When the National Academy of Medicine (NAM, formerly the Institute of Medicine/IOM) released its recommendations for Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease (SEID) as a replacement for “ME/CFS,” I saw a lot of people spreading this myth: That “post exertional malaise” (PEM) is what differentiates myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E.) from other illnesses. This is not true, nor is this what’s explained in the NAM’s report. At most, the report says that the presence of PEM helps distinguish it from other conditions, while it is what best distinguishes “ME/CFS” from idiopathic chronic fatigue. PEM alone is not specific to M.E., Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), or SEID, just like unrefreshing sleep is not specific to any one disease. Continue reading “The Parts of ME: Does “Post Exertional Malaise (PEM)” exist in other diseases?”
Throughout this series, but especially in this part, I only ask you to remain open. But what does that mean? To quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas. If it is the same, we accept it and say it is correct; if it is not, we say it is incorrect. In either case, we learn nothing.” So by being open, we agree to allow the information in and integrate it with the use of our intelligence instead of thoughtless reaction.
So much of the M.E. vs CFS debate is clearly a matter of perspective.
If you’ve been offhandedly diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E.) or diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), there’s a good chance you tend to to speak with those in the community who also have your symptoms. It’s easy to reinforce your own version of things when there’s nothing to challenge it; if everyone around is just like you, who wouldn’t feel right? You generally support research efforts into “ME/CFS” because you feel confident this research will actually help you and others, so your main advocacy cry is “More funding!”
But hold on…
Would you still feel just as confident that research being done on your illness was ACTUALLY being done on YOUR illness if all the people you talked to didn’t have your symptoms? Or would that make you wonder which disease researchers were ACTUALLY studying/what group of people the studies were ACTUALLY helping?
To quote a friend: “Before you jump on the bandwagon and decide that this is just a silly name war, consider the implications.”
What if everyone you talked to with your illness said they actually weren’t very fatigued and could exercise five times a week? Your thoughts are probably the same as what an M.E. patient thinks when we hear of someone getting an M.E. diagnosis (1) without getting sick after a virus, (2) without having any neurological damage, and (3) without experiencing any exertion-induced muscular fatigue and/or pain (with subsequent exertion-induced paralysis): How can they have a disease without any of the core manifestations of that disease?
Or, what if your version of CFS were suddenly renamed to “idiopathic rash disease” just because a lot of people with CFS get rashes? Over time, your disabling fatigue, post-exertional malaise, pain–none of it is required anymore for this new diagnosis, BUT! It’s now called “CFS/Idiopathic Rash Disease.” You might ask, but Kit, if none of the symptoms for CFS are required for Idiopathic Rash Disease, why on earth was it ever combined? Well, because the Idiopathic Rash group advocated so strongly that the illnesses should be combined–after all, even though they have little in common now, it did originally start as a type of CFS, right?–that it ultimately becomes known internationally as “CFS/Idiopathic Rash Disease.” This looked like a good thing to the thousands of people who had no idea what “real CFS” was, so there wasn’t much protest from society at large…even though this combination further muddled everything (especially research!) by combining what used to be called CFS–your disabling fatigue, pain, sleep problems, etc.–with a new category that the government invented to study unexplained rashes.
Meanwhile, CFS advocates are feeling increasingly helpless that the majority of their patient group is being replaced with something that only barely describes their condition–your condition!–pleading, “This rash disease used to be called CFS, because we all had excruciating fatigue and post-exertional sickness! What is left to study our illness if all research is going towards unexplained rashes that could be caused by a million different things? Some of us are dying!” Incredulously, the people diagnosed with Idiopathic Rash Disease truly think they have the same illness as you, as classic CFS, even though they didn’t need nor have any of your symptoms for diagnosis.
How do you suppose research on “CFS/Idiopathic Rash Disease” will actually study people like you, now, when classic CFS is being buried year after year by more and more people who just want answers to their rashes…? And truly, they deserve those answers, don’t you think? You wouldn’t want to deny them their own research just because the government made a nonsensical decision to replace CFS with a focus on this new rash disease. But nonetheless, both groups are synonymous with each other, now, and across the globe people are starting to forget that CFS was once its own category, with its own symptoms that had nothing to do with idiopathic rash.
One day, you realize thirty years have passed, and all the new patients being diagnosed with “CFS/Idiopathic Rash Disease” don’t even remember when CFS was its own illness anymore. Funny thing is, everyone is quick to remember the part where Idiopathic Rash Disease started because of some CFS patients with rashes, but no one seems to remember that that’s where their similarities ended. You’re no closer to science figuring out what’s wrong with you, nor is anyone with Idiopathic Rash Disease any closer to finding out what’s really causing their symptoms. In fact, these new, uninformed patients are now yelling at you, an original CFS patient, claiming none of this even matters. Why are you so caught up on a name? Idiopathic Rash Disease is the same as CFS because it was created from CFS patients. And if no one likes the name of “idiopathic rash disease” maybe we’ll just petition the government to call this “CFS” again–that would help everyone, right, if we just took all these random rash patients and said they have CFS?
Hopefully that scenario upset you. Hopefully it made your head spin to think that anything so nonsensical and unscientific could ever happen. Maybe you’re even outraged and ready to end this hypothetical situation…
But this is exactly what happened to people with classic M.E. when CFS was invented. CFS was created to study “chronic fatigue of undetermined cause” and as the years have passed it’s morphed into a hybrid that still doesn’t describe any one condition. And it is not the fault of the CFS patient (or “ME/CFS” patient) that they’ve been so misinformed by the people they thought they could trust, or that those in power leave out major details when discussing ME and CFS history. But if it were you, if you REALLY WERE being replaced and forgotten in favor of a new illness that doesn’t describe your disease, wouldn’t you want someone to speak up for you?
So why do people look at us like we’re doing something wrong by reminding everyone that chronic fatigue syndrome is not M.E.? I quote again: “Before you jump on the bandwagon and decide that this is just a silly name war, consider the implications.”
Luckily, the illness defined by Ramsay et al. called myalgic encephalomyelitis is not that easy to get. But
- we all got sick after a virus;
- we all have measurable neurological damage; and
- we all have a very distinctive muscle pathology, a sign that was described by multiple doctors who all came to the same conclusion without having any communication with each other: “Muscle fatigability, whereby, even after a minor degree of physical effort, three, four or five days, or longer, elapse before full muscle power is restored and constitutes the sheet anchor of diagnosis. Without it I would be unwilling to diagnose a patient as suffering from ME, but it is most important to stress the fact that cases of ME of mild or even moderate severity may have normal muscle power in a remission. In such cases, tests for muscle power should be repeated after exercise.” (Quote by Dr. Melvin Ramsay, although all M.E. experts explain this same phenomenon in their own way)
And finally, none of us are being studied at all unless we piggyback into research with other illnesses. People with classic M.E. have been forgotten, and this has been worsened irrevocably by (1) fighting to have ME and CFS combined into “ME/CFS” without fully understanding what this does to us or how much it further harms everyone, as well as (2) efforts to rename CFS to M.E., which is entirely illogical. Several recent polls have revealed that patients prefer the name M.E. because it sounds more legitimate, even though most people diagnosed with CFS–and even people diagnosed with ME without thorough inspection–do not actually have classic ME.
It makes no sense to rename CFS (and SEID) to “M.E.” without also changing the diagnostic criteria to actually reflect M.E.: This is not 1988, the CFS bucket no longer contains just people with my illness, or just people with your illness, but dozens of misdiagnoses combined under one label. So why on earth would we rename one condition to another condition that it isn’t? I think the only thing these poll results prove is just how misinformed our community really is about our history, which is a major reason I’m writing this series. (I also left a comment to that post.)
So what’s my point in all this?
People who do get this infectious neurological disease–classic M.E. as it was defined before being unduly influenced by CFS and psychiatry–deserve to be and should be studied on their own, NOT forced to share the diagnosis and subsequently the research opportunities with other illnesses, all because a mistake was made thirty years ago. It’s not about the name itself as much as what the name used to stand for: I don’t care if we start calling it Egg Disease, as long as it actually describes and studies us, and only us! Until we consistently group people like us together and study them, we will never know what is causing this illness or how to relieve the suffering of people who move into the chronic, incurable, relapse-remitting or progressive forms.
All of these outbreaks didn’t just just magically stop occurring when CFS was invented. M.E. outbreaks are still happening even though the epidemics are no longer being recorded or studied. Cort Johnson wrote that Dr. Byron Hyde mentioned having “reports of over sixty” M.E. outbreaks from just 1988 to 2003, which were “no longer figured in the literature” and “were not given any mention in the ICC” (International Consensus Criteria). This should horrify people, and yet…
So please tell me how people with classic M.E. are supposed to be okay with what’s happened. Please tell me how research on people who became gradually fatigued is supposed to help people who all got sick after a virus. Please tell me how research on people who are chronically fatigued is supposed to help people whose breathing muscles are so weak many must sleep propped up or suffer from hypoxia; who exhibit clinical heart failure after exertion; who can’t write without risking arm paralysis; who can’t get up from the lying position using their back and abdominal muscles (which used to be such a prominent feature at the onset it was almost a diagnostic sign). And please tell me how giving people a diagnosis of M.E. without requiring the core manifestations, without checking for bacterial infections like Lyme disease, or even without giving them an MRI, is supposed to result in anything other than continued disaster (for us and the integrity of research).
If you want to pretend none of this is true–that you didn’t read any of this, that infectious M.E. doesn’t still exist–you won’t run into any shortages of other places to go. There are countless patient groups for you to join that will say none of this matters because it’s not THEIR symptoms that are being ignored. You’ll still have those options… But I ask you to contemplate having your disabling condition replaced by idiopathic rashes, like we’ve had our disabling condition replaced by idiopathic fatigue. After reading this, you are aware that we still exist and that M.E. epidemics are still quietly occurring. Don’t forget us.
All of that said, I do think we’re too far gone to erase CFS or SEID, despite some claiming it is the only way forward. I do not think it is the only way, nor do I think it’s even plausible. In reality, while we’re fighting for change, people are going to be misdiagnosed with CFS (and SEID, if it’s implemented)…including thousands of people with M.E. This is terrible because it diagnoses us too late for intervention, doesn’t give us the treatment advice we need in time, and doesn’t allow us to partake in research that applies specifically to us. But not all “ME/CFS” research has been fruitless. Some researchers select specific subsets–such as focusing on post-viral acute-onset cases while at the same time selecting patients who meet the Canadian Consensus Criteria, the only criteria that specifically require muscle fatigue–and we do get somewhere. That is exactly how the recent “robust evidence” paper selected their patient group, and it most likely included many patients with actual M.E. because of it; to that effect, the results actually match historical knowledge about ME in several ways. I also personally hypothesize that if SEID inadvertently catches a greater number of people with M.E., coupled with increased funding, this may one day force science to separate us into our own group yet again, if we repeatedly show abnormalities that others CFS subsets cannot reproduce… But I’ll have to explain all that in a later post, as this one is getting uncomfortably long.
Lastly, consider this:
There are thousands of rare diseases that will never be studied or researched. I think sometimes we get lost in the idea that it’s others’ jobs to fix us instead of our job to continue living our lives as best as possible. It’s wonderful that we’ve created a system to study diseases and relieve suffering, even if those systems get it very, very wrong sometimes. But M.E. has existed for centuries and will continue to do so, no matter what people call it, no matter how many people try to say we don’t exist. So listen to me:
I believe you. I’m sorry we’re on this particular journey together. And it is my most sincere wish that you not only discover the truth about this disease to the extent that it will help you (the books by our experts are some of the most validating things you’ll ever read) but that you’ll also do everything you can to increase your quality of life while you’re here, because you do matter. Dare to find enjoyment in your life, even if it’s difficult, because your life isn’t over just because you or a loved one got sick. In the mean time, we have to help each other, and I hope to do my part by not letting the truth die out. If you are also a person with classic M.E. or their carer, I invite you to share your story with the world, as well.
“If you destroy the record, you destroy the truth.
I’ve learned in my adult life that the will to silence the truth is always and everywhere as strong as the truth itself. So it is a necessary fight we will always be in: those of us who struggle to understand our common truths, and those who try to erase them. …
All so precious and fragile. Don’t let anyone tell you that the truth can’t disappear. If I believe in anything, rather than God, it’s that I am part of something that goes all the way back to Antigone, and that whatever speaks the truth of our hearts can only make us stronger. Can only give us the power to counter the hate and bigotry and heal this addled world.
Just remember: You are not alone.”
(Paul Monette, “Last Watch of the Night: Essays Too Personal and Otherwise.”)
Until next time…
♥ a rainbow at night
- The Parts of ME: 00. Introduction & History: How did we get here?
- The Parts of ME: 02. Does “Post Exertional Malaise (PEM)” exist in other diseases?
Missed diagnoses: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis & chronic fatigue syndrome (2nd ed.), by: Byron M. Hyde, M.D. with a foreword by Professor Malcolm Hooper. (2011)
The Clinical and scientific basis of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, by: Jay A. Goldstein, M.D. and Byron M. Hyde, M.D. (1992)
Myalgic encephalomyelitis and postviral fatigue states: The saga of Royal Free disease (2nd ed.), by: Melvin A. Ramsay, M.D. (1988)
It takes a long time for me to integrate new information.
And as anyone in the ME community knows, we’ve had a ton of that since February. Instead of blindly powering through, waiting has given me a month to gather facts, opinions, and input from our advocacy leaders, my trusted friends, and even the IOM committee members. The best way for me to write and for you to read (that is, if you want) is to break it into parts.
Please note that each post will be able to stand on its own: Don’t fret about having to remember plot-lines from week to week; this is not a story. This is definitely. not. a story.
All right. Fasten your seat-belts, gather your friends, because here we go. It’s time to make some sense out of all this.
The Parts of M.E. (Upcoming posts)
Introduction & History: How did we get here?
The IOM Committee Speaks Out
The Problem with M.E.-only Advocacy, and How SEID May Help
Does encephalomyelitis really exist in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME)?
The ICC or CCC as an M.E. definition: Are we promoting bad science?
Why do we advocate?
Note: Some of these might be combined or further segregated as I go along.
Let’s begin by clearing something up: How did we get here? The confusion between M.E. and similar states has always been a point of controversy. Today’s over-inclusion involves M.E. vs Any other disease with chronic fatigue; before CFS, the over-inclusion was of M.E. vs. Any other disease with chronic post-viral fatigue. These illnesses have also always been thought by many to be purely psychological in origin…along with 95% of all other ailments, because that’s just what people did back then. (Hysterical wandering uterus, anyone?)
But why hasn’t M.E. moved forward with all the others, especially after decades of documented outbreaks and with so much research proving it’s an acquired disease of non-mental origin?
The major denial of M.E. in both the US and UK has stemmed from people with too much power failing to examine a single patient.
McEvedy and Beard–both psychiatrists*–wrote their deplorable 1970 re-analysis of the 1955 Royal Free epidemic without doing a physical examination on a single patient, basing their feedback on data which they decided could just as easily have been hysteria…not out of some moral obligation to scrutinize data, but because McEvedy was a psychiatry student who needed an easy paper to write for his PhD. Professor Hooper writes of this:
“McEvedy stated that he did not examine any patients and undertook only the most cursory examination of medical records. This was a source of great distress to Melvin Ramsay who carried out the first meticulous study of the Royal Free outbreak. The outcome of McEvedy’s work has been described by one of the ME/CFS charities as “the psychiatric fallacy”.” (1)
Dr. Hyde writes of his personal visit with McEvedy in 1988:
“Why had he written up the Free Hospital epidemics as hysteria without any careful exploration of the basis of his thesis? I asked.
His reply was devastating.
He said, ‘It was an easy PhD, why not’.” (2)
While over in the US, it is well-known that the CDC did the exact same thing:
In response to several 1980s M.E. outbreaks, CDC investigators looked only at patient charts–NOT actual patients–and returned to their offices to make jokes about our presumed “hysteria.” It wasn’t until the doctors attempting to manage these outbreaks took over $200,000 of their own money to pay for MRIs, that they found their patients had brain lesions indistinguishable from those found in people with AIDS; because these findings were not seen in ALL patients, they were not taken seriously, despite being consistent with myalgic encephalomyelitis. In 1988, the CDC christened the continuing outbreaks as a new illness–chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)–effectively because three M.E. experts left the committee early due to a lack of patient information and the remaining committee’s preoccupation with Epstein-Barr Syndrome. (2)
From the criteria that developed to study CFS (which was only intended “to provide a rational basis for evaluating patients who have chronic fatigue of undetermined cause“), we have helped cultivate an old mess that still exists today: Thousands of people diagnosed with everything under the sun, whose illness is being called myalgic encephalomyelitis. This includes thousands who don’t meet even a single criterion for what was actually M.E. before the invention of CFS or the watered down post-CFS model of ME that exists in many countries today.
As you can see, this is the reason some diagnosed with CFS do have M.E., and the reason much research does still apply to M.E. even if the titles “CFS” or “ME/CFS” are used. The trick lies in checking the methodology: If patients were selected using the ICC or CCC (especially in addition to another criteria), there’s an excellent chance the results could apply to classic ME. If they were selected to meet certain additional M.E.-like criteria, such as a post-viral onset, even better. But if patients only had to meet one CFS criteria (or something equally nonsensical, such as the UK’s “NICE guidelines for CFS/ME”), proceed with caution, because this may mean the only thing the participants had in common was “a fatiguing illness.”
“Even if the truth is buried for centuries, it will eventually come out and thrive.” (Burmese Proverb)
♥ a rainbow at night
(P.S. – I thought I should finally publish a Facebook page so I can be engaged with the wonderful groups and people there, and also share things that are both too long for my twitter and too short for blog posts. Watch it for updates of new posts, things relevant to Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and related diseases, Lyme Disease and related content, Buddhism and spirituality (theists and non-theists welcome), Mindfulness and other meditations, coping, advocacy, and more. You CAN post to the page, but things will be moderated–checked by me for inappropriate content before they go public–to keep it a safe place: Differing opinions are NOT seen as confrontational, just don’t talk down to others. :) Thank you for your “Like”!)
It occurred to me one day several months ago that I’ve never stopped to answer a question people may have, the same question I often wonder about others in my situation: When I talk about being in pain, what am I actually talking about?
In my case I’m talking about severe head pain, and what some call “malaise,” but… Malaise is what you call it when you are sick and you feel “off,” and unwell, and basically.. gross. It’s also a term you can use for having something as simple as a cold or as insufferable as end-stage AIDS, much like a fever has drastically varying levels of severity.
In “malaise” standards, what I feel is like my immune system is fighting to save my life but it may or may not actually take me down with it. Most types of pain are usually localized, or at least, if it’s everywhere it’s an identifiable ache. This? Maybe I should invent a new term.
Deathlymalaise. Yeah that sounds about right.
What happens in my newly coined “deathlymalaise” (feel free to use that), is this:
I always have “the” headache with it, the one I’ll discuss in a moment.
I have a low-grade fever, and I alternate rapidly–or maybe there is only the sensation of rapid cycling–between uncomfortably warm and sweaty, and clammy, cold, with freezing and numb extremities. It’s like when you have the flu and every five minutes you’re either tossing the blankets across the room or clambering to collect anything made of fabric and burrito yourself in it. My GP says this is my immune system. Apparently it’s trying to figure out what to do with itself.
I feel dizzy and there is often a “buzzing” sensation, but whether it’s nerves sending wrong signals or my vascular system trying to sustain normal circulation, is anyone’s guess.
My lymph nodes, particularly the axillary and cervical nodes (under your arms, and around your neck), have a constant, dull ache, and get stabbing sensations.
I get muscle spasms in my neck, back, and all around my abdomen in general, that are so sudden and severe I usually end up screaming.
I feel a burning sensation in the nerves in my face, as if they were on fire from the inside-out. I think it comes from the same inflammation responsible for my headache. The trigeminal neuralgia is thus usually activated and I have to stop myself from clawing at my face–that wouldn’t help much, now would it?
I feel as if I’m going to vomit, but I won’t let that happen–I take Zofran as necessary.
My joints–moreso on my left–swell and get stiff, difficult to bend or move.
There is substantial fatigue during these “bursts” of deathlymalaise, but sitting or–more appropriately–lying in one place is usually not an option because this is the kind of suffering that, on the pain scale, would be at the level that it interferes with your every thought.
I’m a complete and utter wreck. And please remember, this list is only covering the malaise part of the illness, something that has been very prominent since The Big Relapse. It’s not medication withdrawal, because these symptoms are part of the reason I started taking anything to begin with, and it’s not herxing. It’s just disease. It makes me uncomfortable to even type that, but it is what it is. I can’t sugarcoat something like this.
[ETA, 2016 Feb] In Dr. Hyde’s book about Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (which back then in 1992 he abbreviated as “M.E./CFS”), he describes our malaise like this, under “Pain Syndromes Associated with [M.E.]”:
” ‘Malaise has probably occurred in every [ME epidemic] described in the literature.’ Malaise is accentuated in the Initial Stage and it recurs for as long as the disease process exists. Malaise is almost impossible to describe. It is often referred to as the pain and discomfort that one has during the acute phase of an influenza. However, it is not always the same. The patient feels terrible, feels as though he is about to die.“
“It particularly injures the sensory and dulls the cognitive abilities of the brain. The pain seems to originate everywhere, both on and within the chest and abdominal areas, head and extremities. The rapid muscle and brain fatigue that is normal in [M.E.] becomes accentuated.”
As you can see, what I described when I first posted this in 2013 is almost exactly what Dr. Hyde wrote; I was absolutely floored when I read it, and honestly, most of the book is like this: full of specific, uncanny validation about all the quirky things that occur in this disease. If you have M.E. I highly suggest you buy it while it’s still available.
Some of the other things I wrote are very specific of Lyme disease, such as the burning in my face where the infection damaged multiple nerves, and the “buzzing” sensation, which many Lymies describe as, it’s like you’re sitting atop the hood of a car while it’s running. [/ETA]
I usually feel aghast–but almost in awe–at the reality that a person could possibly feel so horrendous, and helpless at the thought that a hospital–the place you’re raised thinking can always help you during any health crisis–cannot do anything, because there is nothing to stop what’s happening. How do you explain to someone how terrible all that feels, with the word “malaise”?
Several of my friends who also live with Lyme & Company admit to feeling this, some even writing letters or notes to loved ones during the worst “episodes” because they think surely something must be about to go very, very wrong for the human body to give out all these warning signals.
They usually say, “I feel like I’m dying.”
We really do.
The progression of my headaches has been a monster all its own. Their onset began with occipital neuralgia four months after my tick bite, almost seven years ago. Bartonella came with its own, mostly frontal-oriented headaches; I don’t have those any more. But almost without fail, I have had a particularly severe headache for 4-5 consecutive days every four weeks since the Lyme invaded my nervous system. Now, that exacerbation happens about every two weeks, thanks to the Mycoplasma (or at least, I assume).
I used to requite prescription-strength medications for breakthrough pain only a few times a year for the attacks of occipital neuralgia. As things steadily progressed (especially within the past two years), I went from needing them an average of 1-3 days per month, to having 3-week-long bouts of unrelenting head pain which alternated with 3-pain-free weeks, seemingly for no reason. Now, since my relapse in October, I’ve needed them every single day except 1-3 days per month. I guess all of this is why needing them so much frightened me: I wondered–and still wonder–if there is no turning back from this point. Regardless…
This head pain is a throbbing sensation at the back of my head, the base of my skull and down into my neck. I wouldn’t outright call it occipital neuralgia, because my attacks of O.N. are even more severe and almost completely untreatable. But otherwise, it’s just like them. Baby neuralgias? They even exhibit the so-called “ram’s horn pattern,” and the top of my head often goes numb, and I am sensitive to anything touching my scalp. There is no sensitivity to sound, but extreme sensitivity to light. I get bursts of nausea. Since vasculitis has been such a major feature of this relapse, these “headaches” may have some vascular component.
As of right now, later this month my pain management doctor wants to try a shot in my neck. I’m uncertain is he intends a nerve block for O.N. or another route, but since this has gone on so long, it’s time to try something new.
There’s not really a pretty way to close this article. But when I talk about being in pain, to all of this is what I refer.
♥ a rainbow at night
These two topics complement each other in an unexpected way.
First, the recent death of fellow myalgic encephalomyelitis sufferer (or person with M.E., if you prefer) Emily Collingridge has shaken me, and I’m ready to be honest about why. Usually I would skip this part and post the conclusion of my thoughts, but it’d probably be therapeutic for myself and for those reading (whoever you are) to read a different part of the process.
I have many friends with either M.E. or what is supposedly M.E., that have never known the level of sick that even I have, much less something like what Emily endured in her final years. And that’s good, really! But it’s scary to think that this could be me, because of my susceptibility to this level of sickness. (And goodness knows not anytime soon, because she had the illness twenty-four years and I’m just at ten, but…) It’s not even the death itself, but the way it happens.
Most illnesses so severe will take you out quicker than this. There aren’t many that drag on and on in such a way… Professor Mark Loveless served as Medical Director of HIV/AIDS Programs at Oregon Health Sciences University, and in 1995 he said in his Congressional Briefing that someone with M.E. “feels effectively the same every day as an AIDS patient feels two months before death; the only difference is that the symptoms can go on for never-ending decades.” It broke my heart to hear of her suffering so much, for so long, and, just like Sophia, with her knowing that if she got hospitalized it’d be the worst possible thing to happen… Then sure enough…
I wonder if they’ll have hospice options for people like us in the future.
My “Lymie” friends say that even when they were at their absolute sickest with Lyme disease, they could still listen to music softly or watch television with sunglasses on, and they can’t imagine being that ill and suffering that much, not being able to do anything whatsoever. I can’t imagine it, either. I was only like that for a short amount of time, my symptoms being exacerbated by the trauma of those additional infections, and it just sucks all the happiness out of you; being unable to listen to music, in my case, was particularly difficult. How do you cope with the pain of hearing someone with the same disease as you–your sister or brother in this struggle–enduring that for so long, to be on morphine from so much pain, only to not make it through?
Had she not had the illness for twenty-four years, she likely would have been able to bounce back to a less-afflicted state of sickness as she previously had; as many do, going in and out of the severity levels. When you get it young, like Emily did, like I did (though certainly not as young as six years old), you usually do experience a remission; most, at around four years after the onset. A lot of people stabilize after that. Most stabilize after that, actually, into a moderate or mild affliction. It’s just this 25-30% that get it really, really bad, and it continues to progress over time; almost all the deaths occur from this group.
The thing is, I started this blog with severe M.E.–my condition having been worsened by secondary infections–and I was very privileged a couple of months ago to remove the “severe” classification from my blog description: from“Chronicling a very special way of life, that of someone living with severe M.E.,” to “living with M.E.” I remember a year ago, just wanting to be able to brush my teeth whilst standing up. Now I have a chance to get better still than I already have, but if I even so much as look outside, I can’t help but be reminded of all the people who can’t even do that, due to this disease. There’s certainly some degree of survivor’s guilt, here.
In my day to day life, it’s not often I have to really think of the M.E. anymore, because the things I do to keep it in check are just routine, after all this time. Really, fighting the Lyme disease is my focus and takes up most of my energy, but after hearing of this, it brought me back to the reality that even once I get the Lyme subdued, I’ll still have this terrible, terrible, disease.
My niece, who I live with, has been sick with a viral-induced cough, and I’ve been thinking, at least it’s not the flu (which would hospitalize me) so it wouldn’t be that serious if I did accidentally catch it… But then I remembered that it was a viral ear infection that ultimately made my M.E. relapse five years ago. And it was a viral ear infection that also sent Sophia Mirza into irreversible relapse, all the way to her death. So there really is no such thing as a “better” virus when you have ME. On top of it all, there’s now the paranoia of living with an immunodeficiency disease, and the anxiety of knowing the consequences if I were to catch something so minuscule…
It was a lot of triggers at once.
And it came at a particularly awkward time, after reading an article about a woman with muscular dystrophy who has found a way to enjoy painting, despite the muscle weakness:
“With her condition, most people would just be vegetating, watching TV, enjoying checks from the state. But she does a lot of work. She stays strong.”
I was exasperated with anger.
It’s just another example of how you’re only allowed to be a “worthy” disabled person if you still do things. If you can’t, if you’re really, really sick, then you’re just “vegetating and watching tv and enjoy checks from the state.” Nevermind that we need those “checks from the state” to survive, or that watching television might be the only relief we have from the every day, nonstop suffering…
People don’t want to hear of the severely disabled. They only want to hear of people who are disabled “and yet still.” They don’t want to hear of people who are bedbound to the point of being unable to do anything at all but exist, like so many people I know; like the person I have been and will be again one day; like Emily, when she became too ill to even eat on her own.
I found that article because I was wondering if there were any tricks to navigating muscle weakness that might allow me to still do artwork, besides just taking an excruciating amount of time to complete things. With its similar progressive muscle weakness, muscular dystrophy was the closest thing to myalgic encephalomyelitis I could think of that might have information out there about how to manage it while being an artist.
Then I find an article whose interviewer says that if I can’t do it, if I can’t “and yet still,” I’m just lazy and not strong enough in character!?
It was infuriating, and the reason I wrote about “Media Portrayals of Resilience in Disability and Illness” two years ago. I really don’t take it as a compliment anymore when people say I’m “so strong” because I’m still doing something…
Because what, when my M.E. gets to the point that I can only lie there and breathe, then I don’t matter anymore? Am I still strong if I cannot do? Are we not still worthy? It’s awful being reminded–and now, of all times–that there are people out there who think you, as a human being living with a disability, are inferior, weak, and lazy, for the sole reason that you dare to exist without also inspiring them.
As fellow blogger and severe M.E. sufferer Laurel stated in her post, “In Memory of Emily,” she embodied “strength, spirit and determination–all of which she continued to demonstrate to the very end,” and which was not determined by how much she did.
She did do a lot when she was physically able, even though it took so much out of her. There were causes she thought important enough to spend her very valuable resources on, but when she became unable to continuing doing in her last years, that did not make her any less strong or determined.
I never knew Emily personally, though I was a big fan of her her book for sufferers of severe myalgic encephalomyelitis, and linked to it here several times. It is an indispensable aid to those forced to navigate these unstable waters, one that could have only come from someone who knew its unpredictability and devastation first hand.
In closing, I would ask you to take the time to read Emily’s Appeal, which she wrote over the course of several weeks while she was still able. Additionally, Emily’s story, from her own words, can be found here.
♥ a rainbow at night