When it comes to a fight, we instinctively know how to handle ourselves. Even if we don't have a good punch, we know enough to get ourselves out of danger. But what happens when what you're fighting with is inside you and for every punch you throw, it kicks your arse ten times as hard? I didn't know the answer to that, either, but I had to figure it out pretty quick.
At fifteen I got very ill. And I don’t mean in a cough, cough, snuffle, snuffle kind of way. I was a teenager like any other: facing my exams at school; constantly on the go; I loved exercising and moving and dancing.
Then something changed. It was only something small at first, almost inconsequential. A little shift inside me, a very gradual decline. Getting things done got a bit harder, I needed more sleep than usual, my joints ached in the cold and I always felt sickly. I kept pulling muscles, getting hurt, catching bugs. It was stress, most likely, I was putting too much pressure on myself for those target grades. I just had to get through the exams. The summer holidays would straighten me out, that long stretch of rest and no responsibilities. I’d be bright as a button in no time.
Yeah … it didn’t quite work out like that.
Looking back now, I can see all the warning signs my body gave me. The subtle and not so subtle nuances that hinted it was buckling under the strain. It wasn’t an average response to stress, it wasn’t teenage laziness. In the month that spanned August and September 2006, I went from being life’s biggest fidget, a person who preferred to eat standing up because I hated sitting still, to a wheelchair.
No joke, a fucking wheelchair.
The first time my legs buckled underneath me, it was terrifying. I remember sitting on the floor and gawking at my limbs like I’d just grown another one. That time, I got back up. The next time, I had to climb up the furniture to make it to my feet. The time after that, I needed someone to lift me. Until eventually, I couldn’t get back up. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t bear any weight on my legs at all.
And the worst part … no one knew why.
I went to six doctors, if they didn’t shrug their shoulders they told me I had growing pains. Useless, frustrating, emotionally draining experiences. It was actually a neighbor of a friend, who paused in the motion of getting into her car to instead watch me fruitlessly fighting my new immobility that gave me an answer. “See an ME specialist,” she said. Once it was pointed out to them, the doctors sagely agreed.
I’ve had it now for eight years and I know it almost as well as I know myself. That’s a feat, considering the blinding enigma of an illness Chronic Fatigue is. This year I turn twenty four, and this year I get my life back. After brutal pain, fatigue, frustration, prejudice, painkillers, ambulances, hospitals, blood tests, collapses, relapses, sweat, tears and falling flat on my face more times than I can count; I can see the exit sign blinking at me in the near distance.
It has been a long, bastard road and it’s by no means over but that pin sized spot of light I’ve been chasing in the dark for almost a decade is now glorious sunshine. It feels really kind of nice. Last week, I handed back my disabled badge and I banned myself from walking with a stick. Yes, it hurts more but as the saying goes … no pain, no gain.
Walking about the supermarket like any other person there, I was struck by a sudden realization: I have been reborn as a functional citizen, a human being. I’m no longer a pool of bones with a heartbeat, a mind trapped in the weakness of a body. Life has possibilities, life has scale and expanse. I don’t have to restrain myself from dreaming those big ass dreams for fear of disappointment; whatever I want to do is out there somewhere, waiting for me to chase after it. But whatever it is I achieve in the future, getting through the worst of what this illness can throw at a person will always be one of my biggest achievements.
So why am I telling you this? No, this isn’t a sob story, I really don’t want or need pity … in fact I couldn’t think of anything worse. Truth is, I’m sharing because feeling like I can close the Chronic Fatigue door over behind me has made me strangely reflective. It’s not like a race, you don’t get to burst through the tape with your arms held aloft in a dramatic ‘huzzah, I’m better’ moment. I still have this illness after all. I have it collared and leashed now, it sits and gives paw and everything, but it’s still got teeth and a hell of a bite.
But in the wake of recovery, I’m acutely aware of everything the last eight years has taught me. Countless lessons. I feel as though it’s time to pull on my bravest pants and talk about them. You never know, there might be someone out there that needs to know that dot of light will get brighter, will get closer. I know I sure as shit could have done with that in the beginning.
So lesson one in what Chronic Fatigue taught me: life may be crap at times, it may seem disgustingly unfair but whatever we’re dealt, we’re capable of handling. The panacea to the disease infecting our happiness lies inside us. We can get through it, but it’s down to us to figure out how.