By Christina Baltais
This story won’t be particularly unique or shocking to anyone living with ME. Every single one of us has a plethora of stories like this, and far worse than this. It has happened so many times over the last 11 years. What shocks me is the degree to which it still occurs and manages to affect me, no matter how much time I spend trying to advocate for ME.
I was out to eat with extended family members. It was my first outing in weeks, since I had been housebound due to symptoms. An outing after a long period of solitary confinement is a rather momentous occasion. I was so grateful to be out of that bed, out of that bedroom, out of that house. The vibrant world that felt so far away, I now found myself immersed in, taking in everything around me like a grateful sponge. I was basically a bear emerging from a den after a long, long hibernation (minus any refreshing sleep).
When I sat down, the usual catch-up conversation ensued. Updates on my health eventually came up. I said that its been my first outing in quite some time after a rough patch. This statement could have been followed by words that were supportive/empowering/neutral, but it wasn’t. This family member went on to comment that I looked fine, and was sitting up just fine at the table right now. I responded by saying that sitting up was actually very difficult for me because I was experiencing a great deal of weakness, and would need to rest after this outing when I got home. This was followed by a comment indicating that if I was sitting up now, why couldn’t I find a job where all I had to do was sit up and type? Why couldn’t I look for jobs like that? Was I not even going to try? After all that schooling, was I just going to waste my life?
You have got to be kidding me. (And some other words that I can’t say.)
A long uncomfortable silence ensued. I felt the familiar pangs of shame, humiliation, and judgement by someone who not only knew nothing about ME, but who also did not want to listen. No one at the table said anything in my defence, their passive silence feeling like implied agreement. I honestly believe this person’s intent was good, but how disconnected from my experience could they possibly have been to not realize the impact of their words and the implications of their statements. I really embrace the importance of talking about my body and ME as a source of education, but the first caveat always has to be that my voice and experience is heard, valued, and respected. This was another case where it clearly had not been. For if anyone was connected to the experience of ME, they would understand the absolute hell a person goes through. The depths of despair and grief this disease drags you through; it was never a choice. The inner turmoil of having a heart that wants the world everyday, but having a body constantly saying no; you forfeit any control over the direction of your life. I chose ME just as much as the millions of people around the world chose ME; we didn’t. I realize I’m preaching to the choir. The point is, I should not have to spend an outing defending and proving in hopes of understanding. I’m not wasting any precious spoons on that. It just hurts so much, still, even after 11 years.
As human beings we all need to feel love and connection. There is a deep-seated need to feel unified, to have approval, acknowledgement, acceptance—-to feel connected with, intimate and loved by, other human beings. When you are already so physically isolated due to illness, situations that make you feel emotionally and socially isolated take it to an entirely different level. It adds another layer of suffering. As if I didn’t feel disconnected and like an outsider enough already. It’s situations like this that make me realize how much during these 11 years I have not been believed or heard. It’s situations like these that make me realize how exhausting it is to constantly be vying for the understanding of others.
What’s even harder is when it comes from family, as this one did. What’s even more disheartening is that this individual is also a doctor. When I was undergoing medical training myself, some supervisors I highly respected displayed a clear lack of understanding about ME. One spoke of how you have to wonder how much of “the behaviour” is learned as it runs in families. I was told to recommend to an ME patient that they strap on a backpack full of weights and jump on a trampoline to increase bone mineral density. It was explained to me how a new physical symptom could only be psychosomatic “as anxiety is common in that demographic so that is the only plausible explanation for that extreme symptom.” Unbeknownst to them, I had ME and these comments illuminated the presumptions, assumptions, and rampant inaccuracies perpetuated by a lack of knowledge in our medical systems. They were extremely disappointing and painful to hear, as I’ve been on the receiving end of all these assumptions and exacerbating recommendations as a patient myself. The lack of knowledge and understanding is systemic; experiencing and bearing witness to how ME has been relegated to the margins of our medical system has been traumatic.
The history of ME’s constant invalidation and abhorrent lack of research funding is disturbing. I wish people would listen. I wish they would trust our experiences and accounts of our own bodies, or in some cases, of our children’s bodies. How healing the words, “I believe you,” would would be for all of us. Sometimes, the emotional toll feels worse than the actual disease itself.
We don’t know when the pathological basis of ME will finally be understood. We should not have to wait for that, to be shown the much needed empathy and compassion which we deserve. Why it takes “proof” in order to actually listen to literally millions of voices saying the same thing over decades of time baffles me. When I think of the millions of lives lived, and some ended, in complete suffering—-without voices, it enrages me. If their suffering had been validated and acknowledged, even if treatment was still not available, would it not have made a difference? The injustice of it all enrages me. Anger is often a signal something is not working, and that means something needs to change. Change is possible and can come soon for all of us. Change needs to come especially for those of us who are unable to use their voices, or even read this.
There are many ways to get involved in creating change for health equality and ME awareness. Be a part of the #TimeforUnrest global impact campaign. This campaign advocates for more recognition, education, research, and funding around ME. You can help advocate for our voices to be heard, by hosting a screening of Unrest in your community. You can join the #TimeforUnrest Facebook group, and share and promote the campaign on social media. For more ideas on how to be a part of the change, click here.
Imagine how different the world’s perception of this disease could be; and for an end to the stigma and misconceptions we’ve all experienced. Imagine with research the pathological basis of ME understood, and treatments being offered. We can make this change happen, and we can make this change happen together.
About the author: Christina, 31, lives in Toronto, ON. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and has a fine arts background. She became ill with ME while completing her Bachelors. This inspired her to become a naturopathic medical doctor in order to better understand how to heal the body. One month before completing her medical degree, her ME progressed. She has been slowly recovering, using writing, music, art, and nature as a means for processing this experience.