Britt Roelse: ‘Our bodies are slaves to society’

We are racing through society en masse. Using our bodies as loyal vehicles. And our organs march alongside at our relentless pace. They are working hard, in the service of our brains pushing us to move forward. Higher up. To perform. Because that’s what is demanded of us. From our employers or clients. From our colleagues. From everyone. Except from the one that occasionally rebels: your very own body. And the signals it sends are much more valuable than society’s expectations. Britt Roelse knows that all too well after experiencing a violent tipping point in her life. In 2021, she could feel herself floating like an angel above her own half-numb body. Since then, as a 36-year-old, there has been a distinct divide in her life. For Britt, there was the life before, and the life after long Covid. 

Text Paul van Vugt
Portrait Charlotte Gripps

Britt Roelse is a photographer and is exhibiting during Dutch Design Week with her latest work Being – a journey within. Personal experiences are her inspiration. She forges these into a universal visual language from which everyone can draw strength. She now draws a lot of strength herself from the projects she created before Covid. The time and energy she put into these projects reinforced her conviction to do things differently now. Differently than before her illness.

Listening to your body
Covid happened to Britt. Like it did to so many others. But only a small percentage got long Covid. Britt was one of them. It causes lasting damage. It traumatises your body. Britt: “My body still recognises the tension it experienced at the time I had the virus. This reveals itself in shortness of breath and hyperventilation when I feel stress. These intense signals are impossible for me to ignore. I listen and obey when my body starts telling me something. I have to. Frankly, I think very few people do that. It is no longer in our nature to act on what our bodies tell us. Those signals are being drowned out by our hyper society. Our bodies are slaves to society.”

‘In the first few days, I slept an average of 18 hours a day. When I took a selfie, I saw that I was literally squinting with fatigue.’

Literally floored by Covid
For Britt, her body pressed the emergency brakes in 2021. The biggest wave of Covid had already passed when it reached her, as a single person and co-parent of her five-year-old son. Britt: “In the first few days, I slept 18 hours a day on average. I barely had any energy left to make lunch for my little son. When I took a selfie, I saw that I was literally squinting with fatigue. I also felt short of breath. Time crept by and only after five days of being sick in bed did I first ring the emergency room. I couldn’t keep going any more. I was told that you’re only admitted at a saturation level of 94%, while mine was 95%. ‘In about five days, you’ll be back to normal. ‘You just have to get through this,’ they said. I needed help, but didn’t get it. I returned home. My body was working overtime and that same evening I literally collapsed.”

“Just before that, I had sent my little son to bed, saying I would soon follow. But that didn’t work out. The feeling in my legs was gone. I tumbled up the stairs, reached for my bed and lay down. The only force that kept me going was my female instinct: ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself; I’ve got to stay strong. I have to survive this’.”

Britt’s body thought otherwise. Slowly the feeling disappeared from her body. There was one thing for her to do: explain to her son how to act if she did not wake up in the morning. ‘Go downstairs, grab a stool, unlatch the door and knock on the neighbour’s window. Tell them mummy won’t wake up.’

“I was prepared for it. I felt this was waiting for me.”

“Strangely, it wasn’t stressful. I accepted it. There was no energy left to fight. Everything slowly switched off in my body. I closed my eyes and thought of leaving. Moments later, I felt myself floating above my own body like an angel. I saw myself in bed and thought: ‘am I dead?’”

I am stronger than Covid
The following morning, Britt woke up. Fully conscious, but unaware of the journey she had taken that night. “I felt like a frail old woman. Dependent on others because I couldn’t do anything on my own. Walking was impossible, talking was sporadic, and I even barely managed to eat and drink. But I knew I had to get out of bed. Otherwise, I would be going backwards even faster. I embraced the motto that I kept repeating like a record player: ‘I am stronger than Covid, I am stronger than Covid’.

Fuelled by those thoughts, I literally took the first steps in my new life. It gave me the strength to take one more step every day. I set a goal of eventually being able to run for 10 minutes again. Because if a fire were to break out, I would need to be able to escape. If there was something wrong with my child, I would have to take action. I have to be able to run.”

“The GP told me I would be my old self within three months. That prospect was like a slap in the face, being a single mother with an infant son. On top of that, being self-employed that was a no-go for me. When you’re your own boss, you aren’t given the tools to return to society after an illness. Nobody takes over your work in a one-woman business. Your body isn’t only your engine, you are also the engine for your business.”

‘When I came out into the world again after a long time, I thought to myself: ‘What is it that you’re all doing? You’re running. Racing through the day. ’

Disrupting the culture of performance
Those three months eventually turned into 15. In 2022, Britt moved on with life as a photographer. But because of long Covid, she has developed a different outlook on life. She no longer wanted the pressure of always having to perform everywhere.

Britt: “When I came out into the world again after a long time, I thought to myself: What is it that you’re all doing? You’re running. Racing through the day. Think about yourselves. You are subordinating your body to pressure from others. But that body is your own. It belongs to no one else. Take a moment’s rest if you are tired. Listen to the signals. If we all did that, it would be a leap forward for our health. And it would take enormous pressure off our healthcare system. This system aims to combat the pain we impose on ourselves. We are given pills and bandages. Medication to get us through. But what if the healthcare system focused on prevention. On leading a different lifestyle, one focused on care and paying attention to our bodies? Then none of that necessarily has to happen at all.”

Back in business with ‘Being – a journey within’
“Through my personal experiences, I have seen that things can be done differently. That we need to unwind and pay more attention to ourselves. That we might nurture rather than neglect our organs. And that we scrutinise the current healthcare system. Going through the illness inspired me to create the project Being – a journey within. My work can be seen during DDW, as part of the Embassy of Health at Strijp-S. I hope to use my images to make people more aware of how we go about life. How we put our bodies at the service of our ambitions, but shouldn’t our life patterns serve our bodies instead? In the service of the one source of strength that is always there for you? Until the time it fails us…”

More information on the series Being – a journey within, can be found here. Twenty percent of the proceeds from the sale of these photos will go to a number of Dutch foundations that invest in researching long Covid, such as the Long Covid Foundation, the Kidney Foundation, the Heart Foundation, the Stomach Liver Intestine Foundation and the Brain Foundation.

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