In one of those odd random blips of popularity, my description of M.E. has been circulating around twitter and Facebook today. I found it quite interesting to read the way people described what I had written. People identified with it, and said that I had described the symptoms well. I found that comforting, in a way, because their identification with it means I haven’t imagined everything. When enough people tell you your illness is all in your head, it’s hard not to question if it is. Even to the point of wondering whether I’m saying I need to rest because I really need to, or because I’m lazy.
M.E. has a long history of controversy. Until very recently, no physical markers have been found for it. Diagnosis has been based on description of the symptoms and by ruling out everything else. Because there is no way to be certain of the diagnosis, public attitude to M.E. has been poor. Names such as “Yuppie Flu” are derisive and contribute to the attitude that people with M.E. are simply faking their illness, and are lazy or work-shy.
Many doctors have held the opinion that M.E. is a mental illness. They conclude that the fatigue and the pain are due to depression, and hold the belief that only therapy such as CBT and a slow increase in activity is necessary to cure the patient. In actual fact, the World Health Organisation classifies M.E. as a neurological disorder under Diseases of the Nervous System, G93.3. The Department of Work and Pensions also categorically states the CFS/ME is physical. Despite this classification, many doctors still believe that M.E. is purely a mental illness.
What is the impact of this belief? One of the defining features of M.E. is that fatigue is not explained by exertion, and in fact is out of all proportion to any activity. In my experience, the best management strategy for M.E. is Pacing. It involves making an effort to stick to a timetable of rests and a set level of activity, and working out how much activity can be undertaken and how much rest is necessary by gradually increasing activity until the maximum level is found, and staying at that level. If pushed into too much activity a person with M.E. will “crash” and may be completely incapacitated for a long time. The standard treatment for M.E. as a mental illness is CBT or GET which will push a person far beyond their safe limits.
Treating M.E. as a mental illness also appears to attach a stigma to it that just shouldn’t be there. Suppose for a moment that M.E. actually is a symptom of severe depression. It may change the treatment, but would it change anything else about the abilities of a person suffering from it? Would it mean that it was OK to tell someone “it’s all in your head” and “snap out of it”? Of course it wouldn’t. Depression itself is a real illness, needing treatment and medicine. Someone with depression cannot simply “snap out of it.” There are M.E. sufferers who are also depressed – I am one of them – but it is important to distinguish one from the other. I have had M.E. for ten years, and depression for a few months. It would be surprising if I didn’t get depressed at some point given the situation I am in.
If I could choose to be better, I would. Of course I would. I’m currently useless, stuck at home, in bed most of the time, my business is failing because I can’t work, I can’t even do any housework. I WANT to be well. I want to be rid of the crippling pain, the migraines, the dizziness, the insomnia. I want to be able to walk, to run, to ride my motorbike. So don’t you ever tell me to snap out of it. I might just have to beat you with my walking stick, just as soon as I find the energy.