I am writing this with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, in the hope that someone else may recognise the symptoms I had (and ignored) and do something before it is too late.
When my first symptoms appeared I did not rest but ‘fought bravely on’, or so I thought. The truth is I made it much, much worse for myself……
Let us start at the beginning.
By all accounts I was a precocious kid who was also very shy.
About the age of five or six (maybe seven?) I came down with glandular fever. I did not know it at the time but this was very bad news and quite possibly the beginning of my current condition.
I remember feeling incredibly exhausted and in pain all over my body. After I was diagnosed I had six to eight weeks off from school and vaguely remember being so tired that I couldn’t do anything, spending all my time in bed. Not much fun without the smartphones and laptops we can enjoy now.
I was very young for my class, as my birthdate of early February allowed me to start before I was strictly of school age. This meant I finished Year 12 when I was only sixteen.
After the glandular fever I was a fairly normal kid. I spent ages outside playing with the kids up the street, running around with the best of them. In fact my parents had to tell me, on many occasions, to calm down and not make so much noise.
I wish I had that energy now!
In grade eight, from memory, I started to ride my bike to school. This was no mean feat when you consider we lived five miles away as the crow flies, and there were not many crows around to give me a lift so it was probably a six mile trip for me and my bike.
I participated in all sports, cricket and football being the main ones, and ran the 800 metres on sports days.
The only symptom I can recall near this time is that when I became a teenager I would sleep (when on holidays) until two or three in the afternoon. My Mum chided me for this, and why not because it was not normal behaviour. The beginning of CFS?
I exercised a lot, including a 1.5 kilometre run most nights (yes I know I’m mixing metric with imperial, I was at school when it changed so give me some latitude here!) so I did not lack energy.
When my University days began I do remember waking up feeling more tired than when I went to sleep. I had to drag myself to go to boring lectures and tutorials. However I thought the tiredness was because of my hatred of University. Another big mistake.
Then I started my first job as a Management Trainee at a bank. I quit after less than two years when I thought I was underutilised (I had taken to bringing a book to work because I got my work done too quickly).
In hindsight I was monumentally stupid. I was in their marketing department at the time, a role I would kill for now.
However I knew better (I didn’t) and since I had got my first job at my very first ever job interview, how hard could it be to get another one?
Bloody hard, especially if you quit your job during a recession. More fool me.
I spent the next two years doing odd jobs (storeman, pizza delivery, market research) before landing a role in retail sales. Oh, and waking up exhausted. The CFS continued and I knew no better so I soldiered on. Another big mistake.
My personal anxiety at this point was through the roof. I finally got a full time, steady job, but as a retail salesperson. Every day for the first few months I’d have to psyche myself up just to get out of my car and walk the few remaining steps to work.
My anxiety was stratospheric.
My morning tiredness by this point was out of control. Coca Cola was my staple drink, three or four cans a day to keep me awake…plus I loved it!
Fast forward a few years to my thirties, still changing jobs every two or three years because I would get bored. My first marriage had imploded and my morning exhaustion had me eating a Mars bar with a can of Coke for breakfast, just to get going. Yet another clear signal (with hindsight) missed.
This went on for a few years.
After my failed marriage, which meant I could only see my son (who was the light of my life) every second weekend, my stress levels were on another planet.
During the twelve months directly after my wife and I separated I suffered tonsillitis three times, was made redundant twice, had my wisdom teeth out, a knee operation and almost died from liver failure due to an auto-immune disease. Stress galore and even more tired in the morning.
Looking back now the stress was so enormous it was always going to pay me back, big time.
At this stage I definitely had what would be diagnosed today as CFS. They say the best thing you can do at early onset of CFS is to rest. However I was going through a divorce and had shamefully had to move back home because I was broke, so no rest for me.
Fortunately another good job came around and I was spending more time with my son (50/50). He kept me going when I was totally exhausted. How could I stop with a young (three or four year old) wonderful, incredible child to care for?
I had a lot of sales roles early in my career and as a sufferer of anxiety this was not good. However I persevered because I liked unemployment even less.
Waking in the morning was becoming a far more serious issue, as I had to force myself to roll out of bed to make sure I wouldn’t go back to sleep. Days were just a blur and I couldn’t wait to get home and lie down.
My fault entirely, as some management consultant had given an IQ test to everyone at a place I worked whilst in Sydney (another story). The good news was that he recommended I join Mensa and he told me that if I found myself in a room of two hundred people then I would, on average, literally be the smartest guy in the room. After the ego died down I put enormous pressure on myself to succeed (in anything, I just had to!).
After my return to Adelaide I was working a normal nine to five job, then at the end of that day I went to an office I shared with a friend, in a startup business we saw promise in. After just over a year of this and having a local distributor steal the exclusive rights to what we were selling, we decided to call it quits.
I was so damn tired I could hardly think straight. But I HAD to succeed and be a millionaire by the time I was thirty-five! This was the worse thing I could of done to my now very fragile body and mind.
Then I met my second wife (still married eighteen years later) who is very much into health. She became very concerned over my morning tiredness and the stress I was under.
After actually waking up feeling refreshed (the only time I can remember doing so in my life) on Kangaroo Island on a holiday, I readily agreed to see if anything could be done. I wanted more mornings like that one!
My first doctor diagnosed me with anxiety induced depression and I was put on a drug that, again in hindsight, made my ME/CFS condition worse. I took Zoloft for the next fifteen years. Zoloft can lead to ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia.
A few years later I joined a very small business and invested a lot of time and money into it. The business was in the finance industry, and I joined exactly one month before the Global Financial Crisis wiped us out.
My timing, when it comes to money, has always been atrocious.
Even more stress now, as we faced the reality of possible bankruptcy and losing our dream home. For the next three years I worked every single day (yes including Christmas Day) networking and chasing clients for my own sales and marketing consultancy, as there were simply no jobs during this time after the GFC. Money was great one month and terrible for the next two or three.
Even more stress.
Then I started teaching international students all about business, team building, leadership, finance and marketing. I loved it. However I was still waking up feeling exhausted.
Then in about April of 2016 I had what I thought was the flu. I felt like I had been hit by the proverbial bus but strangely did not have a blocked or runny nose. I now believe this is when my Fibromyalgia began, with this virus triggering another that had lain dormant since my glandular fever, causing my ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia to explode.
The GP I went to for this ‘flu’ told me to rest and wait it out. I tried to talk to him about my exhaustion for the last thirty years but he dismissed all this, telling me to get a good night’s sleep and take up exercise. The worst possible advice for the condition I had.
I went back to work a week later when I should have stayed in bed. If I had I probably wouldn’t be in the situation I am in now.
Then my legs started to feel incredibly heavy, as though made of concrete, and I began walking crookedly, uncontrollably, crashing into walls and, most embarrassingly, walking into student desks. The pain in my legs started soon after.
Finally I was getting the message my body had been trying to tell me for the last thirty years…”Stop! Rest! You are an absolute wreck!”.
The next doctor (I did not bother going back to the unbeliever) was sympathetic and actually believed in ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia. However she told me she did not know enough about it and so referred me on.
In so doing she did me an enormous favour and I will always be grateful.
The next doctor was a godsend. I first saw her in July of 2016. She had no preconceptions about my condition and was treating other patients with the same symptoms.
I had a five week break over Christmas that year (2016) after struggling to get through every day beforehand. I did nothing but stay at home and rest, but at the end of those five weeks I did not feel any better.
My suspicions were confirmed on my first day back at work as my symptoms were as bad as they were before my break. This way the time when I knew something was seriously wrong.
My new GP sent me to a Neurologist, fearing MS, whom I saw in January 2017.
The Neurologist shared the suspicions of my new GP and booked me in for an MRI. It showed lesions in my brain but it was inconclusive for MS.
My all over body pain (Fibromyalgia) got steadily, and significantly, worse. Eventually every day when I arrived home after work I had to ring my wife to come into the garage, and help me to get out of my car. I could not get out without her help.
Eventually I asked my boss at the time if I could work from home every Wednesday because of my illness, as Wednesday was my admin day. I had taken increasing numbers of days off before this just to try and cope. Unfortunately he did not believe me, instead he asked if I had my own business outside of work or was I working for someone else each Wednesday. That relationship was therefore doomed, and I must my part that with everything that was going on in my life I was probably not being a model employee
Shortly after I parted company with my sceptical boss, and had another teaching job within days, working just three days a week.
Unfortunately my condition continued to deteriorate so I started working just two days a week, then one. Finally I had to tell my employer that I couldn’t even do one day a week because it was taking more than a week to recover from just that one day.
With fear and dread at the consequences, my wife and I had decided that I simply could not work in my my condition.
In June of 2017 my Neurologist ordered another MRI which showed no change. Just in case she had missed something she referred me to a Specialist Physician. The good news was that she did not think it was MS, which was a relief.
The Specialist Physician diagnosed me with ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia. I finally had my diagnosis! I felt relief and dread in equal measure.
While all this was going on I was dealing with superannuation insurance claims and the reality that we were going to have to sell our dream home. Keeping our house clean for open inspections was a never ending task for my poor wife, as I literally could not raise a finger to help her.
This all happened from April to September last year.
Then our house sold, a bittersweet moment filled with regret, sorrow and extreme guilt for me. After all it was because of my illness that we had to sell.
I suffered more stress since July 2016 through to when our house sold in September 2017 than ever before.
And now we had just thirty days to find somewhere to buy or rent.
Fortunately we found a beautiful place in Nairne, about another fifteen minutes out from the city. It is smaller than our last home but we are loving it more and more each day (to my eternal relief!).
However prior to knowing that we would love this new home, but feeling a little excited because it was so new, the packing and moving happened all around me as I looked on helplessly and with much guilt.
Yes, stress levels even higher again. I know now that had I taken a few months off after my ‘flu’ in April 2016 I could possibly have recovered completely. Unfortunately I refused to give in and kept dragging myself to work. The alternative at that stage being far too terrifying as I knew how much my wife loved our home, as did I. I was also not sure if we had any insurance that would help us.
My wife and I had visions of a tiny unit in Elizabeth. Or even worse, asking to stay with my parents for a while!
After we moved I spent my time chasing Centrelink and insurance companies, and suffering worsening symptoms. The pain was intense over every square millimetre of my body and I had not had a day without this pain since April 2016.
At one of my visits with my new GP in around August of last year I told her I felt as though I was slowly dying.
We kept trying different drugs but the opioids gave me very bad side effects. One night I almost asked my wife to call an ambulance for me, as I was experiencing severe gyroscopic dizziness and was not sure where I was.
Today as I write this I am in ‘forced retirement’ while my poor wife, who has been an angel through all of this (as has the rest of my immediate and incredibly supportive family), has to keep working.
We have about eighteen months of Income Protection payments left, after which I will receive less than half that until I turn sixty (I am fifty-four now). Then it is the Disability Support Pension which took ten months and the submission of about one hundred pages of information to approve.
My GP has been trying some different drugs lately and one has given me some small relief. Unfortunately my days are still filled with sleeping, reading, watching Netflix, taking drugs and trying to take a shower.
And yes, when I tell that to some people they respond by saying it sounds like a wonderful holiday to them. Then they look at me, see (on the surface) a healthy looking person and either turn away or give me that stare first, the one that says; “You’re a lucky bastard.”
If they had to spend just twenty-four hours in my skin they would be begging to return to their previous lives.
Boredom is a major part of my life. I cannot walk more than 500 steps a day without having a crash the following day. A crash is even more pain, a migraine, incredibly painful feet and hands (so I cannot walk anywhere or hold anything), dizziness, insomnia (wired-tired), not to mention the pain on every square millimetre of my body.
Basically I spend the day in bed taking as much medication as I am allowed and go through three or four cold compresses for my exploding head.
Back to some good news. At least now I know what illness I have and all the uncertainty, forcing myself to work when feeling like death, disbelieving doctors, sceptical employers and the stress of losing our dream home because of my illness, is all behind me.
I have no idea what I will, or can, do for the rest of my life. However one thing I am sure of is that I want it to be a very, very long one.
Every moment I spend with my beautiful wife and family is worth all the pain and suffering. I hope that you have someone in your life that makes you feel the same way.
Good luck to us all, and may a cure not be too far away!