I read just this past week that no matter how many false dawns you may have experienced trying to get over anxiety issues, keep on trying, because you will make progress. And although these past weeks have been somewhat turbulent for me, I’ve had an epiphany that has finally made sense of the past fifteen years of my life. All long term visitors to this site will be aware that I am a recovering chronic fatigue sufferer, and it finally occurred to me that the original illness that set it all off, back in December 1997, was an experience of proper trauma. I’ve researched trauma, written about it and lectured on it, without ever putting two and two together, but then I think of trauma as being caught in a bomb blast, or abused by a relative, and so much of the time I’ve been trying in any case to pretend – with no success of course – that what happened to me was negligible and unimportant.
I’ve never written about this part of my life on this blog, as writing is the place where I feel most like me, and least like I did in that crazy, screwed-up time. But in my head I’ve gone over and over it, trying to figure it all out. Back in the autumn of 1997 I was constantly ill with low-level infections because I was utterly exhausted. But mid-December I started to feel unwell in a way that frightened me because it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Every day I felt worse, even when I didn’t think it was possible to feel worse. Eventually I was in bed, unable to eat, sleep, talk, or move much, wracked with horrific headaches, weak and sick and terrified, unable to make sense of what was happening. My son was three years old, we had recently moved house and knew no one; no family was close. I had to return to my parents in this state of complete physical shut-down, with no way to explain myself. The worst thing was feeling there was no medical help. I knew there was something wrong with my lungs, but when I’d rung the surgery and asked a doctor to come out (and in this country they are very reluctant to make house calls) the doctor was rude to me, said he had a roomful of patients with chest infections and didn’t understand my problem. I wasn’t about to argue with him. I was 28 years old and I thought I was dying.
There was nothing like a recovery. Every night I assured myself that in the morning I’d have turned the corner. It never happened. With almost imperceptible gradualness, I began to eat again and to sleep. When I first got out of bed to shower, several weeks after taking to it, I’d lost about a stone and a half and looked like I’d just been released from Auschwitz. Over the months that followed, there were constant set backs when I’d feel almost as bad as I had to begin with, my energy was so depleted, and as soon as I tried to do a little more I’d feel dreadful again. I’d managed to get to a local doctor in January who thought in retrospect I’d had viral pneumonia. But even by the next summer, the next autumn, I was so scared because I was still very unwell and couldn’t turn it into a story that made sense: all I knew was that I’d woken up as the corpse of this narrative, sandbagged from behind by my own life.
So, it was trauma for me. One of the neuroscientific beliefs about trauma is that in the wild confusion of the event, the hippocampus in the brain fails to put an end-of-file marker on the memory download. It never manages to mark the event as finished and over, hence the tendency in trauma for the sufferer to fall into the belief it is happening again. For me, I literally could not put a marker on my experience that said: And now I am well again. I felt unwell, for the majority of the time, for the next nine years. And how crazy was that? Everyone knows that the illness story moves swiftly into recovery followed by the closure of convalescence. That was not the case for me. But I knew there was a large anxiety component in my illness from the beginning, and I have to wonder now how much was the virus attacking me in a rotary manner (which is common in viruses) and how much was the trauma, endlessly replaying on my body.
Trauma is notoriously hard to recover from because the sufferer is so vulnerable and their entire sympathetic nervous system is wrecked. The psychologist Pierre Janet said the first stage to recovery is to establish safety and security, something which can take years to achieve. The abused wife must be safe from her husband, the refugee must own legal citizenship in a new country, the accident victim must be healed and the situation resolved. Furthermore, the trauma sufferer must be able to function properly on a day-to-day basis before the memory can be integrated. It’s no wonder, then, that it has taken me so long to recover, as before I was sure of being able to function properly, I had leapt back into the middle of the circumstances that had made me sick.
I’d fallen ill because for three years I had been bringing my son up (he was born a month after I began my PhD) while writing my dissertation. Only of course in my second year of dissertation I’d started to teach, and by the third I was lecturing, and the summer before I fell ill I’d organised a conference. All this on very little childcare because we had very little money. Eighteen months after the illness, I was persuaded by my mentors to apply for the lectureship that I did indeed get. I wasn’t fully recovered, but when you want to be an academic, and you are offered a post at Cambridge, you do not turn it down. So here I was, a perfectionist workaholic still suffering from an illness I did not understand, and here was Cambridge University, a place with no limits when it comes to work. Inevitably, it was not long before I was completely exhausted again, but with a more than full-time job that was immensely important to me.
But I can’t ever regret those lecturing years. What kept me together, despite the crippling exhaustion, was sheer love of literature. I had a passion for my work, I loved my students, I adored research. It was my pride that meant no matter how ill I felt, I would never let one of those students down. I was determined to do as good a job for the last class of the day as I did for the first, and whilst this attitude was not conducive to healing, I look back on the work I did with satisfaction. It was an amazing experience, the very best and worst of times. I honestly don’t know how I did it.
But pride and willpower are pretty fierce motivators. I never breathed a word about my illness while I was working, partly because it seemed unprofessional to do so, but mostly because I was terribly ashamed. I did not realise until I began looking into trauma recovery how guilt and shame affect its victims. It felt to me that it was my fault I could not get well, just as it must have been my fault that I fell ill. I was somehow wrong, sub-standard, a faulty model. I had this gorgeous child, a lovely home, and an amazing job. How could I be so graceless and ungracious as not to enjoy every minute of them? I was a lucky person. Why was it so impossible to reconcile that with how I really felt on the quiet, wretched, exhausted, bitterly disappointed in myself, and frightened that I would not be able to carry on? I can’t tell you how humiliating it is to suffer from something that makes you feel so unwell whilst being invisible to others. How many times did I wish I’d broken a leg instead! I worked with words for a living; if I could not find the right ones to explain myself then the problem simply could not exist.
In the end I was forced to accept my limitations. I ran out of willpower to keep going. Finally I saw a doctor who said, we have to think in terms of chronic fatigue. I went cold all over, obliged to face it at last. I asked for a fortnight off work, and I didn’t go back for three years.
And now another four years have passed even since then, and finally – finally – I begin to understand why, just recently, a mild but persistent illness and the prospect of a public holiday without medical care readily available can still awaken violent, blind panic in me. There is enough structural similarity in that situation to trigger the trauma response, and then yes, it is weeks rather than days before my nervous system has returned to normal. Finally it makes sense. I’m not about to say, and now we all lived happily ever after. There will be a lot of work to do, separating ordinary illness from the traumatic experience, and integrating those years into the long term narrative. But this is the story of my life, in which one strange and terrifying event has dominated and altered it out of all recognition. On the minus side I feel cheated out of the ordinary confidence-building pleasure I could have taken from the things I did, but on the plus side, chronic fatigue has forced me to confront and sort out every single aspect of my life: my relationships, my work, my very sense of who I am. I have learned a great deal, even if it had to be at a great cost, but that’s pretty much true of all lives, I think. Wisdom never comes cheap.