The Hidden Burden of M.E.

A couple of days ago, on Severe M.E. Day, I came across this post by ‘Terry’ (pseudonym) on an M.E.-related Facebook group:

💙💜💚💙💜💚💙💜💚💙💜💚💙💜💚

I’m starting to write this at 4 o’clock in the morning. I have sleep reversal, and today, August 8th, is Severe M.E Understanding and Remembrance Day.

2 nights ago, seeking support, I posted under the title “Injured” that I had damaged my ribs, asking if anyone would be awake late, very late.
People were lovely and kind, some offering a number of solutions.

What the responses made me realise, however, is that I hadn’t done a very good job of explaining the severity of my condition generally. In fact, in crisis due to the injury, I hadn’t been able to explain anything at all.

When I joined the group, I never introduced myself and didn’t explain that I have a profoundly severe case of M.E. So, it feels a little bit like it might if one was gay and not ‘out’. Everybody’s assuming how I identify and offering solutions based on that mindset.
So, in honour of inclusivity and Severe M.E Understanding and Remembrance Day, I’m coming out, but just a little to save on your patience:

I haven’t left my home, bedroom or bed, since 1993, apart from an imposed house move, by ambulance and stretcher in 2003.
For 25 years I’ve been 100% bedbound and “bodybound” – barely able to move in the bed and only occupying two positions, either lying on my left side or propped by pillows for just long enough to eat.
At a very early point it was threatened that I would be removed from the practice list if I requested a home visit. The GPs refused to visit for 23 years “unless there was a medical need” . That is, they would come out to assess e.g a chest infection but there would be no management of my condition of severe and profound M.E.
I’ve recently actually been visited by a new GP, after the old ones retired (but only because of another acute injury) who has offered to visit me once a year. You might say ‘big deal!’ yet this one visit per year is an amazing, unprecedented and vast improvement.

I only gained access to the Internet in the spring of 2016 and find that most of the M.E groups on Facebook are solutions-orientated.
After the cumulative effects of 39 years I’m physically fragile, and exhausted beyond belief, and cannot even tolerate someone else helping. No interventions are possible.
I’m intolerant to all medication and frequently experience an inverse or idiosyncratic reaction. I’m barely able to move and can’t soak in the tub, visit a chiropractor or even apply creams designed to relieve the pain and inflammation.

Due to the severity and chronicity of my M.E I wasn’t/am not able to take any action whatsoever to alleviate or treat the extreme and acute pain caused by the injury.

The reason that I’m writing this is that, I’m sincerely glad for those who are able to follow protocols and improve their quality of life, but we need to be aware that this is not the case for everyone in the group.
There are those of us still out here for whom nothing has changed, because nothing is able to be changed.
We are invisible, ignored and sidelined and for the sake of the inclusivity of our group I’m hoping to make people living with very Severe M.E a little less invisible, once again, today.

(End of Terry’s post.)

This drastically abridged version of Terry’s situation seems to me to be eloquent evidence of:

1) how very extreme severe M.E. can be

2) the extent to which severely affected patients are – quite openly – neglected by health professionals

3) the way such patients feel they have to hide the full extent of their situation not only from people in general but even from people with M.E. who are less severely affected.

Most of us with M.E, have some experience of this feeling that we need to ‘hide away’ or ‘stay in the closet’ about our condition, usually because we can’t quite face the sheer extent of people’s ignorance about what we’re going through. In particular, we can’t face the likelihood that they’ll say something entirely inappropriate in an effort to try to be helpful and thereby trigger emotions we can ill afford the energy to experience.

How much worse must this be for those who are as severely affected as Terry, for whom the gulf of understanding is so much greater, who are even more likely to be met with jaw-dropping disbelief instead of appropriate empathy.

By and large this ignorance isn’t other people’s fault. It should be up to the health profession to inform them. But health professionals are of course the least likely to understand. They are the most likely to listen to the lies of those of their number who have built their careers on unfounded untruths about the condition. And this in turn gives them leave to neglect such patients, to ‘refuse to visit for 23 years’ as has been the case with Terry.

Also on Severe M.E. Day, the M.E. Association asked a question on its Facebook page:

If you have been severely affected by ME, or are currently severely affected, or are a carer or family member of someone severely or very severely affected, what changes would you like to see to the care that you (or the person you care for) receive from the NHS?

At the time of writing, many people have left comments or suggestions, including one from my wife Chris who has severe M.E. herself and is largely housebound but not (touch wood) bedbound for the time being. Chris wrote:

I would like to see the following charities really focus on improving things for severe ME people & lobbying NHS England for this.
The NICE guidelines do nothing for the severely affected….
I am thinking of a working collaborative of the MEA, Invest in ME, Tymes Trust, The ME Trust..working with each other & the 25% Group. (I have not included Action for ME because they are not trusted by many patients, ESPECIALLY THE SEVERELY AFFECTED owing to their close collaboration with the biopsychosocial NHS clinics & Esther Crawley).

1. to establish a dedicated flying squad of well informed, trained & compassionate health care professionals in each region of the country
2. to establish the exact numbers & a directory /database of people severely affected,
3.to visit severe ME patients WHO CANNOT TRAVEL even to any centres which are set up…
4. to provide help/ palliative care to them in their own beds at home
5. to liaise with their GPs/Social Services/carers etc

Such an initiative would not be ‘solutions-oriented’. The health professionals would not be trained to expect the patients to be up and about after a few months of encouragement. But they would be willing to assess and acknowledge the terrible situation in which so many severely affected find themselves, to allow them to be as they are without fear of blame, and to shine a light on the heavy burden such patients have had to carry, while the money which should have been spent on research to address the physical roots of their illness has been squandered instead on desperate attempts to justify exercise programmes.

If you agree with Chris’s suggestion or have some ideas of your own about what can be done to improve things for the severely affected, you can still respond on the MEA Facebook page. The post was on 8 August at 8-25 am.

Thanks to Terry for permission to repost their thoughts.

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Looking at the Evidence

As you may know, a few days ago the Journal of Health Psychology published a very important special issue critiquing in depth the controversial, deeply flawed PACE Trial, a study which purported to provide evidence for the use of graded exercise and a very specific type of CBT in the treatment of ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known – misleadingly – as chronic fatigue syndrome or CFS). Congratulations to the journal’s editor Prof David F Marks for taking the trouble to inform himself about the true situation regarding ME. He is one of very few scientists and health professionals who despite having no personal or pre-existing professional interest in the condition has made the effort to look at the facts and realise that – unlikely as it may seem to many – the PACE Trial and similar ‘research’ into ME by those with a fixed biopsychosocial mindset really is every bit as flawed, misleading and potentially damaging as patients have been claiming for years. Dr David Tuller, Prof James Coyne, and Prof Jonathan Edwards are other rare free thinkers who have not been afraid to get informed and challenge the status quo – or to put it another way, to point out that the emperor is naked because that is what he is.

By contrast, those who persist in defending PACE give the impression that they have simply taken the word of the PACE investigators rather than study the actual evidence. Prof Malcolm Macleod, who was trotted out by the Science Media Centre as an ‘expert’ in response to the special issue, seemed only aware of one of PACE’s many flaws and seemed to base his defence of the study chiefly on the ‘doubtful provenance’ of some of its critics. It is another example of people being judged on the basis of who they are, rather than what they say or where the truth lies.

As for Prof George Davey Smith, who left the JHP’s editorial board in protest at the PACE-related special issue, he seemed to positively gloat about his ignorance of ME at last year’s CMRC conference, this in spite of his involvement with the much vaunted though controversial MEGA study, and even referred to it as CSF rather than CFS, apparently mixing up chronic fatigue syndrome with cerebrospinal fluid.

Speaking on Twitter, David F Marks described his disappointment that George Davey Smith did not ‘offer a pro-PACE commentary instead of leaving in a huff’. He (Marks) has offered to debate with PACE supporters in a public forum at any time. I don’t suppose he’ll get any takers. That would put them to the trouble of actually sitting down and informing themselves of the true situation.

Marks, meanwhile, has studied the facts and has drawn his own conclusion. He says: ‘“The many wrongs committed by psychiatry and medicine to the ME/CFS community can only be righted when the Pace trial is ultimately seen for what it is: a disgraceful confidence trick to reduce patient compensation payments and benefits.’ To which I would add: ‘also an exercise to try to protect the reputations of a small number of health professionals who have built their illustrious careers on the back of an unproven ‘biopsychosocial hypothesis’.

Meanwhile the proponents of PACE continue to take the cream of the research money here in the UK, so inhibiting much-needed biomedical progress; unsuspecting patients are given potentially damaging courses of graded exercise; and the number of parents threatened with ME-related child custody proceedings appears to be spiralling upwards, all this fuelled by the unproven biopsychosocial hypothesis.

As The Times article reported with great relish, James Coyne allegedly called the departing Davey-Smith ‘a disgusting old fart neoliberal hypocrite’. This may seem a little harsh but if language like that helps to get the truth about PACE in the newspapers, then so be it as far as I am concerned. And in view of the human suffering which underlies the farce that is PACE, perhaps such language is restrained.

Note: David Tuller’s response to the Science Media Centre’s ‘expert comments’ on the JHP special issue is here.