From the Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2014.
Today is severe ME Awareness Day, dedicated to those who suffer the worst effects of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Naomi Whittingham describes life with severe ME
Ordinarily, illness is measured in days or weeks; and for the unfortunate months or even years. Then there are those of us for whom illness, pain and suffering is measured in decades. This is my twenty-fifth year of being ill: a quarter of a century spent mostly in housebound, bed-bound isolation.
I have had ME since the age of twelve, after catching a routine virus from which I never recovered. Within months I was unable to move, speak or open my eyes. I had to be spoonfed. Constant, agonising headaches forced me to lie in a dark and silent room. I was so ill that my family and doctor feared I could die at any moment.
ME affects around 250,000 people in the UK, with 25% so severely affected that they are house or bed bound. It is now widely recognised as a neurological condition although some doctors still mistakenly believe the cause to be psychological, or that it can be cured by exercise. ME involves every bodily system and symptoms include flu-like malaise, severe pain, muscle weakness, cognitive dysfunction and acute sensitivity to sensory stimulation.
After spending my early teenage years in a death-like state, I began to slowly improve. At 37, I remain in a wheelchair most of the time and dependent on full-time care from my mother, now 63, but I consider myself fortunate. If you met me during a better spell in the day, you might not realise there was much wrong with me. You wouldn’t see the collapse into bed afterwards; the desperate need to lie in silence to prevent an escalation of symptoms such as pain, muscle jerking and vomiting.
In the twenty-five years of my illness I have watched my peers become teenagers and then adults. My journey to maturity has been marked by very different rites of passage: I have had to learn to feed myself again, to speak, to sit up. I have had to re-build self-belief from the shattering effects of having a misunderstood illness. It is destroying enough to experience the collapse of every bodily system; it brings one close to ruin when the cause is suggested as lack of motivation or a wish to escape life.
I have never driven a car or made a journey unaccompanied; I have never had a job or a boyfriend or a home of my own. I will never have the children I would love. For many women this last would be a devastating blow. Swamped by so many other losses, I barely register it.
Chronic illness is a bereavement: a lengthy grieving for shattered dreams. Despite this, I am not a tragic figure. Decades of intense suffering have given me a deep appreciation of life, of the simple pleasure of a sunset or spring flowers. I have a wide network of friends with ME and those of us who are well enough communicate through email and Facebook.
Recently someone asked me what I would do if I were well for a day. The possibilities for that one, cherished day not confined to bed or a wheelchair are too numerous to comprehend. Getting out of bed unaided, stepping out into the garden, making a cup of tea, styling my hair, shopping, going to the sea for the first time in years: basic, spontaneous activities which most people take for granted.
For me and thousands of others locked in this prison, the only prospect of release lies in quality biomedical research, of which there is far too little. There are promising developments in the study of viruses and immune abnormalities, and the hope of identifying diagnostic biomarkers and eventually drug treatments. But lack of funding means that progress is slow and in the meantime lives are wasted.
I will never get my youth back; but progress in understanding ME is urgently needed, before future generations lose theirs.
Voices from the Shadows, an award-winning documentary, tells the story of several severe ME sufferers, including Naomi and Sophia Mirza, who died aged 32. www.voicesfromtheshadowsfilm.co.uk
Naomi Whittingham last wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph (prompted by the death of Emily Collingridge) on 23 June 2014. Read it HERE.