I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again: the book blogging community is an extraordinarily supportive one. I’ve had so many messages of gentle and sympathetic concern for my absence – thank you, thank you. I’ve been trying to get my head around it all myself, and I think I’m finally able to tell you all what’s been happening.
So, my parents had their 50th wedding anniversary party and I was indeed well enough to go. The event itself went off splendidly. The venue was the beautiful private room of an extremely good local restaurant, with doors opening onto its own terrace and the weather, for once, was perfect. There was an almost palpable atmosphere of love for my parents, surrounded by family and friends who are all clearly devoted to them. My brother made a speech that brought tears to my eyes, because I wasn’t expecting it and he did it so well, and my dad spoke very touchingly too (I was expecting that one, which helped). And as ever among a collection of people there were some amazing stories. My mother’s mother married several times, and after her first marriage failed, the husband in question went and married again and had a second family. One of the daughters of that family only found out about the existence of her half brother (my uncle) a few years ago and searched until she found him. She was there and couldn’t be more delighted to have extended her family and made new and clearly precious bonds. A family friend that I spoke to told me about the four years he had spent as a teenager in a closed hospital ward suffering and then convalescing from tuberculosis. I had had no idea he’d been through this and we agreed that it was impossible to explain to other people who hadn’t had a lengthy illness what kind of an effect it had on your life. But one other man there knew: several years ago, at the same restaurant celebrating my mother’s birthday on that occasion, he’d told me he wasn’t feeling well. It turned out he had a brain tumour and a terrible year followed. This time he was completely restored to health, appreciating life all the more for what he’d been through, and with a whole new daughter who was a delightful livewire (my mother is her godmother). So, it was a wonderful celebratory occasion for my parents.
But I didn’t do very well.
One of the worst things about chronic fatigue is that it makes you inexplicable to yourself and others, and then, as you try to figure out what it’s all about, you have to face up to yourself in a way that ordinarily healthy people never have to. I’ve always had a tendency to social anxiety, but chronic fatigue has fed into it in a chicken and egg sort of way. I can see how it happened. All those years when my son was small and I was working hard at the university I had to pretend an awful lot that I was fine when in fact I felt awful. It was my choice not to let on: I couldn’t bear to let people know because it felt to me like I was letting them down, like I was a fraud and a wimp. The need to repress my own feelings and forge on regardless was undoubtedly an important factor in developing chronic fatigue. Now, I still feel deep anxiety at the thought of people seeing me unwell, distressed, anxious, particularly when, after all these years, they want to see me free of illness. There were so many people at the party that I hadn’t seen in a long time, who wanted to see me fit and healthy. And I know how domineering sight is. All the (invisible) things I had done in the past year – writing a book, seeing students, looking after my menfolk – all could so easily be dismissed as irrelevant if I was seen to be unwell.
I thought I could carry it off, but anxiety got the better of me. I felt terribly anxious at the lunch, but I managed it and I don’t think anyone would have noticed anything amiss. But by about 4 I was flagging, and asked Mister Litlove to drive me back to my parents’ house, thinking a rest would sort me out. I was just rallying a little when everyone else followed us back, too, and somehow, the sheer volume of noise they made sent my anxiety levels rocketing. Then I felt too bad to get in the car and face the journey home (old hands here will recall my claustrophobia in moving vehicles). I thought if I could only sleep I might calm down so we stayed the night, but I was far too hyper-tense by this point and lay wakeful and panicky and self-reproaching. I’ve looked into the biology and neurobiology of all this, as you may imagine. Body memories have a lot to answer for – they are the inadvertent recall of previous, analogous occasions of fear or threat, and they are sent from the ancient lizard brain as ferocious, not-to-be-ignored messages. If you are already stressed, or the memory provokes a highly stressed response, you can flood your system with the hormone cortisol, which actually prevents access to the hippocampus, or the part of the brain with useful, calming knowledge in it. Hence that incredibly visceral feel of anxiety – it is intended to be excessive and disproportionate in order to make sure you get yourself out of danger, so it really has to be nipped in the bud if you want to get a grip.
Well, to cut a long story short, I did manage to get home the next day, but then inevitably I didn’t feel too fabulous. Chronic fatigue, like anxiety, has a self-protective dimension that shuts you down. But equally I was still full of stress hormones that can hang around for weeks in your system if you don’t take care. They are the hormones that make your nerves feel fried, as if you would jump ten feet in the air at the mere sound of the phone ringing. I have discovered over the years that only one thing really works, and that’s a kind of sepulchral calm. If I can ease myself into a silent, meditative state, I revert to normal far quicker, and indeed I am really pretty much myself again now. That’s a good bounce back for me, so at least that’s something to be pleased with.
But the question is, what is this self that I have returned to? I’ve never been a party person, and the past five years that I have spent mostly on my own I have to say I have really enjoyed. It’s not that I don’t like people – I am deeply curious about them, sympathetic to the trials of human nature, and tend in fact to forge relationships easily and quickly. It’s simply that being with people is the most stimulating and demanding thing I do, and it seems to require huge amounts of mental and emotional processing. The lovely and extremely talented Jean pointed me towards the work of Elaine Aron last year, who has identified a kind of personality type which she terms ‘highly sensitive’. I feel a bit daft saying I’m highly sensitive, but I am. I’m extremely porous to the feelings of others and easily invaded by them, and I just need oceans of quiet time. And thanks to chronic fatigue I favour short, informal kinds of socializing, where it’s fine for me to duck out if I need to, where no one will mind or be offended or worried if I do.
But my reaction that weekend obliges me to recognize that I have a deeper desire for avoidance. I was reading up about social anxiety disorder on the web, and found that cognitive behavioural therapy is the preferred method of treatment. It is described as ‘an inherently unpleasant’ treatment, in that the poor anxious person has to be forced into situations that disturb them, on a graded basis, of course, and with as many figurative comfort blankets as possible, but still. And somehow I could not readily believe that the solution to sensitivity was, or ought to be, brutalisation, however graded. I’ve had my share of facing my fear and doing it anyway, with more public speaking than most people have to accomplish in their lifetimes. It didn’t work back then to cure me of feeling anxious in social situations and I don’t suppose it will work now. I’d rather like the next decade to be one in which I stay in, peacefully, and write a few books, with my main socializing taking place here in the virtual world, where everyone is at the right distance and I am gloriously disembodied. And over time chronic fatigue will recede to barely a bad memory, and my inner world will change again. I suppose I just want to be exactly what I am, which is to say at this moment, not like other people. I’d like for it to be okay to be eccentric and nervous and sensitive and gradually recuperating and not always to feel I ought to whip myself into a more readily acceptable state. Perhaps this is the wrong way to look at it? But it is how I feel.