I have always been a very sociable person. Not in the sense of I have a 100 best friends who I couldn’t live without. Not in the sense of loving to go clubbing until dawn every weekend (in my early twenties definitely but not in the last ten years or so). I am sociable in the sense that I need to interact with people. I need to sit and chat, debate, discuss, laugh with people. I think I would struggle to live in a world where I never saw anyone but myself and my husband.
My world has narrowed considerably over the last number of months. I no longer work so that social interaction has disappeared. I do still try and meet friends at the weekend but usually for no more than 40mins (although I managed 90mins yesterday!). My neighbours are all quite old and don’t really socialise, at least not with me. My closest friends live many hours away from me. My family live in Ireland and my in-laws live many hours away as well. So my world has narrowed considerably although not quite to it just being my husband and myself.
What I have noticed though in myself is an increasing awareness about what others might think of me. Most of the time it is irrelevant. When I’m hanging off a wall because I’m too tired to keep walking, I don’t really care if people think I’m drunk or crazy. I do wish they would ask if I’m okay though, there have been days where I hoped somebody would help me walk the last couple of minutes home. Strangers can think what they like.
The thing that really matters is how your friends and family interact with you. This has been done before but I thought my audience included people with no knowledge of M.E. so I too should include this important information: the dos and don’ts of interacting with me as a friend or family member.*
Let’s start with the Don’ts
1. Don’t tell me just because I look good the day you see me, “you look so much healthier, isn’t it great you’re getting better!” It’s not that I don’t want that to happen but if you don’t know the full story, you don’t know what I’ve had to do to look so good that day – slept all day in preparation, rested repeatedly whilst doing my make-up. It annoys me because it makes me feel you are belittling a genuine biological illness. I know you don’t mean to but it’s how I feel.
2. Don’t make parallels between myself and somebody who has ‘recovered’ unless you genuinely understand my illness and theirs. Unless you know the full picture and tell me it, how can I really be inspired by it?
3. After talking to me about how I’ve had to reduced my activities substantially just to get by, don’t tell me that you know x inspirational person who has M.E. but they have children or a job (which you don’t) and have to push on through and they’re doing well. Pushing on through will delay my remission and you don’t know their full picture, you don’t know what they have to do to appear to ‘push on through’ successfully!
4. Don’t ignore me, I know you sometimes don’t know what to say because you don’t understand what’s wrong. That’s okay, I still don’t thoroughly understand what is going on so how can I expect you to?
5. Don’t remain ignorant of M.E., do a little bit of research. You won’t truly understand my day to day life but at least you’ll get an inkling.
6. Don’t suggest that I’m lazy. Think about it, was I lazy before this began?
7. Don’t be afraid to ask me lots of details about what is wrong. If it helps you to understand and to give me support, why would that be problem?
8. Don’t be upset or annoyed if I cut our meeting short. I really appreciate that you may have gone out of your way to meet me. I really appreciate that you assumed we’d spend more time together. Understand though that if we do, I will become quite ill and pay for it later.
9. Don’t offer me advice unless it is thoroughly researched. I know more about this illness than you do. You don’t recover from this in the same way as other Chronic Fatigue illnesses. I find it upsetting that you think there is an easy answer that would have made me better already.
10. Don’t pressurise me into exercise or try and get me to be more active. Being more active unless very carefully managed can make me very ill. I know you’re used to an increase in exercise levels being crucial to somebody’s improving health. It’s not the case for us.
11. Don’t tell me that you know what it is like to be as tired as I am because you’ve had a long day at work. Be honest, you don’t know what it is like unless you suffer from a chronic debilitating fatigue related illness. I don’t want to undermine your sense of being exhausted and I don’t mind you saying you’re exhausted but don’t say everyday tiredness is the same as my fatigue!
1. Do assume I’m telling you the truth about my illness. Think about the type of person I was before I got ill – am I really crazy or lazy?
2. Do assume I need more support than I say. Offer to help around the house or simply offer to make the tea when you visit. It is then my choice to take you up on that. Understand though my sense of dignity makes me hate to accept help. Keep asking though, I’ve noticed that my sense of dignity doesn’t care so much anymore.
3. Watch how I look, if I start to go pale, lose words, seem to lose focus, tell me. Ask if I would like you to go as I look like I’m getting tired. That way you don’t just leave making me feel that I’ve done something wrong also you might be making me aware of my increasing tiredness that I’ve not noticed because I’m really enjoying your company.
4.If you’ve done lots of research into M.E. and have had long conversations with me about how I experience the illness, do share what you’ve learnt. We more or less have to deal with this illness alone without medical support. Why shouldn’t you discover the thing that will help me if you know as much as I do about the illness?
5. Do offer me your non-judgemental comfort through your words, actions or touch.
6. Do try and make arrangements to see me in a way that you think will make it as easy as possible for me. Ask me if these arrangements are okay. I hate to have to ask someone to change what they’ve planned because I can’t cope with it. I’d prefer to tell you we don’t have to do coffee at home, instead we can walk into town together. I will really appreciate you trying to make life easier for me.
7.Do stick by me, I hope to not always be like this even though I might. I may not always be an easy friend to have but I will always try and be your friend.
As a teacher I always try and show children that life is not only about rights but ALSO responsibilities so this is what I need to try and do.
My dos and don’ts
1. Don’t get upset by what people say unless I consider first whether it was meant nastily or just said through ignorance.
2. Do ask for help when needed.
3. Do accept that some people (such as my husband) know me better that I do and I should accept that they often know what I should do before I do.
4. Try not to let every conversation be about my illness. I know it’s the only thing that really matters in my life anymore but it’s easy for other people to get sick of a one track conversation. Equally, it’s not good for me to only think about one thing.
5. Do accept that people’s lives go on without me and their failure to keep in contact with me, although upsetting, may not be because they have forgotten about me but because they have full lives that have to go on in my absence.
6. Don’t always assume that my friends should contact me. I know I worry about being a burden to them and they may not want to speak to me but I won’t know that until I try. Friendship is a two way street after all.
7. Do accept that my friends and families don’t mind if you cry on their shoulders and rant at them about the medical profession. They are my friends and family after all. Also accept that if I never share the negative things then they will worry that I’m hiding the things that worry me. This will worry them!
My best friend, Sarah said the other day that I have to ‘learn to be ill’. Sarah was ill for much of her life and so knows what she’s talking about. Our friends and families need to also learn how to cope with having an ill person in their lives.
When you were in school did you find every subject as easy? Did all the students learn at the same rate? Of course they didn’t, as long as our friends and family are learning how to cope, we have to be patient. Is this not just part of our learning to be ill too?
* this is my viewpoint, others may thoroughly disagree based on their own personal experience, illness or understanding.