The Vale of Strange

The Shop on Peculiar Hill Cover

You may wonder what that picture’s doing here and what that title ‘The Vale of Strange’ is about. It should all become clear as this post progresses. But I think you will agree that ‘The Vale of Strange’ sounds like a fair description of where we find ourselves when we’re trying to argue the case for a better deal for people with M.E. When we’re trying our best to set out the facts as clearly and concisely as possible, yet finding that many of those in positions of power seem to have little regard for the truth, preferring to stick with what their colleagues in command tell them they must believe, rather than study the evidence for themselves.

Writing here back in June about the review of the NICE Guidelines for ME/CFS, I said “it’s anyone’s guess what will happen when the interminable review is finally completed in 2020 – though the smart punters would probably put their money on CBT and GET remaining in favour”.

Unfortunately subsequent events have suggested that those ‘smart punters’ would be right. The choice of personnel for the committee which will review the guidelines, including as it does many who appear to be wedded to the use of CBT and GET, while omitting many of those who hold the opposite view, suggests that I was being unduly optimistic when I spoke of it being ‘anyone’s guess what will happen’. When you see an old, dilapidated truck heading for the edge of a cliff, controlled by a committee of drivers, about half of whom want the vehicle to maintain its present course, you don’t have to think too carefully to predict what happens next.

Of course, there are some excellent people on the committee; there are just not enough of them. There are, as I say, far too many who have supported GET and CBT over the years, who have bought into the unproven, ill-founded biopsychosocial theory of ME. Some people, including at least one voice I usually respect, have tried to excuse the inclusion of these GET apologists on the grounds of the need for ‘balance’. But what kind of balance would this be?

Just to recap what most of you reading this will already be well aware of: CBT and GET, as referred to in PACE, are potentially harmful therapies which emerge from the unproven biopsychosocial theory of M.E., while PACE, the largest trial purporting to support this approach, has been widely debunked and discredited. A series of letters have been sent to The Lancet, the Journal which published the Trial, the latest signed by almost two hundred scientific and medical organisations and prominent individuals, all calling for an independent reanalysis of the trial. It is perhaps an example of the arrogance of those who consider themselves to be part of a clique whose pedigree places it above such matters as truth and falsehood, right and wrong, that they have not felt obliged to respond.

And given our current state of knowledge about M.E., the only reason that a NICE Guideline committee split between those for and against GET can be said to represent ‘balance’ is because those who have lost the argument refuse to accept defeat.

Deep down somewhere, even the PACE team know that the data has been reassessed, the argument is over and they have lost. They know that an independent reassessment will come out against them, which is why they are making sure their friends will not allow it. Not only have they lost the argument, they have – in a metaphorical sense – thrown their toys out of the buggy and are sitting there sulking. But in such a way that isn’t obvious to those in the ruling clique who have never taken the time and trouble to understand about PACE.

The PACE apologists don’t engage with the facts any more. They make statements which appear to do so, yet they are simply repeating the same old tired phrases which lost the argument last time around. Michael Sharpe’s performances on Twitter have been a perfect example of this: making a statement here and there, cherry picking which tweets to engage with and which to ignore; not submitting any kind of joined up, reasoned argument, just giving a studied impression of what he hopes will seem like a reasonable man.

To talk about ‘balance’ in the NICE committee is going along with this charade of pretending the argument isn’t over. It gives the impression of representing both sides of a finely balanced discussion. But this isn’t how things are. To the extent that it is a balance, it is only between right and wrong, between truth and lies, between the proven and the groundless. That, surely, is no kind of balance at all.

   *     *     *

The patient community have made impressive efforts to make known their dissatisfaction with the proposed personnel for the guidelines committee. Among all the other many patient advocates, I was invited to take part and I can only apologise for my total lack of response. The reason for that will become clear very shortly. Obviously, I am coming late to the party on this and a lot of representations have already been made, but it is worth my mentioning a new initiative by M.E. Action, encouraging patients to send a Christmas card to NICE staff telling them why those who have championed the ideas and treatments that have harmed the community should not be writing the guideline that will influence treatment for decades to come. I shall certainly be participating in this and I encourage you to do the same.

So what have I been doing the last few months? I think the best way to answer that is to say ‘something else’.

One of the most wearing things about being an M.E, patient advocate (for want of a better word) is the need for constant repetition, of having to make the same valid points over and over again in the hope that someone will listen. This can get to you after a while, and in recent times I have tried to balance writing this blog with writing other things, just for the sake of my sanity,  which is why there have been fewer posts this year than previously.

One of the things I did was to go back to writing some children’s fantasy stories which I had previously put to one side due to the disinclination of British literary agents to have anything to do with them. Now I decided I would try self-publishing them, and so was happily surprised when a few months ago, by a serendipitous turn of events which I won’t go into right now, a small American publisher, Journey Fiction, offered me a contract for the books…

The title of the series, you may now have guessed, is The Vale of Strange and the first volume, The Shop on Peculiar Hill, was published on 1 December. Should you be interested, you can find out more about the books on Amazon or at www.grimlydarkwood.com  They’re best described as humorous adventure stories and are aimed at the age range 8 to 12 but I’m doing my best to convince adults that they will like them too. Indeed, I’m happy to say that most of the adults who’ve tried the first book  do seem to like it. The Shop on Peculiar Hill is available in both paperback and electronic form at Amazon and other online retailers. Just search for my pseudonym ‘Grimly Darkwood’ or follow these links: Amazon UK    Amazon.com US

So that’s why this post is entitled The Vale of Strange and why there’s a rather strange picture up at the head of it. I hope you will forgive me for writing about these books on this occasion – I won’t make a habit of hijacking the blog in this way. In any case, most of my writing and campaigning about M.E., the blog included, is going to have to be put on hold – or at least on go-slow – for the time being. There’s no way I can both do that and write and publish fiction, not and maintain the level of health – or more accurately, ill health – that I have at the moment. Yet fiction is something I’ve wanted to do all my life, so I don’t want to pass up on this new and unexpected opportunity l’ve been given.

I would like to be able to tell you that the book is about M.E., perhaps a metaphorical quest to slay an insidious dragon, but I’m afraid it isn’t, not ostensibly. Nevertheless, it’s a children’s fantasy story so it will never be a million miles away from the antics of those who believe that patients shown to be made demonstrably worse by exercise can exercise their way back to health. The story also involves a population being very misled by the authorities about a matter which could have a serious impact on their health and well being, so some people might reach the conclusion that it *is*  about ME  after all.

If you would like to take a look at the book to see if you agree, or indeed for any other reason, then of course I shall be be delighted. You can buy the book and read the reviews at the links I gave above. Or if you prefer to ‘try before you buy’, there are free sample chapters here. Do write and tell me what you think, and if you are able to leave a review on Amazon, then so much the better.

As for this blog, I’m hoping to do one final post here to round up my series on ‘medically unexplained symptoms’, one which makes an important connection I feel needs attention. After that, perhaps occasional posts will be possible. We shall see…

I’m pleased to observe that the ME community is more active and organised than ever before so I don’t feel that one more blogger will be missed all that much. Even so, I do feel guilty to leave others to shoulder the yoke of repetition that has started to drive me so crazy. I’m just glad there are those of you who are willing to take it on, including those who were doing it long before I arrived and will be doing it after I ‘m gone. Tom Kindlon is a name which springs to mind but there are many others, typing away day after day, week after week, matching the intransigent determination of those who have lied – and continue to lie – about M.E. with their own intransigent repetition of the truth.

It’s a hard slog, but I’m sure that truth will triumph in the end.

 

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An Offer You Can’t Refuse

In the previous post about the NICE Guidelines revision, it was reported that Prof Mark Baker of NICE had raised the issue of the right of patients to refuse treatment, in this case with CBT and GET in mind. Steve, who frequently contributes to this blog, left the following response in the comments, pointing out that our system does not in reality allow patients this choice. I think it is – unfortunately – spot on, so I’m giving it a post of its own by airing it again here.

Over to Steve:

It is being rather naïve or even ‘economical with the truth’ to say that patients are at liberty to decline offers of CBT/GET (or any other treatment). In reality, you are being made an offer you *can’t* refuse, whether this is theoretically allowed or not.

The least that will happen is that your notes will be marked that you are uncooperative and ‘refused’ treatment. By this simple method, every NHS person you meet thereafter is likely to be wary of you, or even downright prejudiced against you, and you will go to the back of the queue for everything you ask for, and any time you turn up at A&E.

Furthermore, even if you say you will go along with the treatment even though you do not hold out much hope that it is of any use, you can then be listed as ‘treatment resistant’, by which ploy the ‘therapists’ and their ‘treatment’ are absolved of responsibility when you fail to improve.

Another favourite patient dissing habit is to say that you ‘deny’ having such and such a symptom, rather than that you don’t have it: anything to make the patient look bad.

The patient really cannot win, any more than they could going up against the Mafia: You cannot refuse.

(Recently, I tried to endure yet another gastroscopy without anaesthetic. I’ve managed this several times before, but this time I could not stop my stomach flinching against the scope in a way that was likely to be doing damage, so I had to signal them to stop. This was logged as a refusal, despite me having been told to do this if there was a problem, at the start of the procedure.)

In the worst case scenario – if your reputation is particularly bad, from trying too hard to get help to get better – any hint of a ‘refusal’ can be used as a pretext for having you sectioned in order to make you take the ‘treatment’. This actually happened to me even though I had previously organised, on my own instigation, CBT with a Kings’ therapist, but my local PCT had refused to fund it! I had also organised a bed at the then Queens, Romford, inpatient unit, but the PCT had refused to fund that either. After over three years wasted in the local psychiatric services, I was thrown out (though I knew I was too ill), with the advice that I should try the unit at Romford – which had closed down two years before, for lack of patients, due to PCTs not referring out of area! You could not make this stuff up. :/

So: while, in the ideal world, patients may, without prejudice, exercise a right to refuse, in *this* world. they will be scapegoated for life, and, quite possibly, even worse.

Steve has subsequently shared a bit more with me about his experience as a (wrongly diagnosed) patient in the mental health system:

Another point I didn’t make about the right to refuse, was what happens once you are admitted to a mental health facility: Everyone is supposed to have a ‘care plan’ that they have to agree to follow, but these are more like confessions they try to trick you into signing, than anything designed to help the patient.
 You are supposed to come up with compromise plans of things you can do and things you can’t, but, if you say you can’t do something, they just treat it as non-cooperation, no matter how clearly you explain the reason. Most of the time, in my case, it was because they did not agree that my physical illness was real, so, if I said I couldn’t hoover because it left me gasping for breath, I was refusing treatment — even if I’d been doing it all the time I could get breath.
These ‘care plans’ also get personal about what ‘I agree to do‎.’ They are like what we used to have to do in detentions at school when given ‘lines’ to write as punishment. In my case they stated that I was a hypochondriac, every time. And every time, I wrote on the form that I could not sign because I was not a hypochondriac and signing a false confession would make a liar out of me. Nevertheless, the forms still went forward as ‘evidence’ of my ‘treatment resistance’ and ‘non-cooperation’.
Even if I pushed myself to do an exercise program that I worked out for myself: when I got so far, and then, inevitably, came the crash, all my progress and ‘cooperation’ up to that point, was as nothing, and I was‎ ‘resisting treatment’ all along.
You really can’t win if you are physically ill in a mental unit. Whether you try to cooperate or not, if you are physically ill, you will always end up put down as a trouble-maker when you can’t do the physical things that the actually mentally ill people around you can do.
Your reputation precedes you wherever you go, and as soon as nurses and other staff look at your notes, you are likely to be greeted with a scowl, unless you are very clearly in serious trouble that they can see you aren’t faking or imagining.
Steve goes on to say that things have improved since he got a better GP, which goes to show how important your GP’s attitude can be. The expertise (or otherwise) of GPs concerning ME has been the subject of much of my Twitter feed recently. I may continue that discussion in the next post here…

The NICE Guidelines – Starting Again?

N.B. Please sign the NICE Guidelines Committee petition – see below.

There was some encouraging feedback from the recent NICE ME/CFS Guidelines Stakeholder meeting, an early milestone in the long process of revising the guidelines. But was such encouragement justified? I wasn’t there myself, so I am grateful to those who attended on our behalf. Blogger and patient advocate Sally Burch reported that Guidelines Director Prof Mark Baker declared: “We’re going to tear it up and start again. We won’t allow it to look the same” while Prof Jonathan Edwards reported as follows (writing in the Science for ME forum):

“What intrigued me most was the elephant in the room – the reason why we were there at all, which was not mentioned once by the speakers from the floor and I suspect hardly at all even in the groups – the need to remove recommendations for CBT and GET. It nevertheless became clear that the NICE staff were absolutely clear that this was why we were there and that they had taken on board that this was not an issue for a few minority activists but essentially for all patients. At our table the facilitator said ‘I presume everyone here is agreed on that’ – despite the fact that a paediatrician and an occupational therapist were present who I suspect may not have realised this was why we were there and for whom these remained standard practice”.

All this talk of ‘tearing it up’ and scrapping CBT and GET was less in evidence however, in the letters which Prof Baker exchanged with Kathleen MCCall (who was representing the Trustees of Invest in ME). Writing in advance of the Stakeholder meeting, Prof Baker wrote: “I appreciate that the existing recommendations are a matter of concern to some patients and groups and we will give some consideration to whether we need to modify or omit any of the existing recommendations during the development of the new guideline”.

This does not exactly sound like ‘tearing up and starting again’ so when the feedback from the meeting emerged, Invest in ME wrote again to question the discrepancies. This time, Prof Baker’s response was of particular interest. He wrote:

“I did indeed say that we will fully replace the guideline and start again…. However, it does not mean that we reject everything that is in the current guideline.”

So this sounds like parts of the guidelines are to be torn up then reinstated, which is easy enough with a roll of sticky tape but a bit confusing for those trying to gauge the mood music at NICE. Prof Baker goes on to explain:

“The problem is, I believe, in the unthinking and ill-informed manner in which the recommendations are imposed on people for whom they are not intended and/or not suitable… I was struck by some of the stories at the workshop about the misuse of the current recommendations and the disturbing extent to which they are imposed on people who are unlikely to benefit from them and for whom alternative approaches would be sensible… The current wording makes clear that patient agreement is required but I imagine that consent is not usually sought and that patients are not considered to have rights to refuse (which they invariably do have in fact).”

So it seems that Prof Baker is at least convinced of the need to safeguard severely ill patients, who do indeed all too often have GET imposed upon them – in clear violation of the existing guidelines. This crucial change is to be encouraged, of course, as is the need for all patients to be informed they have the right to refuse treatment. How exactly this is to be achieved is another matter however. As “the current wording makes clear that patient agreement is required”, what do you do to ensure such agreement is sought? Perhaps the addition of the words “we really mean it this time” in bold print would do the trick. The wholesale removal of GET from the guidelines would be more effective, I suspect, but to judge by Prof Baker’s letter to Invest in ME, that doesn’t appear to be on offer.

He says: “scrapping the entire guideline now would be massively counter-productive as it would almost certainly result in the withdrawal of the already dwindling number of services available to people with ME. Therefore, a rather more limited approach would be required to protect what is good whilst modifying what may be harmful”.

So in spite of saying he wants to tear the whole thing up and start again, Prof Baker clearly believes that bits of it are good and need to be protected. I can’t avoid the growing suspicion that these bits might include CBT and GET. Indeed, if not CBT and GET then what? A large part of our problem is that when it comes down to what purports to be ‘evidence-based’, there isn’t anything else. Of course the ‘evidence’ for CBT and GET is extremely unconvincing, as David Tuller and others have illustrated time and again, and the reason there isn’t the evidence for anything else is that CBT and GET – and the misapprehension about the condition which their adoption has brought into being – have effectively put paid to biophysical research for many decades. This sad circumstance may give us the moral high ground – from the perspective of those who understand – but it doesn’t actually help.

As Jonathan Edwards puts it: “All in all it seems to me that something important has been achieved but there is still more work to do. NICE are very clear that the great majority of patients believe that CBT and GET are worse than useless. They realise that a committee must not be made up entirely of psychiatrists. However, when the committee comes to look at the evidence the only evidence for treatments working they will find will be on CBT and GET. It is going to be hard for them to not at least mention that there is supposed to be some evidence. Hopefully that will not be followed by a recommendation. However, I sense an attitude even amongst physicians and paediatricians that if CBT and GET are not available they will have nothing to offer. A lot of doctors find that uncomfortable. They should not but they do. So there will be a tendency for CBT and GET to remain in the guidelines even if watered down. That will depend to a degree on who is on the committee. That needs some thought. Applications are being taken in June and July.”

So yes indeed, the personnel on the committee will be of vital importance. Graham McPhee, John Peters, Sally Burch and numerous other patient advocates have written a letter to NICE requesting that the committee members are chosen with openness and integrity. They have also produced a petition which anyone can sign. Over 2,700 have done so already. If you haven’t signed yet, please consider joining them.

This is important. As Jonathan Edwards says, doctors feel uncomfortable if they have nothing to offer. This unfortunate fact is the reason why so many patients with physical illnesses over the years have been treated as though they have a mental health issue. It probably won’t help the patient but it’s better for the doctor than feeling powerless.

Sad to say, CBT and GET may remain in the guidelines for this reason, if for no other. They haven’t been torn up yet. We can’t even be sure that Prof Baker’s proposed amendments to avoid the inappropriate imposition of these ‘treatments’ will be acted upon, as he is due to retire before the new guidelines are finalised.

It is good that many patient advocates attending the meeting left with a good feeling about it but, as I am sure they realise, the battle is far from over yet. As a starter, we need the right people on the guidelines committee. Don’t forget to sign that petition

Update: Apologies for my previous PS about the Royal College of Physicians (which I’ve now removed). It turns out I was quoting the wrong Royal College from the table. I hate to spread misinformation so many thanks to Annie who left a comment to set me straight. Nevertheless, as she points out, there is no reason for undue confidence in the RCP who are to take a leading role in the guidelines revision. Annie writes as follows:

“Excellent summary of where things stand so far with the review of the NICE guidelines.

“One point though the worrying comment you cite from the stakeholders comments during last summer’s consultation exercise was made by the Royal College of GP’s, not the Royal College of Physicians if I am reading the table correctly on page 89? Nonetheless, the Royal College of Physicians said they endorsed the comments of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the neurologists whose submissions were poor and inaccurate and did not want the guidelines updated, so I am still not filled with confidence having the Royal College of Physicians so heavily involved.”