have.

All of these Penguin audiobooks and many more can be accessed for free by anyone unable to read text due to a print disability – including Long Covid – via Calibre Audio

A woman sits on a bench in a park, smiling as she listens to an audiobook

Social Impact

Penguin Random House UK donates its audiobook library to print disability charity Calibre Audio

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