Thursday, October 24, 2013


In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins described living organisms as "survival machines". We are, his point was, basically machines whose function it is to procreate and get our genes into the next generation, thus insuring their survival. We are hosts for our genes, and they make us act in a way that makes sure they go on living.

That's pretty much how I feel, like a 'survival machine'. My goal, at the moment, is to survive, and little else. After a long time striving to get better, my objective now is to insure that I don't get any worse. My life is about getting through the days, and getting out the other side unscathed.

It is now eight weeks since I crashed, and it's been a bit of a rollercoaster. The first few weeks were hell, I stabilised a bit, and then started using my rebreathing mask, and began a recovery of sorts. I improved quite quickly over the space of a week, but now I have stalled, and am not, for the moment, getting any better.

The rebreathing mask, as I wrote about in the last post, was prescribed to me by the Breakspear clinic. I have low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, and the mask is supposed to raise those levels. This happens because when I breathe out while wearing the mask, the mask traps the CO2, and then I 'rebreathe' this CO2 in again, thus bringing my carbon dioxide up to normal levels.

I was using it for a week before my crash. I stopped using it when I got a stomach bug, intending to start again when better, then crashed, and didn't go back to it for a month. When I did, I immediately felt better.

Yet this improvement has now stopped. I have stalled at about ten or fifteen percent less energy than pre-crash days. I was already pretty limited, now my limitations have been exacerbated.

Everything is just that little bit more of an effort, that little bit more difficult. I'm dragging myself around with extra struggle, as if someone had added a couple of kilos to this phantom backpack that I feel like I am carrying around. Standing and cooking dinner takes more out of me, I have now to sit down in the shower, I haven't been out of my home town since it happened, I have seen two of my friends, on two separate occasions, for half an hour each, in seven weeks, and hardly any of my family. Every day is just that ten or twenty percent more of a battle than it was just two months ago.

I have gone back to work, but at a reduced level. I taught two hours last week, and will do four this week. I anticipate maybe getting up to seven or eight a week, compared to twelve to fourteen hours a week pre-crash. I am still lucky enough to be able to work - I know many PWME do not have that ability - but everything will have to be reduced, for now.

Because of this, financial survival is now another necessary objective. I was never comfortable financially, but did manage to save a little to pay for treatment, but now it will be about being able to make rent and pay the bills every month, and little else. I am going to have to cut back on simple things, like going to the cinema, or buying that extra piece of expensive sheep's cheese.

So basically I work, buy food, rest, sleep, cook, eat.  This will be it for the time being. I spend a lot of time on my own, out of necessity, and do feel quite isolated, though in truth I have no desire at the moment to see anyone. A bit of solitude right now is probably all I can cope with, being with people involves either having to pretend that I am better than I really am, or else explaining why I am not well, and how I am feeling, and neither prospect is appealing.

I am continuing with the rebreathing mask, am sleeping in it for a few hours a night, which is awkward but doable, and am using it for a total of about four hours. Breakspear advised me to try it for at least eight weeks, so I'll keep going and see what happens. I have also started using my FIR sauna again, and am up to 40 degrees, and will continue to increase the temperature. No progress from anything yet, though hope springs eternal.

I continue taking the anti-depressants, which help keep me on an even keel and smooth out the bad times. Without them I would surely be a mess, so I am grateful for the balance that they provide. I find that they allow me to take things as they come a little more, to just accept what has happened and to try to deal with it, without melting down into self-recrimination, despair and regret.

It is a period of adjustment, and will take me a few months to work out exactly what I can and cannot do. Right now I am being cautious, and trying to take care. Right now I am thinking of little else but survival. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013


It is now six weeks since I crashed. I have made a partial recovery, but am still well below where I was pre-crash. Two steps back, one step forward. It has been a difficult time.

I have come more or less to understand what happened around the time of the relapse. To explain it fully I would have to go back a bit, to my last Breakspear appointment.

There, I had an autonomic nervous system test, which showed that I had low levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in my blood. To rectify this the doctor, Dr Shah, gave me a rebreathing mask. I wrote about this here.

The mask is one that fits over my whole face, and has a tube attached. What happens is that when you breathe out while wearing the mask, the carbon dioxide that is breathed out is trapped in the mask and so when you breathe in again, you breathe in extra CO2. This is supposed to raise the levels of CO2 in your body.

The "blood gases" are carbon dioxide and oxygen, and for proper functioning of the body there has to be an adequate balance between the two. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) relies on this correct balance.

Anyway, I came back from Breakspear and started using the mask. I used it for a week, starting at an hour a day and building up to three or four a day. The instructions from Breakspear were to use it for at least four hours a day, and more if I could.

Then I visited a friend of mine, who has kids, and stayed over in their house. Everyone in the house progressively, over the weekend, came down with a nasty stomach bug. I escaped on Sunday evening, thinking I had gotten away with it, but by Monday morning felt horrible, went to bed for the afternoon. I didn't eat for about 30 hours.

When I was recovering from the stomach bug, which knocked me out, I stopped using the mask. It was unwieldy and uncomfortable, and I hadn't noticed any improvement, so I didn't think stopping would do any harm. I had intended to start up again soon.

A week later, while trying to slowly get back to some kind of activity, I crashed. The relapse bore a lot of the hallmarks of previous crashes, insomnia, anxiety, complete exhaustion, shakiness, weakness.

It was a bad crash. I was incapacitated for a few days, and slowly, over days and weeks, began being able to shower, make food, make it up and down the stairs. My limbs were incredibly weak, my voice, I noticed, was really weak, talking of any kind was an huge effort. I was frightened and sleepless and depressed.

I began taking some anti-depressants, which helped a little, and slowly managed to make it out of the house every day, briefly. Still, I was a million miles from where I had been pre-crash. The weakness, in the limbs and in the voice, hung on, and was quite scary. I had no power at all. I couldn't see how I was ever going to get out of it, to get back to work, what I was going to do.

And then I started using the mask again. I felt immediately a little better. I felt sleepy during the day for the first time in weeks, a pleasant, relaxed sleepiness. I started with an hour a day, broken up into fifteen minute sections, and slowly increased my usage of the mask. The weakness faded a little, and my sleep improved, I stopped waking up during the night for 40 or 50 or 60 minutes.

That was last week. I haven't had any more improvements since then. What I think happened now was that after using the mask for a week initially,  my body somehow got used to the extra carbon dioxide, even though I didn't feel any better during the time. And when I stopped, I got stuck somehow in even more of a deficit of CO2. This deficit, coupled with the aftermath of the stomach bug, weakened me, and when I tried to get back to normal life, I crashed.

Of course there is another element to the relapse, and it is a deadline. Deadlines have always been lethal for me in terms of worsening of my ME. By 'deadlines', I mean having to be well - or telling myself that I have to be well - by a certain date. This leads to pushing myself, doing too much at the wrong time, getting frustrated. A lethal mixture.

The deadline this time was a flight to Spain that I had booked for the following week. It occurred to me, while trying to get over my stomach bug, that I needed to start doing things now, a week before my flight, if I was going to be able to manage to make it to Spain, let alone last four days there. So I forced things, pushed when I shouldn't have, and the rest is history.

It almost doesn't matter how it happened now, though. The key thing is that it has happened, and I have to deal with it. As anyone who read my last post will discover, I haven't been dealing with it very well. I have been very depressed at times, despite all of the anti-depressants I have been taking.

Now, though, I am continuing to use the rebreathing mask, and hoping for a little more improvement, though as yet I've had nothing. The story with the mask is a little more unclear. I used it for a week, felt no benefit, and assume that my body reacted badly to being denied this extra CO2 when I stopped it. I don't do well with abrupt changes of any kind, and I assume that that's what happened. Then, after the crash, I suppose I got stuck in this extra cycle of CO2 lack, and spiralled even further down.

Whatever the truth, I am operating now on about 15/20% less energy than I had pre-crash, and it's not coming back. Things that were doable and not needing enormous effort just two months ago are now tough, like going to the supermarket, or meeting a friend. Everything is an effort, a struggle.

I have an intermittent tight chest, continued weakness in the limbs and in the voice, a shakiness and shortness of breath that wasn't there before, and a worsening of my digestion, with more gurgling and gas. I am shrunken, less than I was.

The implications of this are many. Having less energy means I will have to shrink my working time and increase my time resting. And of course my income has shrunk too, and so I will have to budget even more carefully. My social life has shrunk to almost nothing, and time spent with friends and family will have to be cut back.

What has increased is this dread and fear for the future. The truth is that another relapse like this, and I will be close to house-bound. My greatest fear is not being able to look after myself, and that is really one serious crash away.

I now see the world as a threatening place. Especially now, at the beginning of winter, the world is full of infections, and viruses, of stress and opportunities for over-exertion, a myriad of potential threats. This experience - sparked by a seemingly innocuous stomach infection - has shown me that there is no escape from ME, there is never an end to the danger, you can never, ever drop your guard.

ME is always there, waiting for a chance to pounce, a moment of weakness, waiting for an opportunity to increase disability, to add insult to injury. There are a few things that I intend to try, to attempt to make some progress, get back some of what has been lost. However, my life, my shrunken life, for the moment, is about survival, and little else.