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She Had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and I Wish I Showed More Compassion

I can still vividly recall the exact moment when I first heard the term “chronic fatigue.” It was throughout the period I was training to become a therapist. During one of our regular morning check-ins, a member of the group suddenly announced that she had recently been diagnosed with the condition.

The woman was usually defined in our class as a bit of an attention seeker. Whenever the question, “How are you?” came up, the usual response would be a quick summary before moving on to the next person. With her, however, that simple question would be met with a rundown of her entire life’s history. At least that’s how it felt, and so very soon, people stopped asking.

She talked often about herself, usually about how tired she was feeling. She would detail her aches and pains and bemoan the fact that she could only average a couple of hours sleep per night. But because 0f the way she presented herself and because she was so effervescent and full of life, she was simply cast as being overly dramatic.

There was nothing wrong with her as far as the group were concerned. How could there be? She didn’t look ill. She was simply tired. So what? Weren’t we all? So, when she came into tutorials one day, her usual bright and cheerful demeanor extinguished and explained about her condition, everyone just rolled their eyes, myself included, and ignored her ramblings about how exhausted she was. Even our tutors “hummed” in a kind of, “Yeah, whatever,” way and for the next two years, she never mentioned it again. Not once had anyone even thought to ask her exactly what chronic fatigue was.

On her wedding day, to which we were all invited, she was the life and soul of the party, and once back at college, she retained her usual cheery character. Now it’s only in hindsight that I can look back and wonder about the amount of energy it must have taken for her to get up each day and put on the mask of normalcy. None of us could have possibly guessed just how exhausted she must have felt on her special day or the pain that she must have endured.

Now that I think about it, I now realize that all her talking wasn’t just ceaseless babble gained at seeking attention. It made sense that in a room full of soon-to-be therapists, where the most personal of topics were openly discussed, that it would be the ideal outlet to vent one’s frustration. A safe place to express how she was feeling. After all, what better group of people could there be, who would be more empathetic to what she was going through? Sadly it seems, not us in our ignorance.

Today, whenever I talk to someone with a condition that I know nothing about, I ask them to explain. I don’t want to be that person that says, “Hmm, I understand,” whilst all the while nodding my head even though I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. It’s an unconscious form of dismissal and one that I’ve become accustomed to over the years.

The way that I treated my former classmate is now the way that others treat me. They will always ask, “How are you?” And I will watch as they plant smiles upon their faces and their eyes slowly glaze over at my answer. If I could go back in time, I would humbly apologize to her. I would give her a gentle hug and and ask her to tell me about her illness. I would listen without judgement, and although I may not have understood what she was going through, I would try my utmost to empathize with her situation.

I regret my ignorance that day and wish vehemently that I had been more supportive. In a world where chronic fatigue is still not seen as a viable illness by some, it’s hard to explain how taking a shower can wipe you out for the rest of the day, or that the more sleep you get, the more tired you become. It’s difficult to put into words the dread you feel at going out because you know that a simple task such as shopping, will bring on a flare and leave you feeling like a wreak for the rest of the week. Chronic fatigue isn’t about being tired, it’s a feeling of being way past exhaustion, a feeling of depletion.

The other day, my body decided to stage a coup as it held my bladder hostage. I urgently needed to go to the toilet and I did…Three hours later. My son asked slightly annoyed why I always waited until the last minute to use the bathroom and I tried to explain that just the thought of getting up to do so, left me bone-tired. I often think about my former classmate and how she’s coping. I just wish that I could talk to her and tell her that I understand and how truly sorry I am.

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