By Poppy Cumming-Spain
I sit here with self-induced exhaustion after a weekend of partying. I ‘dragged’ myself out of bed at 12:30 pm and drove over to visit my mum (I was supposed to go yesterday, but I was convinced that Saturday’s hangover was too severe to make the trip). Upon arrival, I was greeted by a seemingly equally exhausted individual and together we sloped up to Tesco to buy the ingredients for a roast dinner. I can only imagine that the other customers assumed we were taking Halloween very seriously as we shuffled along the aisles like a couple of zombies. After a slightly painful natter with some chirpy neighbors we bumped into, my mum turned to me and asked if I thought she’d seemed odd during the conversation; as far as she could tell her eyes and words were all over the place. Unfortunately, I was in no position to judge, but I nonetheless assured her that she seemed totally normal.
Unlike mine, my mum’s exhaustion is not self-induced. The culprit, in fact, is something that she semi-comically refers to as KFC (I’m still not exactly sure why she does this and too often feel disappointed that there won’t be any crispy, chicken-y goodness for dinner). Those who aren’t in on her joke most likely call it chronic fatigue syndrome, or M.E. In case you haven’t come across this illness, it’s often characterized by extreme tiredness, muscle pain, flu-like symptoms, and insomnia. And just to be clear, a hangover is absolutely nothing in comparison.
Apart from the fact that it can be completely debilitating, it’s pretty scary because there’s so much that we still don’t know about M.E. Doctors can’t agree on its cause, they don’t really know how to treat it and, perhaps, as a result, it’s last on a long list of alternative illnesses they’ll try to diagnose you with before they conclude that you have the syndrome. My mum was pretty certain she had the illness two years ago, but it took a year for her to be diagnosed and even longer for any kind of ‘treatment’ to start. At SCA we’ve already been taught that well-defined problems lead to the best solutions, so it’s extremely worrying that there are at least 250,000 sufferers in the UK alone who are all being treated by doctors who don’t actually understand what the problem is. Not least because there is evidence that some treatment sees patients getting worse.
Perhaps the biggest problem with M.E is that you can’t see it and often when you see a sufferer they’ll be having a good day which might explain why many consider it a mental illness. It took a long time for me to even begin to grasp how serious it is and to appreciate what it might feel like to wake up unable to get out of bed, fall to the floor because you have no balance or lose your words because you’re mentally exhausted. In all honesty, I used to find it frustrating when my mum said she didn’t have the energy to go out as we’d planned because I thought she seemed fine. She wasn’t. And I soon saw the awful power that M.E had. Unfortunately, this kind of misconception means that there is a stigma attached to M.E which most definitely contributes to delays in diagnosis.
But it’s not all bad news. 2017 has seen some promising research which has confirmed it has physical, rather than mental, causes. Crass definitions like ‘yuppie flu’ have been overturned by scientists’ conclusion that it is an inflammatory disease which can be easily diagnosed through a blood test. This month an award-winning documentary, ‘Unrest’, was released which graphically reveals the experience of a Harvard Ph.D. student who suffers from M.E. This film has shed some light on the reality of the illness and boosted general awareness, which can only be a good thing. I’d encourage you to watch it and consider what you might do to ensure that seemingly silent illnesses like this are no longer ignored.