A couple of days ago I had an unusual thought. Unusual for me, that is.
I thought, I feel normal. In body and mind. I can’t remember when I last felt like this – or if I’ve ever had this thought before, given how abnormal I usually feel.
I do not wake in the night in pain, I do not wake in the morning in pain. To think that just a matter of two months ago I could not stand on my left leg first thing without excruciating pain, and by the end of the day I’d be weeping with the relentlessness of my suffering.
The change is miraculous. I’ve used this word before in recent updates, but it is. If anyone has experienced chronic pain, and then the lessening of it, they’ll know what I mean.
I’ve also talked about feeling gratitude, and I mean really feeling it. Over the years I’ve listened to meditations or been instructed by spiritual teachers to ‘feel gratitude’ – to find something to feel grateful for. I’ve searched in my mind and usually found something, although it has sometimes been a struggle. But it’s been a thought, not a feeling. I thought, I feel grateful for X, but in fact I didn’t really feel anything. I just knew it was good that X was in my life, or good that I experienced X.
Something shifted in the past weeks, where I actually feel grateful. I’m not thinking it. I’m usually lying down, waiting for sleep, and a sensation washes through me, a deep relaxation. It’s not joy – joy can be so ephemeral, almost unreal, perhaps a bit ungrounded. But this sensation is very real, and very grounded. It also doesn’t last that long, but I have a feeling it stays in the cells. It’s like I’m a plant dying for water, and now the rain has fallen long and deep into the soil to the roots. Perhaps it’s closer to one of those moments of spiritual well-being, of connectedness with all that is.
If you’ve been reading these blogs you’ll know the main reasons behind my gratitude – the shift in my pain levels, certainly, but also the support I’ve received, enabling me to step on this path towards healing–both body and mind.
I’ve done a lot of therapy in my life, of all kinds, from shamans to psychiatrists. I have a history of what they call complex trauma (exposure to multiple traumatic events). But, perhaps I’m finally getting the support I’ve really needed. It could be the multi-pronged approach I chose to help me with the pain: acupuncture, cranial osteopathy and EMDR, that latter of which I had my first ‘real’ session early this week. In fact, my therapist used a slightly modified version, using bi-lateral body movements as I re-imagine traumatic events (in particular recent ones – see The Unendurable and The Unendurable Part Two).
Even my therapist was surprised at how deep the session went. You process fast, he said. I’m sure this is because I’d already had several weeks of the other approaches, and perhaps also because of all the work I’ve done over the decades. I’ve also taken on board the fairly radical theory of back pain promoted by Dr. John E. Sarno.
And—and this is the news I really meant to write about—thanks to so many of you donating and to three dear, amazing friends covering what remained, I’ve had the PEMF mat for nearly two weeks and been using it three or sometimes four times a day. In theory someone with a long-term chronic condition like ME/CFS would only see results after 3 months of use, but I suspect it’s already helping.
I think back to when I started on this path in early February, writing The Unendurable. And to what forced me on the path: a year long’s worth of suffering, my utter desperation and despair. And now? Yes, I’ve recently had two nasty viruses, I still have weird symptoms (my eyesight randomly going blurry), I still have to rest much of the day, and I still have pain. Mostly it’s discomfort rather than pain. But that I can sit here, I literally mean sit here on a chair and not be in agony…well, I know I’ve written a lot of words, but there are no words really to express my appreciation towards all of you who have been so kind and generous. Perhaps in French: Je vous embrasse.
In the past normal was never a descriptor I wanted applied to me. I wanted to be different, unusual. I prided myself on my so-called artistic temperament, my mood swings, my emotional upheavals. But I’ve come far from this—I’ll gladly accept all the moments of feeling normal that come my way (although Ronan might have other thoughts…).
Yesterday, one of my kind neighbours drove me from an acupuncture session back home. Accompanying her was a friend of hers, a young woman (well, I have no idea how old she is, I feel older than most women I meet these days). “This is Amie, who I was telling you about,” my neighbour said – someone else with an ‘invisible’ condition.
I asked Amie what was going on for her. “Oh it’s a very long story,” she said. I smiled. “Don’t worry, mine is endless,” I said. So she told me. And it is a deeply sad story, of someone who has gone through so much, struggled so much, with bizarre and strange and highly debilitating symptoms – including waking up one day to find the skin on her face suddenly droopy – and then the rest of her body following. It’s likely that endocrine issues and pyroluria are a part of what’s going on, but she still has not got to the bottom of it and doctors seem largely unable to help. She’s had to deal with this for so many years, and you’d never know unless you asked. To look at her you’d think she was fine, a bright, funny, gorgeous person.
Amie has found for herself a way of being in the world that helped create at least a small improvement on how it was, step by step, but what a path to walk.
I’ve talked about invisible illness before. I’ve talked about my own physical issues – a lot, lately – maybe too much for most of you reading. But after decades of not writing about what’s going on for me health-wise, this past year of, well, pain and suffering and crushing exhaustion, seems to have pushed me to doing a lot of things I wouldn’t normally do: write more about what’s going on for me, and ask for help – financial help! such a massive step for me to take – and help from neighbours to ferry me to and from various medical and therapeutic appointments.
I already knew I wanted to write this blog but synchronicstically a friend sent me a link to an interview with the poet Meghan O’Rourke, talking about her book, The Invisible Kingdom, Reimagining Chronic Illness. I didn’t know about Meghan, or her book. The interview is great, it’s short and well worth listening to.
Like so many of us with chronic conditions without clear treatments or even diagnoses, Meghan had to become a detective of her illness, and an advocate for herself.
She talks about the additional pitfalls of this approach: “It’s an irony of illness like this that the more invested you get in saying, no, here are all the little problems, and here are the labs that maybe point to it. The more you look like a hypochondriac.” She talks about how much support one needs – and, generally, money, given the lack in healthcare systems for these kinds of conditions. And what if there isn’t support or money? It’s extremely hard. I know all too well how exhausting and often disheartening it is to be my own advocate, to try to find answers.
“You have to have just incredible determination to live with a chronic illness, and in some sense, that’s really the subject of this book that I think I did not understand that before I got sick,” Meghan says.
She also describes some of what the “well” can do to help those who are not – simple things like accompanying them to a doctor’s appointment. And listening. Really listening, not offering advice.
When I shared with Amie about some of my issues and about the vax injuries, she said, “I’m so sorry.” I could tell she meant it. Most people tend to respond with something like It could’ve been worse if you’d caught the virus. Which makes me feel I just can’t talk about what happened to me at all – amongst other reasons which I mention here.
What I’m mostly trying to say is don’t take anyone for granted, don’t assume someone is doing fine just because they look fine.
Many of us will present ourselves one way to the outer world, but at home, in private, it’s another story. I suspect for the chronically ill, the ‘other story’ is usually even more extreme.
Here’s a little of what goes on for me. I wake up after a generally bad night (due to pain and a resurgence of hot flashes after five years of none, or my latest ‘fun’ symptom: my skin feeling like it’s been given a wrist burn, but all over…), I stick on my TENS pads, limp around until the pain eases, feed Ronan, take my various supplements etc, shower, feed myself, stand out in the sun for a few minutes, do a few movements to help my back, and by then I have to lie down again, usually with my ear pressed to a hot water bottle, so there’s that rigmarole. I get up, have some tea, try to check emails (standing, with my little standing laptop riser as I can’t sit for very long), make something to eat, then I have to lie down again (with another hot water bottle). If it’s a relatively “good” day I’ll walk around the block. I haven’t made it to 4000 steps a day yet, but that’s my goal. Many days it’s nothing close.
I might have a little time before supper to stand some more at my desk or I’ll be attending one of my therapeutic or medical sessions. Then it’s supper, and some uncomfortable sitting-up-straight watching TV and then some uncomfortable lying on the couch on my stomach (the only way I can lie without flaring up pain) to watch a little bit more. By 9 pm I’m smashed.
There’s my night time regime of meds and supplements and hot water bottles, shower, then I fall into bed.
What have I done? Virtually nothing. Writing this blog is actually a large undertaking for me.
There is the rest you wouldn’t see:
The past six weeks of having to wash and dress my incision three times a day from my laparoscopic surgery to remove a cyst and ovaries (not to mention having to use other ointments twice a day on other skin conditions, including nappy rash ointment on the blisters caused by using the TENS machine…).
And, I weigh 90 pounds (6.4 stone), when I should weigh 110 at least, but I can’t seem to put on weight in spite of pouring olive oil over everything and eating coconut butter by the spoonful and so on. I wear loose clothing so I look pretty normal, just ‘petite’.
Nor would you see the frequent crying jags when I get so overtired every part of me feels like its screaming. Or the chronic tinnitus in my head that sounds like a cross between a fire alarm and a grater on a violin string. It’s worse when I have a flare-up of ME/CFS malaise (like you’re coming down with flu), usually for at least a couple days each week. And this isn’t the half of it.
As I said, everyone hides aspects of themselves, or aspects are simply not visible, this is not unique to those with invisible illness.
And, there is this added dimension, a weight of carrying years of suffering, of living with conditions that currently aren’t treatable. The weight of staying determined, of not giving up. Of putting on a brave face, as I suspect most people – family and friends even – would struggle to witness ones true face all the time.
But after talking with Amie, and with my kind neighbour who drove, I felt lighter, happier. We laughed about star signs and being a Pluto person, and when I stepped out of the car and took my mask off, Amie said, “Oh, you’re beautiful!”. For a moment it was as if I wasn’t sick, as if I was a normal person.
It’s just over a month since I wrote The Unendurable, a month since I had my operation to remove a large ovarian cyst, and two weeks since I created my fundraiser. The response to the fundraiser has been utterly overwhelming, so too all the messages and notes sent to me, many from dear friends, many from people I’ve never met at all. I haven’t managed to thank everyone. I’m sorry about this, know that you are all in my heart and that I’m so very, very grateful.
Every day of these past two weeks I’ve wanted to write more, to express something that perhaps is inexpressible, a healing process I had no expectation of. Perhaps this process began when the pain started, last March.
I’ve not been able to write about any of this, because the operation triggered yet another severe ME/CFS “crash”. I was told recovery would be two weeks, but no matter how long I rest, tremendous exhaustion isn’t alleviated. Even my sutures aren’t healing well (I’ve just finished a course of antibiotics). Other ME/CFS symptoms are flaring up- swollen glands, feeling as if I’m coming down with something. There are precious few moments available to do something unrelated to my physical state–from resting or taking my numerous pain medications and supplements, doing my physiotherapy movements, or going to medical appointments and therapeutic sessions.
Most of these appointments I would not have been able to do without the support from the fundraiser, and I’ll write a little about these first.
I had a consultation with a private surgeon. Not an uplifting experience. The situation in my back, at least according to the MRI done last September, is rather worse than was initially implied. It’s not just a disc bulge but “an extruded prolapse on the back of a broad based prolapse eccentric to the left.” This pinches a nerve root, hence all the pain I’m in.
He listed my options (in his opinion):
– do nothing, many such issues resolve in a year, but my year is pretty much up. – have another nerve root block, but since the first one only helped about 15%, he didn’t think more would help. – have the operation, a microdiscectomy. He outlined all the (frightening) risks, and the post-op protocol – 5-6 weeks of no sitting, perhaps propped up in bed with pillows. This alone terrified me, given how long it’s taking me to recover from a relatively minor operation.
The surgeon told me he typically gives an 80 to 85 % chance of surgery benefitting my kind of symptoms, but due to my health profile, it would be 70 – 80%. My gut instinct is it could be even lower.
I was quite depressed after this consultation. Thankfully, just afterwards, I had a face-face consultation with the lovely NHS physiotherapist I mentioned in the fundraiser, the one who’d talked to me about central sensitization, where the brain sends out ‘this is dangerous pain’ signals when perhaps the pain is not as bad as that (and just to be clear, the pain I’m feeling is as bad cuaas I feel it, but it’s possible, due to the trauma of the past year and ME/CFS, my pain threshold is lower than it might be). He was lovely, and suggested I at least try another approach, a kind of CBT of movement of the body, very, very gently teaching the body-mind to try movements I’ve so far freaked out about – and not done if at all possible – for fear of them causing me pain. It was a relief to at least consider something else before going for surgery, and would take time, weeks, months.
The next day my throat lump was scanned. It’s a benign thyroid nodule, nothing to worry about. A huge relief (unfortunately the drive there and back, about an hour and a half in total, caused excruciating sciatic pain for the rest of the day/night. Car seats seem designed to do this!).
In the meantime, thanks again to the generosity of everyone donating to the fundraiser, I’ve been doing sessions of acupuncture with Nik Tilling who specialises in pain. Initially he treated the ‘reason’ for my pain, the disc prolapse, but then he worked on settling my nervous system (in constant ‘fight/flight’), and, well, my whole being. Nik is one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met, sessions are closer to therapy/healing sessions.
I’m seeing a cranial osteopath and she too is focussing on settling my nervous system, and healing the damage done by the operation, and misalignments of my spine/sacrum. I’ve had one clinical massage session with another specialist in this area and will be having one this coming week.
Also, my dear partner has been doing healing bodywork on me, something I’ve not been comfortable with in the past. Partly because it is his ‘job’ and I felt it would just take too much from him to be working on me too, in particular at this time, when his own work situation due to the pandemic and Brexit has been horribly stressful, uncertain and worrying.
With all this, the pain is still there–last night it was as if my calf was being squeezed in a vice and as I write this a burning snake of pain wraps itself around my thigh–but something else quite profound is shifting in me.
And it is this I really wanted to write about.
As I said in that fundraiser, “To be asking for help, for funds, for myself, feels absolutely the opposite of what I ‘should’ be doing, when I know there is so much suffering that I could assist in alleviating. The truth is I’ve never found it easy to ask for help, of any kind.”
Well, in addition to the fundraiser, I steeled myself to make a post on a local neighbourhood website to see if anyone might be willing to ferry me to and from some of these appointments, in exchange for writing help. I didn’t expect any response, but over a dozen people volunteered, and most don’t want anything in exchange. Amazing.
And the other night I spoke to someone who knows physical pain intimately, an animal rescuer amongst other things. A very dear friend (who also truly knows pain) put me in touch with her. In addition to sharing what has helped her, this lovely woman invites me to her house in Ojai, California (one of my favourite places in the world ) where I can soak in her warm pool and learn from her experience. A total stranger, inviting me to her home. What a gift! The dear friend who introduced us has also invited me to her home in the States, in a town that abounds with amazing practitioners and another friend to her home in Austria where she would give me sessions…
So, how to fully express what it means to me to be receiving such incredible generosity? Of course I’m grateful, but it’s more than that. Something seems to be working through layers of past trauma, breaking down an unhealthy idea of how I should ‘be’ in the world. It’s kind of crisis of identity. I’ve had ME/CFS for 25 years but I’ve tried to pretend it wasn’t there and pushed myself to continue to be an independent, ‘strong’, do-it-alone sort of person. And now I can’t be this person anymore. The pain has forced me to surrender, to let go of who I thought I was, who I thought I should be. And in letting go, support and kindness and love just keeps flowing towards me.
I’ve often thought of my mother in the past while. Yes, wanting her to be alive, so I could hear her voice, but also because of who she was, how she behaved in the world. Such an extraordinary person. Someone who also believed in being independent, in not needing help. Someone who helped others, not the other way around. She was a powerhouse of a woman – a force of nature, people said – until her 70s, when things started to crumble, when her way of dealing with life was no longer possible (make a sculpture, build a house, organise a community centre, dig a garden). She was suffering from a variety of debilitating issues (including pain) yet spent the last years of her life alone, lonely, isolated, because she could not bear to be seen as vulnerable. She pushed people away – even dear friends, and family. She once told me she’d wake up in the night weeping.
I could so easily have walked the same path, ended up alone and isolated and afraid.
After one of my healing sessions I had such a powerful wave of loneliness wash through me. Not that I don’t know loneliness – chronic illness and chronic pain are lonely conditions—but this felt deeper, stronger, a loneliness I’ve probably had most of my life, ever since the car accident that killed my father when I was seven. Or earlier. Perhaps, even it’s my mother’s loneliness, or further back, her mother or her mother’s mother, or even further back. This wave of loneliness seemed almost touchable, so that I could truly acknowledge it. And in other sessions, acupuncture, for example, something similar is happening around feeling joy (I can hardly remember when I last felt joy), seeing if I can allow an opening for this, and for transformation in all areas of my being.
So, while I’m still in pain 24/7, still crying with it sometimes, I sense a possibility. I can’t see how it will look yet, but it’s brighter than where I’ve come from.
I have you to thank for this, all of you who manage to read these long posts; all of you who have reached out to me in so many ways. Thank you.
What is next? The NHS has put me forward for another kind of injection, ‘radiofrequency denervation‘ (essentially cauterizing the nerve). I’m a bit nervous about this and the surgeon didn’t even mention it, but it’s not till May so I have time to consider. [Update: I was given incorrect information – it’s just another kind of steroid injection.] I have enough in the fundraiser to explore not only acupuncture, cranial osteopathy and clinical massage but other modalities for several weeks. I’d so love to take up the kind invitations to stay with people in a healing environment–I’ve often said if I could wave a magic wand for myself it would be to be in nature near warm water–but I need to be much stronger to make any kind of journey. I wonder if this will ever be possible, given how unwell I’ve been for so long, over and above the pain. I’ve known of some approaches that have worked wonders for others with ME/CFS, intravenous glutathione and vitamin C or a PEMF mat – pulsed electromagnetic field therapy – for example (some studies used PEMF for Long Covid and chronic pain). And these would eat up my entire fund and more, so in the meantime I will try to keep myself open for ‘what wants to happen’ – an approach I use in writing, actually!
[Update: a friend just read this blog and said that in my wording of the very last sentence she heard the old voice of scarcity and limitation, that I shouldn’t assume the support I’ve been given would be over… so once I feel more sure about what might help, perhaps I’ll do a new fundraiser –argh, even writing this feels once again SO uncomfortable!]
In her beautiful memoir, The Shapeless Unease, Samantha Harvey talks about having to endure her life when it’s unendurable. She writes specifically about insomnia, but much of what she says feels so close to my own journey. This phrase, enduring the unendurable, has come to me many times in the last year. I’ve had chronic illness for a quarter of a century [Edit: I originally wrote quarter of a decade… brain fog!], and often my symptoms and the fall-out from the disease have felt intolerable, but then things changed in March of 2021. Since then I have been enduring the unendurable.
It actually started before March, perhaps late 2020. I developed a condition with an almost laughable name: Burning Mouth Syndrome. I thought it was a version of dry mouth, one of my many symptoms, but then it got worse, and worse, an ongoing sensation that I’d gulped down a hot cup of tea, that my tongue was scalded. Sometimes the tip was red and sore to the point of affecting my sleep. I’d weep with the awfulness of it. There’s something about pain and discomfort in the head/face that is particularly distressing. I eventually discovered two things that helped, holding chamomile tea in my mouth, and, bizarrely, pasting the affected parts of my tongue with cayenne pepper. At first I made a solution with water and powdered cayenne pepper, and then I just used straight cayenne pepper as it was easier…
And then, came March 2021. I did not want to write this blog, partly because of how much energy it would take to do so, but mostly because of what I’m about to write. I had my first AstraZeneca vaccine in March. It caused the worst ME/CFS crash I have ever had. I spent many days and weeks unable to do anything but lie in bed – doing what so many with ME/CFS know well: ‘resting’ but without ever feeling rested. I slowly began to recover and took the decision to have the second vaccine in June. The reaction was not as severe, but just as unrelenting. I am still not back to my pre-vaccine state. Essentially I have moved from mild/moderate ME/CFS to moderate/severe ME/CFS. All of my usual symptoms are doubled or tripled in intensity: fatigue, light/sound/skin sensitivity, brain fog, tinnitus, dry mouth, dry eyes, inability to walk for more than a block or so… And then there were other little delights, for example, at some point in September I had mouth ulcers so painful I thought I had an ear infection.
Essentially, on top of ME/CFS I have vaccine-induced Long Covid. I am a “vax Long Hauler”, as some call it. Yes, there are others like me. I am not an anti-vaxxer, and I know talking about my reaction will fuel the anti-vaxxers, which I do not want. It’s important I also say some people with ME/CFS improved after getting the COVID vaccine. I want you to read that sentence again before jumping to the conclusion that the COVID vaccines are inherently toxic. I’ll write it again: some people with ME/CFS improved after getting a COVID vaccine.
Unrelated to the vaccine, a low-grade sciatica I’ve had for years began to ramp up. And then it ramped up again, and again. To the point where I couldn’t stand on the affected leg in the morning the pain was so piercing, to the point I was weeping in pain (weeping is something I’ve been doing a lot of this last year). I went to a physiotherapist and he put me on an exercise regime, but I wasn’t getting better, I was getting worse. Finally I had an MRI in September which showed “Left L5 nerve root compression” or a disc bulge in my lower back that’s pressing on the nerve going down the left leg. Some googling and an osteopath put me on a different regime, but the pain is at times intolerable. Sitting for more than a few minutes increases the pain, lying down increases the pain.
Writing, reading, and resting have become almost impossible. To have ME/CFS and to be unable to sit or lie down is, well, a tiny form of hell. I can’t look forward to watching a mindless TV drama in the evening any more, as the only way I can comfortably watch TV is in cobra position. I’ve had to teach myself to sleep on my stomach, not exactly comfortable.
I was, I am, living on a variety of pain killers. I had a steroid injection in December, which for some can be a miraculous cure to nerve pain, but not for me.
The pain lessened, and then got worse, and now I’m in constant 24 hour pain or discomfort. Sometimes it’s as if there’s a burning coal buried in my calf, or that a hot iron is pressing against the back of my thigh. I can wake up in the night feeling as if someone has kicked me in the sacrum. I used to have some periods in the day without discomfort, but no longer. All this in spite of the pain medication. I’m waiting for another steroid injection, as I’ve been told sometimes it needs to be done in a slightly different place, but right now all I see in my future is pain, and fatigue.
Most of my waking hours revolves around trying to alleviate discomfort or heal my body. I meditate for long periods twice a day (lying flat on my stomach, the only possible position). I consume all the appropriate foods and supplements. I’m lucky to have a couple of skilled friends who generously offer their time and knowledge. I’d love a month or more at a spa with thermal waters and clinicians / body workers specialising in my various issues… or a series of MDMA trauma sessions in the Netherlands to give me a totally different experience of life, even if only for a little while.
But even if I knew where to go, these things are, for me, unaffordable.
My Burning Mouth Syndrome did improve, it’s not gone, but it’s much better, so there is that to be grateful for. And lately I started developing other weird symptoms: nausea and a short lived spike in my body temperature after eating or drinking something hot; my eyesight suddenly going blurry. And then, the other day, I was doing my cobra-position TV watching, and noticed a lump on my throat. It’s probably been there for a while. I haven’t exactly been paying much attention to how I look. My doctor thinks it’s a thyroid goitre, and has booked me in for a scan, most likely it’s just a watch and wait situation. It’s not giving me pain, and although I freaked out for a couple of days, it feels the least of my concerns.
What else about the year? Anything good at all? Well, yes. I try to remind myself. I turned 60 in August. I spent an afternoon with wolves.
And, I finished my novel in late spring, the novel that won the 2019 Bridport Prize. I finished it largely thanks to a Project Grant I received from Arts Council England, and The Literary Consultancy assessment and mentorship process that was part of the Bridport prize. Jonathan McAloon gave the initial assessment: a highlight of my writing life. He wrote “…of the fifty or so novels I have written reports on through the TLC, whether from first time novelists, those who’ve won a read like yourself, or established authors, your novel seems the most complete, and has given me the least causes to criticise.” My TLC mentor, Anna South, wrote in one of her final reports: “It’s very likely Samantha will prove to be one of those rare first person narrators who’ll live on in my memory long after I’ve turned the book’s final page.”
For various reasons the novel was ‘on hold’ for the rest of the year but it’s now on submission to agents.
And, also thanks to Arts Council England and to Sam Ruddock at Story Machine, I wrote four blogs that are mostly aimed at supporting writers living with chronic illness or disability. You can find them here. We recorded two podcasts where Sam interviewed me about my work and my life as a writer with chronic illness. I’ll make a post as soon as they’re live. Also part of this ‘project’, I led a webinar for writers with chronic illness, disability and other chronic conditions. While we did not discuss our situations in detail, the participants expressed how relaxed they felt knowing they were writing with others who knew chronic suffering. Some of them were experienced writers, including two playwrights. I shared my approach to writing, and the work that came out of the exercises was vibrant and exciting. What I did not expect was how nourished and energised–and relaxed– I, as workshop leader, would feel. Normally leading workshops on Zoom drains me, but not this time. Thanks in part to Sam Ruddock’s lovely hosting, but the main reason was simply being with those who understood what it meant to have one’s writing life impacted severely by physical challenges. Several of the participants expressed interest in further workshops, I’m truly hoping Sam and I will be able to do this.
But, after I’d finished my novel and was waiting for the next step in its journey, I stopped writing fiction. For the first time in many years I didn’t have a novel or short story to attend to, instead I attended to my multiplying physical issues. My mental health kept on spiralling downwards. I stopped reading. I haven’t read a book since October 2021. Normally I read at least two novels a month. I can’t read other than in cobra position–lying on my back or my side hurts too much, but mostly I stopped reading because I was just too depressed or too involved with all else.
I have felt so isolated in all this. My friends are, for the most part, dotted all over the world and I’ve found it hard to keep the connections. I send an email, and can’t follow up. I start a WhatsApp conversation, only to drop away for days or weeks – or months. And if I do manage an actual conversation, talking exhausts me. I used to be heavily involved in animal rescue on Facebook. No longer. Some days I can barely manage a single email. My to-do lists become longer and longer, or just get lost in the morass on my desk.
An astrologer friend of mine who I’d lost touch with, reached to me out of the blue. I managed to tell him a little of what was going on. He decided to check my chart: it is as if you have been in the centre of the world’s chaos. He also said things should ease gradually, oh that this be true!
I started The Shapeless Unease in January and while I’m reading it very, very slowly, perhaps this marks a shift. In the (distant) past I had an extended period of not writing, yet when I started up again I was, as if by magic, a better writer. I have to trust this will be true for me this time.
Sam Ruddock has invited me to write more on what it means to be a writer living with chronic illness, to share any supportive tips I might have. I’m excited about this, and daunted, given my recent track record of zero creative writing… As I put this sentence down, I realise I need to re-think what “creative” writing means to me. In November I started the Page-a-Day process with a dear writer friend. It seems to me I’m just cataloguing my woes, but my friend insists not. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps one day I’ll read through, and find something beautiful.
I recently managed–forced myself really — to attend a five-day Arvon writing workshop in Devon where Samantha Harvey was one of the tutors (she’s just fantastic). This in itself is a massive achievement, I’ve not been anywhere for 2 years (I’m paying the price however, with a kind of tiredness you might feel after several back-to-back transatlantic flights). But…. I did make lovely connections, and have some unexpected ideas for another book, thanks to a chat with one of the participants over supper. How does a comic memoir about a ruby deal going catastrophically wrong sound? Synchronistically on Twitter I saw that Ruth Millington heads up an Extreme Holidays Podcast… I asked if she might be interested and she is!
And, the physical story isn’t over.
In two days, on Sunday, I’m having laparoscopic surgery to remove a large and growing ovarian cyst. I’ve been putting this off but finally felt it was time to do it. They’ll remove both ovaries and my remaining fallopian tube. The last time I had laparoscopic surgery I healed well, apart from my belly button incision, but I was not as debilitated as I am now. If you can think of me, that would be lovely.
I have a wonderful new GP who told me to do some grief work around this operation. When I said I’d never wanted children, he leaned close and repeated firmly, Do some grief work. My partner has gathered stones and seaweed from the beach. I’ve added a stone from the ocean where we spread my mother’s ashes in Crete. I wish her to be with me now, more than ever. We’ll do the ceremony on Saturday. I hope for sun. I hope for a good day.
I simply hope.
For my book to be published. To be pain free. To no longer be in the centre of the world’s chaos.
And there is much to be grateful for. My partner, who goes through all this with me. It’s easy to forget sometimes it’s as hard to witness a loved one suffer as it is to suffer. I’m grateful for my brother, who checks in on me from whereever he is, Portugal, Brazil. For the friend who brought tea and food when my partner was away and I had to go to Accident and Emergency, and waited for me in the cold for hours until I was seen. I’m grateful for Ronan, who seems to know something is wrong.
I’m I’m grateful for trees. For stars.
And I’m grateful if you’ve managed to read this far. (Please forgive spelling /grammatical mistakes and looping repetitions, my mind is not at its best, to say the least!). There is an update below the tree.
Update, 20th February 2022 The operation went well, as far as I know. I was not warned about post-operative gas and experienced the most extraordinary pain for about 24 hours because of this. And then, the sciatic pain doubled. To the point of utter despair. I made a fundraiser to try and help me find answers, and it tells more of the story. I will soon write another blog about my process around this, which has not been easy – to ask for help.
When coronavirus moved onto UK shores I noticed, whenever I said “I’m not well,” in reply to “How is your health?” I’d hurry on to add, “It’s not coronavirus.” And more recently (fewer syllables!) “It’s not COVID.” I suppose I was saying, “It’s not so bad.” Who was I trying to reassure? Me, or them?
Actually, during the early days of the pandemic, I was not especially afraid of getting coronavirus. I do not usually catch ‘normal’ illnesses (colds, flu etc.), and, during February and March I was enjoying a remarkable period of wellness, spending my time and thoughts on the second draft of my new novel.
Of course it very soon became clear that COVID-19 is not a ‘normal’ illness, and when my health deteriorated rather dramatically with some delicious new symptoms, the very thought of feeling even grimmer than I was already feeling seemed unbearable. In fact, I have no idea know how my body would react to the virus – I don’t have any of the conditions that would put me into the government’s ‘high risk category’.
What I do know is that some people who “recover” from COVID-19 are not, so far, fully recovering. They have similar symptoms to those who have ME/CFS. There is even a new term in the pandemic vocabulary: “Long Covid”.
“With an estimated 25% of people with ME/CFS housebound or bedbound, patients suffering from the lowest quality of life of any disease to which it has been compared, including multiple sclerosis, and only about 13% of patients are able to return to full-time work, the potential for many new cases of ME/CFS in the wake of COVID-19 is no small matter.”
Lockdown is opening up in England. But it is not opening up for anyone with the severer forms of ME/CFS. My own ‘lockdown’ life has been largely unchanged by the pandemic. And, due to Long Covid, it’s possible the medical community – the world at large – will finally give ME/CFS the focus it needs, a condition of which my own GP said: “We do not know what it is, and we do not know how what to do about it.” Will she, at some point, be able to tell me, “I believe I can now help you?”
Which brings me to what I really wanted to share today: the question of whether anyone who is relatively well and able-bodied can understand the subjective experience of someone who isn’t. I wrote in an earlier blog: “In spite of finding my health issues tedious to dwell upon, just sometimes, I’d like someone to know, to really know what it is like to live in my body.”
I tend to stay on the periphery of the ME/CFS communities because I often find myself lost in a depressive warren of questioning (Is there something I’ve overlooked? Should I find the money to pay for the more accurate Lyme/Rickettisa tests not available on the NHS? Should I be tested for Tethered Cord Syndrome? What about mould?), but recently on Twitter I stumbled across Vlad Vexler’s ME diary.
Vlad is a philosopher working in ethics and musicology, and, he has ME.
He has recorded over 50 two-minute videos, articulating beautifully and elegantly what it actually means to have a chronic ‘invisible’ illness. Many of his symptoms differ to mine, but I found myself deeply moved listening to him. The talks – more a conversation than a ‘talk’ – are wide-ranging: how people with ME are judged and misrepresented when they temporarily function better; how people with ME have to fake and fabricate to enjoy simple pleasures; how people with ME are, in fact, too unwell to be “fatigued”, to name but a few.
Vlad has compiled these diaries on YouTube, and if you are able bodied, I urge you to watch them. Two + hours might seem a lot, but he is an engaging, vibrant speaker – even at his most ill. And, two hours or so is so very short compared to how long many of us have suffered with this illness – over 25 years in my case. And, if you have ME or a similar condition, I am sure you’ll find a great deal of comfort in his words. It is certainly a comfort to me to know there is this voice in the world, telling the world about us.
And, I worry he speaks to the ‘converted.’ So please listen, please share.
Covid-19 has perhaps shown many of us just how connected we are; and just how important it is to stay connected. It is often in the darkest times we deepen our humanity – we reach out to others (even if only via Zoom) and we begin to enquire into the experiences of those who have it worse than we do. In this way we make the world a better place.
I am engaged in a writing practice with a friend, a practice I call Page A Day. We write a page – of whatever arises – every day, and share with each other. In the past I have had some success with this practice, producing short-form work that I could edit for publication. These days it seems to be mostly a kind of journal. I’m not happy about that, but there is not much I can do, it feels. It is what ‘comes up’. There was one piece my friend said she thought should be published in some way, part of a longer essay perhaps, as it was about one of those subjects no one likes to talk about, not if it applies to them: the subject of loneliness. It’s the same with chronic illness, and death/grief, the other things I have in fact written about in this blog, not really wanting to, but somehow feeling compelled to do so. I have written before about loneliness, but I suppose it’s asking to be talked about again.
This isn’t an essay, but it’s the best I can do for now. At the end of the blog I will copy the “page a day” I wrote.
As a writer, and an introvert, I actually need to be alone for long periods, to create, to recharge, but being alone and loneliness are two very different things.
Loneliness is of course a ‘side-effect’ of having a chronic illness. And, as I wrote in the above mentioned blog, there are other circumstances in my life that contribute: my beloved partner David’s work takes him away for nearly six months of the year (each trip about 10 days to two weeks long) and the fact we don’t have children and that we have moved around so much and don’t have roots where we live. Most people our age have full lives and families and enough friends, so it is hard to make connections – particularly for myself, being a writer and so my ‘work’ is at home, but mostly because I am chronically ill.
Friends drop away. This is a fact for those with a chronic illness. We often have to change plans last minute, or we can’t travel far to meet people. These limitations have a knock on effect: in the end it’s just too much trouble for people to fit into our limited lives. And, when I’m sick, I feel quite vulnerable, there are not many people I feel truly comfortable being sick around. Instead I tend to over exert myself to fit in with their level of energy. So it’s easier just to wait things out before I suggest meeting up for a tea or coffee. But it’s a vicious circle: loneliness actually alters the immune system. And another great article in The Cut on this subject: What Loneliness Does to the Human Body by Ashley Fetters.
I have a number of close friends in the world, but very few living near me. Yes, there is the phone and WhatsApp and Skype, but it is absolutely not the same as meeting in person. I can literally feel it in my cells, a shift, a brightening even, when I’m with someone and engaged in a meaningful interaction.
I have in the past year made a concerted effort to make sure I at least get out and sit amongst people at a café, and my monthly writing workshops are not only a fulfilling experience for me, but have also brought some lovely people into my life. But still, I have frequently found myself in that empty, despairing place that is loneliness.
This is the piece I wrote during one of these times:
When I go upstairs for my lie down, Ronan follows me, and if he doesn’t I call him. He usually starts to knead and purr by my side and hopefully will curl up next to me. I put my arm around him. Sometimes he moves away a little or stretches and I stretch out too, so that a part of me is touching him. Sometimes I hold onto his tail. I love the softness of his fur. The warmth of him. But it doesn’t ease my loneliness. I’d like someone in the house. They can be doing their thing in their own room, but I want someone nearby. Just to know they are there. The worst is at night when I’ve watched too much TV, too much Code 37 Sex Crimes and First Dates. When I’ve had enough of TV I feel the dark cloud fill my stomach. Usually I get up and go to the computer, but I know I should sit with it, and just be with the feeling, to let it come through. To be present with myself, with my loneliness. To be the person in the house, just there, doing their thing.
I shared my ‘invisible illness‘ blog on Facebook, and in the comments someone suggested I had more to write on the subject. I told her writing the blog made me quite depressed, putting my health situation ‘out there’, in public. For me it seemed to concretize what was going on, to make it all the more real, all the more inescapable. And not long after writing the post – although I can’t prove a connection (there were other factors) – I had a serious CFS/M.E. relapse, putting me entirely in bed for nearly a week. It was the most serious relapse I’d had for months. Imagine having a severe tropical illness, or something like pneumonia, and you are in hospital. You are on the road to recovery, but still bed-bound. This is how such a relapse manifests for me.
I had felt something coming on for several days prior, one of my least favourite chronic symptoms rachetting up: a sensation of pressure in my head, combined with intense bi-lateral tinnitus increasing in volume from the time I wake in the morning until I go to bed, at which point it is almost unbearable. I can do nothing but listen to the clanging, a tone of a school alarm alerting you to a change of class, or the sound of a fire alarm in a public building. It is this particular tone. I’d have a digit removed if it meant this symptom could magically disappear. It started about 3 years ago, and occurs every single day. It’s worse when I’m tired or ill, but it’s always there. An alarm going off inside my skull.
What I haven’t written about my health situation is my anger. My profound despair. My hopelessness. My depression. Much of the time I ‘manage’. I’m good at managing. If my symptoms are fairly consistent and not entirely debilitating, and if I can apply some kind of routine to my day, and if, every so often I am well enough to get out to meet with a friend, I am not angry. I am not despairing. I am managing. Those emotions sit there quietly in the back waiting until I am once again thrown into incapacitation as I was last week. Then I think to myself, “I cannot carry on like this, I just cannot.” When I am so debilitated I can’t write, I cannot see friends, I can barely even read. Life doesn’t feel as if it is worth living. These are hard times.
I went through a protracted period of incapacitation about a year ago, and I realised I had to take stock. If my life was to continue like this, then what? I was at the end of my tether. I have been suicidal in my life, I have had several breakdowns, but this was not that. This was taking a good hard look at my situation. The facts. I knew I needed two things: nature, and a community. I needed to be in a place where close friends would be willing to come to me, to sit quietly perhaps, to make me a cup of tea. Or not, just to be in the house, so I can hear them chat away to themselves. The clink of cups. A kettle boiling. When I am ill it is often better for me to be alone, but I like to know there are people nearby.
Until that point I was very isolated. I had no friends in this city I’d been living in for five years (word of advice: if you have a chronic illness, are a writer, do not have a ‘job’, have no children, do not go to church, and your partner’s work takes them away for nearly six months of the year, do not move to a city where you don’t really know anyone). It’s not that I don’t have friends, I do, several wonderful friends, but most of them do not live in the country I live in. Isolation is well documented to adversely affect health.
So, I forced myself to teach once a month (doing any kind of regular work, a normal ‘job’, has been impossible for decades, as I never know when I might be too ill to do the work).
My teaching has brought a handful of beautiful people into my life. But it’s not enough, particularly since they don’t live within walking distance. This is what I call community. Someone next door. Someone across the way. A tiny village.
Nature is our minuscule patio filled with the sound of the industrial fans from the shop beneath us and the shop beside us. The patio is also a thoroughfare for those working in the shop below, so is never private. There are no parks near enough for me to walk to, and although the English Channel is but ten minutes away, it entails crossing a highway. This might not seem like a big deal but I am so noise sensitive (hyperacusis) going near this road actually hurts.
We need to move, not just because where we live is not conducive to my health, but also because our overheads are unsustainable. And then I worry: if we move far, to a new place, what happens to the friends I’ve managed to make here? Will I have to start over? What about the wonderful psychiatrist homeopath I am able to see nearby on the NHS? The TCM practitioner I’ve just found? There are so many other factors that make any kind of move complex and difficult, let alone the actual move itself. This is barely conceivable for me to manage.
Everything feels like a catch-22.
I have avoided talking about my anger about my illness. It’s not present right now. Anger is not an emotion I feel frequently. I can count on my two hands the times I’ve actually been enraged. I’m not suppressing anger, it’s just not there. But I am angry about my illness. I do not feel I signed up for this. I remember a friend, some years ago, telling me I did not seem like a sick person. I do not have the profile of a chronically ill person, whatever that is. Does anyone sign up to be ill? No, of course not. Also, I do not believe we are given these challenges by the universe to “teach” us something.
But we do have an opportunity to take a look at how we react to challenges, how we are ‘with’ whatever is going on. We can learn from what we are going through.
In the early years of my illness, when it manifested as bouts of acute bacterial and viral infections, I learned something: if I fought what was going on (a literal physical sensation of trying to push my body, my discomfort, away from me), it worsened the symptoms. If I physically relaxed, and was ‘with’ what is, things eased. I did not get well, but my experience of whatever was going on improved.
Now that the progression of the illness has changed, now that each day includes long periods of discomfort, I am neither with nor against what is happening. I am simply bearing it. Even when I tell myself “I cannot bear this.” I am bearing it. I have no other choice. I will not end my life, even though sometimes it feels as if my life is ending me.
I have avoided talking about my despair. In my blog about having an invisible illness I linked to a post in the New Yorker about memoirs of disease. One of the memoirs is ‘Sick’ by Porochista Khakpour. I haven’t read it. I had come across it some time ago, and thought I should. Porochista Khakpour was finally diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease and treated with antibiotics amongst other things. A few days ago I decided to find out how she was doing. What I discovered was the thousands of dollars it took for her to be diagnosed and treated. More money than I have, far, far more. She raised much with crowd funding. I am not sure I could do this: my shame around my illness prevents me (another thing I haven’t written about). And then I learned she is still not well. By the time I finished reading all this, I could barely breathe. I don’t have the money to pay for this kind of testing or treatment. And even if I do, it may not make an iota of difference.
I was at rock-bottom. Sick, despairing, hopeless.
But at the bottom there is nowhere else to look but up. Once again, I knew I had to take stock. I had to turn my focus to the aspects of self that are not my illness.
I recently won a prize for my writing (I cannot announce the details publicly for a few weeks), and I am reminded: I am not just a sick person. I am also a writer, even if all I can do is to think about what I would like to write. I am also a friend, even if all I can do is talk to you on WhatsApp.
I am still here and the day will unfold with its challenges. I haven’t given up yet.
I recently read a lovely post on Instagram, the words of a brave young woman who had CF (cystic fibrosis), it moved me deeply to hear how this she described the challenges of her short life, as it felt so similar to my own challenges. I hesitated in commenting as I felt my health situation could not compare, but perhaps someone out there needs to read how my life is for me, and perhaps not feel so alone.
Like most children, I used to pretend I was able to make myself invisible. It seemed I was quite good at it, I could enter and leave rooms without anyone noticing, I could ensure a teacher would not choose me to answer a question.
But the kind of invisibility I am writing about now is quite different. I am seen, but not seen.
For the past 24 years have a chronic illness (variously diagnosed as M.E./CFS or CFIDs or possibly chronic Rickettsia, a lyme-type pathogen), which to the “chronically well” goes largely unnoticed. Much has been written about ‘invisible’ illnesses and the challenges of having one, and I’ll put some links below this post, but I suspect it is mostly people who either have an invisible illness, or those caring for them, who read these things. So I’m writing this in the hopes that someone stumbles here, who is unaware of how an invisible illness is experienced by someone who has it.
To most people I look fine, I sound fine. I seem to be doing things healthy people do. I don’t have a feeding tube up my nose, I don’t have to walk around with an oxygen tank, I don’t even have an inhaler. I don’t have a terrible skin affliction. I have all my hair. In fact I am lucky to have a lot of hair. I am rarely pale. I walk at a normal pace, for the most part, although this is generally because I’m trying to keep up with a chronically well person, I hate to be a drag. My illness is so invisible, that even when I tell someone, I feel really dreadful, they carry on treating me as if I am feeling perfectly fine.
Actually, this is often my preference: to be treated as if I am as healthy as I seem. My illness is a boring subject for me, having had it now for so long.
In spite of finding my health issues tedious to dwell upon, just sometimes, I’d like someone to know, to really know what it is like to live in my body. There are a few people who have a good idea – usually those with a similar illness or the loved ones of those with a similar illness. I also do not want to be pitied, or to have people give me that Oh you poor thing look.
Generally I try to keep my health situation to myself. Illness is like death and grief. For the most part, people don’t want to have anything to do with it, and if I do talk about it, instead of simply asking, Tell me how are you affected by this, I’d like to know, most pull their eyebrows together and frown sadly, which is meant to look sympathetic but really is a kind of defence. I know, because I’m guilty of doing this myself. I also had one friend who would do everything she could to hear me say, Things are good before she would continue her conversation with me, or she would somehow find something in what I said to prove to her that I was doing better, that all was fine, and tell me so.
Or, people carry on as if the illness (or the grief) simply doesn’t exist. Being on the receiving end of these approaches is challenging. I may be chronically ill, but I am also so very many other things, and, I am often feeling really awful, in spite of appearances, and it helps me to have all of my ‘selves’ included in a friendship.
If you lived with me, my illness would not be invisible. You would see that just two hours after getting up in the morning, I am forced to go back to bed for an hour or so (on a good day). You would see me do some work for perhaps three or four hours at most, and then you would see me spend the rest of my day mostly lying prone. You might see me out and about, doing reasonably well, and then suddenly crashing, and then you’d see me desperate that I cannot be at home, in bed, instantaneously. You would see me leave the house in the evening for my weekly ukulele class, and you would know what an enormous undertaking it is for me. I haven’t taken a class in anything for years because I just felt too awful. I still feel too awful (in fact I’ve gotten progressively sicker over the years) but now I’d rather be taking the class than not.
If you lived with me, you would see that my symptoms usually increase over the course of the day, so that by the time I go to bed, I’m entirely overwhelmed by them and can barely think or speak. If you lived with me, you would know that a mumble means Night night,I love you.
The disease has changed for me over the years, there was a time when I would in fact a few weeks of relative health, and then severe viral or bacterial infections of some kind. But now, it is a daily experience of navigating relative levels of discomfort.
I am chronically ill and yet I attend to my writing, I attend to my animal rescue work, my friendships, my family, and I attend to my teaching commitments – all done in those few daily ‘useable’ hours. I can’t say I attend very well to these things, but I try.
I even manage to travel, and to participate in some events that demand a great deal of me, and I’ll seem just fine. I might even be just fine. Until I get home, and then, usually, I will get so ill I have no useable hours at all for a few days, or even a few weeks.
This is how it has been for years. You might suggest that I don’t do anything in those few hours, I should experiment with resting the entire day, or that I don’t go on trips. The thing is, I have spent so very many entire days in bed and I want a ‘normal’ life, and so those useable hours, those trips, are precious to me, they make me feel as if I too am a chronically well person, if only for a little while.
There are other interesting challenges associated with this ‘invisible’ illness ( although for some people it is not so invisible, many with M.E. / CFS are bed-ridden or have to use a wheel-chair). One is the name ‘Chronic Fatigue’. Most people will imagine how it is when they are tired. But Chronic Fatigue is not ‘fatigue’, it is not tiredness, it isn’t even exhaustion. It is frequently the severe, all-encompassing, crushing weakness and aching one might have with a serious flu or tropical illness. And then there is the multitude of other symptoms that would fill an entire blog post.
And then there is the unasked for advice. I understand this impulse, I have it myself – to try and ‘fix’ whatever it is that is wrong in someone else’s life. I’d much rather be listened to than given advice, I am a font of advice for myself, I don’t need anyone else to give it to me, unless you have a similar heath issue as myself, and have genuinely found something that has helped you or something you truly think worth trying. However, one of the main ‘problems’ with M.E. /CFS is that no two people have the same set of symptoms, and what ‘works’ for one person may not work for another.
M.E./ CFS is not a considered a terminal diagnosis, yet ME/CFS patients are at increased risk of all causes of mortality, especially suicide. Few people know this. In fact, no-one really knows what M.E. is. My own GP admitted: “It’s a name for something we don’t know what it is, and we don’t know what to do about it.” Personally I think these chronic illnesses are often the result of a kind of ‘cocktail’ – a pathogen and trauma. I’ve tried everything from Mexican Shamans to immunologists, but to no avail. So I try to carry on with my life.
Recently I had brief brush with a frightening, and often terminal disease: cancer. After a few terrible hours writhing in pain in A&E on a Saturday night, a mass was found in my pelvic area, and thought to be a suspicious ovarian cyst. I was fast-tracked for further investigations and then scheduled for an operation to remove both ovaries and fallopian tubes, the cyst to be sent for analysis. For 6 weeks I lived in a new dimension: a dimension where what I had was not chronic, but acute, possibly life-threatening. I cannot say it felt good to be able to tell people of my ‘new’ health situation, but it certainly felt different: everyone was well-informed about cancer and the potential ramifications. I had little explaining to do, and a lot of wonderful support. I no longer felt I was moving through the sludgy, invisible world of my chronic illness, instead everything became pin-sharp and bright – interwoven with a great deal of fear. I was afraid about the cyst, and about the operation. It was my first.
M.E. / CFS does not make me afraid, but it does make me feel extremely limited. I feel the illness has taken away much of my adult life. I realise this is a negative view, and that perhaps I have also learned much because of the illness. I have learned compassion, at least, for those who are in a similar situation.
The operation was not only a success, but miraculously they found no cyst, and only one fallopian tube was removed as it was severely twisted. On hearing this I felt so grateful, so very alive. I try to remember these feelings as I return to my ‘normal’, invisible illness. And that in spite of all, I am here, I am alive, and I am well enough to be writing this, for this I am truly thankful.
You know you are in trouble when you find yourself welling up after a friendly encounter with the phlebotomist.
She inserted the needle, asked me how my weekend had gone. I was lost for words – I couldn’t even remember when the weekend was let alone how it had gone. She made a commiserating sound, a little ‘Ah’. And then, don’t ask me how, we found ourselves talking about how we hated cleaning. I told her of a long-ago job as a house-cleaner, how I was very good at making a house look tidy, books patted into place, vases placed just so, a chair shifted slightly… but dust and grime remained in great swathes if you looked close enough. ‘So,’ she said, ‘You were one of those cleaners,’ and we laughed.
I left the office, and that’s when my eyes welled up. It had been days since I had a conversation with someone that wasn’t via text or Skype or cell phone.
I’ve lived a remarkably solitary life for the past nine years. Almost an extended silent retreat, but one I didn’t consciously plan.
For some of those years my partner and I lived in the countryside and, when he was away for work (which he is for 4-6 months of the year) two weeks or more could go by where the only direct contact I had with another person was the postman. We are now living in a town, on a busy street lined with little shops, but nevertheless when my partner is away, other than Skype and phone calls with friends in other countries, I have very little meaningful interaction with others.
A number of things contributed to this situation – travelling the world and living in several different countries in the past 15 years – wonderful, but not conducive to setting down roots or building a local community. Not having children. My 25+ year long chronic illness (M.E./ CFIDS/ late-stage Lyme type). In fact my health has deteriorated to the point where it’s a rare day I can go out and be engaged in activities with other people.
And, there is the fact I’m a writer, a necessarily solitary occupation for the most part.
In the first years I tried to use the time alone to my advantage. Dozens of short stories fled my fingertips, I began my novel. I developed my online community. I even started a Facebook Bosnian stray dog and cat rescue group. I wasn’t lonely. It wasn’t a problem. Perhaps I had a natural inclination towards solitude: my mother used to tell me that as a child she’d often find me in my room happily ‘contemplating my navel’. I’ve often described myself as an “anti-social social” person.
But I have become increasingly aware that I am not just frequently alone, I am lonely. Perhaps I have always been lonely, but due to the ‘well-developed coping mechanisms’ a therapist once told me I had, I have avoided this realisation.
When my mother died two years ago, sadness was so all-encompassing it was almost a friend. Over time the sadness receded, always there yes, but in the background, no longer filling my every moment.
I focused on finishing my novel. I finished my novel. What was I left with? Myself, shorn thin of coping mechanisms.
Writing can be a lonely business. Having a chronic illness is a lonely business, especially an ‘invisible’ one. Life is a lonely business. Dying is certainly a lonely business. And yet, and yet. We are together in our alone-ness and we are surely together in our desire to connect deeply with others, to feel ‘met’ and seen and understood.
So, what to do? Perhaps it begins by acknowledging what is. I started writing this blog some weeks ago, and since then there has been a delicate, tentative shift, something I can’t quite put my finger on, but it feels like a beginning. Sometimes simply letting others know how I am feeling, rather than just soldiering on, changes things. Letting people see the dust hiding behind the furniture, letting them know that while things may look OK on the surface, they are not so OK underneath. And in doing so, in taking this risk, I feel not quite so alone.
There are many articles on the “epidemic” of loneliness, so in fact I am not alone in my experience.