We asked for ideas about what it is like to have ME/CFS: This is D’s response:
Remember what it’s like to have Flu? Man-Flu in particular (an especially aggressive variant, and DEFINITELY a real thing). Your tongue feels like it’s made of carpet, your body temperature fluctuates uncontrollably and your head is full of some sort of low-grade cement? Your taste buds function only in so much as to make everything you consume taste like recycled cardboard, your ears are apparently full of fibre glass and you have the ghostly pallor of someone who’s spent 6 months living in a box in an arctic forest? Your limbs ache, you can barely form a coherent sentence and worst of all, you have such inexorable fatigue that a trip to the bathroom feels like the final approach to the summit of Everest.
Remember that illness? Maybe it wasn’t Flu. Perhaps it was Mumps, Glandular Fever or Pneumonia. Possibly you were recovering from a bout of surgery, with all the attendant post-operative aches and pains?
Now try and imagine that instead of this unhappy state of mind and body dissipating after a week or two, the fatigue stays with you. Often, and unpredictably, some of the other symptoms also spontaneously reappear. Some mornings, you struggle to put words together. A journey upstairs leaves you breathless and bewildered. You read the same page of a book 6 times before you realise it hasn’t gone in, and after 15 minutes focusing on something as simple as reading, your daily reserves of mental energy are completely exhausted. A brief stroll to the shops, or perhaps a walk to the park with your children or grandchildren FEELS like the natural thing to do, but once the endorphins wear off, even these modest achievements might entail a day or more in bed recovering from the sheer tiredness precipitated, along with all of the attendant aches and pains outlined above. Headaches come and go; appetite fluctuates, and sometimes for no discernible reason mealtimes swiftly result in the worst exigencies of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (a condition that sounds amusing until you’ve experienced it).
And this goes on for weeks, months, years, until understandably the sufferer may begin feeling more than a tad depressed about their situation. Work becomes untenable, as the sheer physical effort of maintaining anything like an alert or professional presence becomes impossible. Social relationships become difficult as the multiplicity of symptoms hold sway. Worst of all, perhaps, imagine that not only are you suffering from such a bewildering and impactful suite of symptoms, but compounding your misery, many of those purportedly empowered to assist you are openly cynical about the provenance of your illness. As there is no singe test for the condition, a differential diagnosis can take literally years to achieve, and even this is contingent on the degree of awareness and understanding exhibited by your General Practitioner. Despite feeling like you’re perpetually wading through treacle, you may be told by these and other professionals that you need to exercise more, or even that the condition is entirely in your head.
Derogatory epithets applied to your illness for years, like “Yuppie Flu”, mean that there is such cynicism abroad in the culture pertaining to your illness that friends and even family may become exasperated and offer little sympathy or understanding, despite clinical studies showing that those experiencing your condition have “…the lowest health-related quality of life score when compared to cancer, diabetes, lupus, stroke, heart disease and chronic renal failure”. Sometimes, faced with this multi-headed Hydra of sickness and disbelief, you may even begin to doubt yourself, compounding the negative emotions already prevalent as you battle through each day to achieve some sort of equilibrium.
Sadly this condition is not some grim fiction, but a lived reality for many of the hundreds of thousands of sufferers battling ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) in the community. Aspects of it have been my reality for some years. It is of the utmost importance to me that ordinary people understand the devastating impact of this very real condition on sufferers, and that professionals, most particularly within the Health, Benefit and Social Care systems, are imbued with sufficient understanding to treat sufferers with the respect they deserve commensurate with the severity of their condition. I remember the personal affirmation I received when I finally felt acknowledged and believed by healthcare professionals; Given the daily struggle outlined above, sometimes battling through life is an overwhelming task in itself, without the additional and enervating prospect of having to convince others, especially when they should know better. Under these circumstances, to quote Joseph Conrad, “The question is not how to get cured, but how to live.” As a cure still looks like a distant prospect, this is the challenge all ME sufferers face, and a major part of the solution is making the invisible, visible.