Opening Quote, from Emily’s Appeal:
“As I lie here, wishing and hoping and simply trying to survive, I (and the thousands like me – severe ME is not rare) should at least have the comfort of knowing that there are many, many well-funded scientists and doctors who are pulling out all the stops in the quest to find a treatment which may restore my health and that the NHS is doing all possible to care for me as I need to be cared for – but I don’t. This wretched, ugly disease is made all the more so through the scandalous lack of research into its most severe form and the lack of necessary, appropriate support for those suffering from it. This is something that must change.”
When does a life lived become a life lost? This isn’t an attempt at being clever nor rhetorical, for I am neither. However, as I write this, my heart – and those of countless others – beats and in between those beats resonates almost nothingness.
The plight of those afflicted is beyond words, not because it is indescribable but because the level of empathy required to appreciate its severity and extent goes beyond ordinary human capacity. Yet on the rare occasion when one is afforded such dignity in the form of the understanding of her physician or specialist, there is not much that can be done.
How unrelenting are the nights, or how treacherous are the days? How many countless lives go hidden, and forgotten, except when they reach out, demanding to be heard through ‘silent screams’ because their ears cannot bear to hear the owners’ own voices, or when a cry for help results in countless hours of physical pain and suffering?
There are many reasons for which I write this piece. I warn you now that to a great extent, I intend it to be a piece of activism for a condition that, though well-known in the UK, has had a negative press, separating the condition from the sufferer. I have no major expectations for this article; I can merely hope that, by helping to inform some of today’s students and tomorrow’s leaders, the discourse would be made more flexible, and that something would consequently be done about M.E.
This week is M.E- Awareness Week; a period intended to bring to the public consciousness the plight of the two-hundred and fifty-thousand (or plus) sufferers in the UK, of a condition whose origins and causes remain unknown, whose experience is very subjective, and whose reality can be terribly cruel.
(Note, this is a long piece. If you’d like to read the conclusion, click here. )
I often think of it as a selfish disease because it is a very inwardly affecting condition; contained within the body is (for want of a better word) an ‘entity’ which can mar every aspect of one’s life, [from communication, cognition, movement, mood, to the sensory perception of the world]. I’m sure fellow sufferers would agree that their bodies, for much of the time, can turn into cruel prisons. And this isn’t an attempt at rhetorical flourish. A prison, in my view, is a peculiar social institution; far more restrictive, regimented and self-contained, entailing entrapment of the inmate’s ability to do the smallest of things, for which s/he is at the mercy of the guards.
Those guards, or symptoms, which are often present in many cases include extreme fatigue – far beyond any fatigue imaginable, to extreme cognitive impairment, ‘brainfog’ – where speaking, planning and executing of the smallest tasks becomes a gruelling battle of will against oneself; and very disturbed sleep or insomnia, or hypersomnia. Pain, which in many cases can affect the joints, muscles (and sometimes) skin, makes physical contact, exertion and movement very limited. Sensitivities are heightened – (though I don’t drink) I imagine it as having a perpetual hangover; one can become so sensitive that even the dimmest of lights and sounds can send me and others howling with pain, although really, the screams in this case might be silent as sometimes even our own voices can be too much to handle.
Other symptoms can include nausea, muscle weakness, cardiac problems, vertigo, depression, inefficient thermal regulation, abdominal pains and irritable bowels, compromised immune systems, post-exertional fatigue lasting for days, weeks, even months. Perhaps most would agree with me that in whatever way it manifests, one can’t help but to actually feel very ill almost all the time. According to some, there are over sixty symptoms recognised in this condition. Of course, merely listing the symptoms doesn’t begin to do justice to the actual experience of them.
Quite likely is that you have passed someone who lives with this condition; although you might not always recognise that this person is unwell, that (more often) her body is undergoing immense strain, that she is feeling so physically sick that it taints her every experience. Around three-quarters to four-fifths of sufferers experience ME in a mild to moderate capacity, where they may experience some degree of many of the symptoms, and even then, it can have dramatic consequences on the quality of their lives.
And quite likely is it that in their position, they couldn’t (quite justifiably) perceive that their experience could get any worse. Not just in terms of living with and in a body that reacts horrifically at the slightest exertion, but getting support from doctors, social services, benefits agencies, simply because they don’t ‘look’ unwell, or because there aren’t any tests which categorically can diagnose this condition.
You would be quite within the mainstream (and possibly very logically so) if you thought that by this point, M. E. sounds a ridiculous or made-up illness; and unless you had experienced such a plight or similar, or seen it first-hand, you could not understand what a toll this disease, often (flippantly in my view) called ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’, has on a person. I, along with many, would (probably) long for a day when this ‘fatigue’, as defined in the general lexicon, was our only barrier to leading an ‘ordinary’ life. But for most, the reality is much grimmer. To most, the sensation of feeling so incredibly sick, as if [one was running a gruelling marathon whilst suffering the worst flu of their life], is in many cases, something which consumes most of one’s daily life.
Only that they’re not running a marathon; instead this feeling of dis-ease would be brought on by simply preparing or consuming a meal, getting dressed, brushing one’s teeth, reading a few sentences – all of life’s mundane activities that need doing somehow – become a battle of physical, mental and emotional resources.
Yet at its worst, M.E might feel like not merely a prison, but a slave-labour camp where cruel torture is executed on the inmates, often without logic and with extreme prejudice. Again, no flourish intended. Some fifty-thousand sufferers in the UK are predominantly housebound or even bedridden totally, for years; leaving their houses rarely, but always in wheelchairs or on stretchers. The symptoms can include transient or even long-term paralysis, (often extreme) jerking of the body, seizures and unholy pain for which morphine is often not enough.
At its worst, sufferers are confined to their beds, not able to sit up, are fed through tubes going through their noses or directly into their stomachs; they can even often become temporarily blind and mute, and without necessary cause. Unable to bear the slightest light or sound, these patients are denied the luxury that is mere conversation for even a minute, constantly needing to reside in a dark and silent room to stop the body from experiencing even worse pain and overreacting to the slightest stimulus, and the (feeling of) suffering which, to the untrained eye, is incomprehensible, but to the sufferer, is incomprehensibly real.
What is scandalous is that the trained eyes, for example, doctors and other healthcare workers, often refuse to believe, let alone acknowledge, that the suffering exists. This applies to all cases of M.E., mild or otherwise. Governmental funding is extremely limited, despite the condition’s relative frequency, and even larger than we know, as many cases are misdiagnosed, or dismissed by doctors altogether. Many fall into the cracks of a rather broken system.
It is a well-known fact, at least within the M.E. community, that much of the funding goes to psychiatric interventions, or graded exercise in the form of physiotherapy, which, though helpful to some, have made others more ill due to forced rapid overexertion.
I for one, am confined to bed for about 21-22 hours a day; I spend most of the day reclining or propped up, either with my eyes covered or wearing specially made darkened sunglasses in a room with blacked out windows, as far away from the noise of the house as possible, yet still often having to wear earplugs. I have ongoing experience of the seizures, the (thankfully very transient in my case) paralysis and extreme pain for which five painkillers (including morphine) doesn’t always suffice. As a student, I have twice dropped out of university, due to ill health, and experienced times where reading a couple of sentences resulted in my falling asleep on the floor of the university library floor for hours.
But others aren’t so lucky as I. I can have fairly lengthy conversations (for which I often suffer immensely afterwards), or can be propped up by pillows and cushions for some time. Once or twice a month, I can have friends over for short visits, sometimes longer ones. I have the luxury of being able to go for a short wheelchair ride out of the house, given adequate preparation and rest beforehand. I can eat a meal because my nausea can be controlled by three different medications. Other luxuries include being able to watch the odd TV programme if the light and sound sensitivities subside. To sit unsupported for 25 minutes at a time. To hold up a mug most days. To use cutlery. To wash my face or hold up a toothbrush to my mouth. But, like I said, others aren’t so lucky.
Link to conclusion should lead the reader here.
The recent death of activist and campaigner Emily Collingridge, piece (whose death was only covered by the Guardian here) who died earlier this year at age 30, after her 20 plus year battle with severe M.E, goes to show how horrific and tragic M.E can be. Her appeal to the world can be found here, which I urge you to read; from which I drew much inspiration for this piece.
I am in no position to say that mild or moderate M.E., is less significant in terms of the sufferer’s plight, as compared to that of the severely affected patient, because I have been there and at the time found it unimaginable to get any more sick; but I hope I can do some justice to those more severely affected than me who have simply been whitewashed out of the public discourse, whose ‘silent screams’ (as a fellow sufferer Chlay put it in her charity single for the ME Association, Silently) whose silent screams, go unheard, because, conveniently, they are unheard.
Countless cases exist where patients have been denied access to benefits, care (even from unbelieving family members), support from their doctors who could often dismiss them as being ‘depressed’, and thus, due to forced overexertion became far more ill than they might have been, had they received the correct support early on. Patients are left self-doubting of their illness, often forcing themselves to simply ‘snap’ out of it, trying to push themselves further in the hope that what ails them would simply disappear. But this often results in is relapse, an exacerbation of all of the previous and new symptoms, rendering them worse-off than before, plunging them into new, unimaginable levels of M.E.
As yet, there is no cure nor a known cause for M.E, and in a way, one might wonder as to how an illness can exist, if the miracles if modern medicine and science don’t know what it is. Some moderate cases, even severe ones can make full or significant recoveries, though a combination of very strict pacing, some graded exercise (**though this can be counterproductive or even damaging if not done very, very gently, and under proper guidance**), nutrition, and luck.
But even so, its grim reality is one that sufferers have to accept, and sometimes, it is by virtue of having to accept its grim reality very fast that is the only way of coping and adapting to this often relentless, sometimes remitting, and always uncompromising and volatile condition, which we include in the folds of the definition of our lives, because it is so pervasive.
We find comfort and hope in the idea that one day, our bodies might rally, as they occasionally do; or in the friends we have; or the activities that we can manage without too much difficulty, because life, even ours, is a precious commodity. It’s such a shame, it can often pass us by. Looking out of one’s window at life, for now, has to suffice in many cases.
Lives stand still, yet the world outside continues to speed ahead with almighty force. It’s not as if we live in isolated bubbles; for those whose eyes can actually bear to see light or have not been blinded by this awful condition – and many of us spend most of, if not all, our lives behind blackout-blinds or thick curtains or lenses of sunglasses in our bedrooms – the seasons and climates change, flowers bloom and die, families grow up and expand around us. All observable, all certain. There is no quest for eternity here, no hidden agenda that the sick continue to cry out for more than what life owes them, no unreasonable demands are asked.
But what life does owe them, aside from certain death, is life itself. And in order for us to die, to have lived would be all that was asked. They would, as I’m sure they’d tell you if they could, those who were not rendered mute or forced to speak in whispers, look forward to death after having lived.
Again this is no attempt at rhetoric. In fact, rhetoric is what serves to undermine the cause, to strip us of our dignity to actually just be ill. The rhetoric of arrogant psychiatrists, unsympathetic relatives, cruel friends and, harsh realities of social institutions designed precisely to protect the vulnerable. To change those things, even without an imminent cure lining the horizon, could make a world of difference.
– Emily’s Appeal (can make for very hard reading. But please read it if you can find the will).
– Chlay’s Chrity Single for the ME Association – Silently
– A great M.E-Awareness video from last year’s appeal by a sufferer, Daisy. Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc.
– The Association of Young People with ME (a charity that has helped me immensely by providing a support network, for those looking for such help):
– The Hummingbirds’ Foundation for ME (has some great articles on the subject)
– Emily Collingridge’s Website – which gives information about her book, which she wrote whilst bedbound when she was more well (and an excellent resource for patients, parents, carers, siblings, etc.), sold through AYME (see above):
– Action for M.E (“Action for M.E. is the leading UK charity for people with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) and their carers.”)