It’s been a while since I wrote about how I’m coping with having an invisible illness. I’ve now been formally diagnosed with ME/CFS which was both a relief and a worry. A relief because I can now answer questions definitively about what is “wrong” but also a fear because part of me really didn’t want it to be ME. I wanted it to be something curable, treatable…for someone to be able to ‘fix’ me.
I’ve been using social media much more to promote my blog lately and as we all know, social media portrays an image of people that doesn’t always reflect the honesty of your reality. Some people that I follow who have ME are truly brave and use their accounts to show the reality of daily life living with ME, but I don’t. I guess I don’t because I try to keep as many aspects of my life positive and happy in order to keep myself as pepped up as possible. There is nothing wrong with either but my option does then cause problems. By posting a photo that shows me out, smiling, laughing, with people, posting positive etc etc it would appear there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not opposed to the odd selfie but I also don’t always feel comfortable to show reality through them, my space for being honest is here in my writing.
But what I want to write about in this post is the story behind the social media photos. Photos give you a snap shot. Take for example the photo below.
This was taken on Friday evening at a surprise party for my ex head teacher and friend. I was picked up at 7pm…well 6.45 as Olivia was EARLY!…the party started at 8pm and my Dad picked me up at 9.30. In the photo I am laughing, surrounded by some of my loveliest friends, drink in hand, having a ball. And I was. In that moment I was happy, I was with people who accept me for who I am, support me through what I’m going through and understand my limitations. To many people though they will see this photo and possibly think the following:
- Hannah is out, she tells us she’s in bed by 9pm
- Hannah is dressed up and out at night when she tells us she struggles with noise and busy places
- Hannah tells us she is in constant pain and can’t do very much let alone go out with friends
Now, I will tell you the reality behind that photo. I haven’t been out in the evening in a party situation since July last year and on very few occasions have been out for a meal in the evenings, so Friday was a big deal. I was anxious about going and I spent most of the afternoon trying to nap to have enough spoons to cope and calming myself down in anticipation. When we arrived it was much louder than I’d imagined it would be. I put my ear plugs in straight away but soon realised that because it was so loud, music plus ear plugs meant I couldn’t hear a word anyone was saying! So I spent the entirety of the few hours I was there with an increasingly banging headache and fuzzy head. I loved those few hours, but I also felt so self-conscious. I was literally the only bald person in the room, I felt like the light was catching my head or that people were staring at me and I certainly didn’t want to be in any photos. I felt hideous, I didn’t feel feminine, I felt ugly and awful and the worst I’ve ever felt about myself. So that photo was me putting on the biggest show of my life in a way – I was happy but would have been happier to not have been captured in that moment. By the time Dad collected me I was done. My legs, knees and back were throbbing, my ears were ringing to the extent I felt like I was shouting when talking to him in the car on the way home and my head was pounding. As I lay in bed that night it was like I was drunk (I only had diet coke!) my head was whirring, my legs cramping and having spasms, my knees seizing. I finally fell asleep at around 8am. That is the reality behind what it took for me to be at that party for two and a half hours.
I’m 31 in a few weeks. I should have been there with my friends on Friday until 1am dancing, drinking a Malibu and coke and being the one snapping the photos like I have always been known to do. I should be looking back on my 30th year and have it littered with good memories of adventures, holidays, milestones and happy times. Instead, it’s a year of appointments, medications, blood tests and sleep. Of course I have had happy times in the year but I think you know what I mean. I feel like a shadow of my former self and I find myself needing to defend how I feel because of photos like the one I’ve talked about. I refuse to not post those photos because otherwise I will not have any memory of these years, in effect I will be missing from these years of my life. There’s a campaign called ‘Millions Missing’ that promotes ME. It talks about how people who have ME are missing from their jobs, social lives, holidays, families..we can’t participate in life in the way we used to but we are still here, we still make the most of what we can when we can. Last year they organised a protest in Whitehall and various other places across the world where people left pairs of shoes to demonstrate how they were missing from their lives because of ME and protesting for the fact that more needs to be done in terms of research and greater funding needed from the government to help people understand the illness more and treat it and it’s sufferers better and with more care and consideration.
I have been talking to a dear friend this afternoon about this but also about mental health and the similarities that we share. Mental health is also an invisible illness. Just because we had a good day or hour or five minutes yesterday, doesn’t mean we will today or tomorrow or next week. Mental health and ME are fluctuating conditions with no rhyme or reason, no straight path or definitive ending. They are illnesses that need understanding and for people to simply say, “I believe you.”
I find it hard when I see people who say, “You’re looking so well,” or “You’re looking so much better than when I saw you last,” because it makes me feel like a fraud. I feel like I need to defend myself and explain that it’s a hidden illness and looks can be deceiving. If I could wear a wig and pop on some make up I would look totally and utterly fine but I’m not. I feel embarrassed to have to then explain that I’m not actually feeling great but, “thank you for saying I’m looking good.” I know whole heartily that these people are probably being really genuine and kind – it’s my issue not there’s, I should be thrilled to be told I’m looking well. But because of my personality, I worry that they think I’ve been having them on. My positive attitude and positive mask can work against me in that way because people come to believe it and don’t question it. I saw a friend the other day and we talked about how I am, the loss of my nose hair (!) and everything else in-between but when I saw her again on Friday night she said something that made me smile from inside out. She said that when she got in the car to drive away the other day, she thought about me and what we’d talked about but then she wanted me to know she thought, Hannah is still the same as she’s always been to me. Wicked sense of humour, same old laugh and smile and sense of caring for everyone. To hear that being said so genuinely meant so much, it wasn’t focused on how I looked, or all the changes in me that have occurred, it was a comment about me as Hannah.
Living with an invisible illness is teaching me so much and I’m sure there’s more to come. It’s such a debilitating condition that is stripping me of so much of what I consider my identity. And there’s no end in sight especially when the only recommended “treatment” of a course of CBT is a waiting period of 4-6 months! So, I will continue to try to test different ways to cope and pace myself, I will deal with the ups and downs, I will continue to try and like myself and my appearance, I will try and start to accept that I can’t drive or have much independence and I will continue to strive to stay positive.
It’s a lonely place in this little arena, my bedroom and little writing area are my safe place but they are also lonely. It accentuates the fact that I’m not in a busy classroom or planning for nights and days or even weekends out. But it means that when I do see my friends or I do go out with my family that I don’t take it for granted. I savour every moment even though it may hurt and will inevitably wipe me out for hours, days or nights after. Because at the end of the day, whether I like it or not, this is my life and I will still only get one shot at it. If and when I get better there won’t be a rewind button.
So as with so many of these blog posts, I leave you with this thought: many people you know or will meet may have so much going on in their lives that isn’t visible to you. So be kind and patient and understanding. Give them time, give them a smile and possibly some chocolate…every little helps!!
See you Friday.