By Erica Verrillo
One of the harshest punishments that CFS/ME inflicts upon its sufferers is isolation. Human beings are social animals, and we do poorly when placed in situations that remove us from contact with other people.
Isolation is not the same as loneliness. Loneliness is an emotional state, the result of feeling alone, even when other people are present. Isolation is a state of being prevented from interacting with other people. The distinction between the two terms may appear to be a fine point, but the crucial difference is that isolation is usually imposed upon us.
Of course, there are those who voluntarily remove themselves from society, but these people – recluses – usually are content with their state of separation from the world. Why? Because they have chosen it. When people don’t choose to be isolated, when it is forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control, it is unbearable. This is why solitary confinement is the ultimate punishment for inmates in prisons. It puts people in a state of complete helplessness.
The Center for Constitutional Rights considers solitary confinement to be a form of torture – a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Prisoners who are placed in solitary confinement, even for a few weeks, experience “increased anxiety, nervousness, headaches, nightmares, fatigue, obsessive ruminations, confused thought processes, mood swings, depression, memory lapses, confusion, problems with impulse control, paranoia, feelings of overall deterioration, and thoughts of suicide.” These prisoners, by and large, were healthy before being placed in solitary confinement. Imagine how this type of isolation would affect a population that is ill.
People with CFS/ME don’t have to imagine the consequences of solitary confinement on an ill population. Those who are severely ill experience the torture of solitary confinement on a daily basis. The four walls of a bedroom, for months, years on end, can feel exactly like a prison cell. In effect, it is no different from a prison. Whether your jailer is the judicial system, or the unpredictability of an illness, the result is the same.
Much like prisoners in a penitentiary, people with CFS/ME feel themselves to be stigmatized, rejected by society, ignored, dismissed, unable to fit in. Even among those who can get out and about, CFS/ME is profoundly isolating. The illness is their “dirty little secret,” something they can’t talk about for fear of being labeled as “defective.” When they do dare to bring up the topic, they inevitably become objects of misplaced advice (“You should work out!”), psychologizing (“Were you abused as a child?”), false sympathy (“I’m tired, too…”), and all the other well-intentioned but ultimately distressing comments that anyone with CFS/ME dreads having to respond to. If you combine this social minefield with the physical limitations imposed by CFS/ME, and then add the very real fear that the illness will result in the loss of a job, or a spouse, or friends, the isolation becomes complete, for now it exists not just in daily life, but projects itself into the foreseeable future … for all time.
Breaking the Chains of Isolation
According to Dan Moricoli, founder of the ME-CFS Knowledge Center, there are 24 million with CFS/ME worldwide. Other estimates place that number at a more conservative 17 million, but any way you measure it that’s a lot of people. It’s also cold comfort. Simply knowing that a lot of other people have this illness can’t help you break out of solitary confinement – or can it?
The fact that so many people are experiencing – right this very moment – exactly what you are going through is not a comfort unless you also realize that they, like you, are seeking break the bonds of isolation. They are tapping a code on the walls of their cells, hoping someone will answer. Tap back and you may find that with the right co-conspirators, you will be able to tunnel your way out of jail.
These are some of the ways people with CFS/ME have connected with one another.
Support groups: Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, support groups used to meet in person. There still are support groups that have regular face-to-face meetings. But there are also a slew of groups that meet online. How do you find one? You can simply type in the words “facebook” and “chronic fatigue” into a google search. Many support groups not only have Facebook pages, but websites. State and national CFS/ME organizations also keep lists. Find these organizations HERE.
Buddies: Having a buddy can be a real lifesaver. A CFS/ME buddy is someone who is also ill, and with whom you can compare symptoms (“I have this strange prickling feeling in my feet. Have you ever had that?”), talk about treatments (“Have you tried D-Ribose?”), commiserate ("I’m having a bad day"), or celebrate (“I’m having a good day!”), and someone with whom you can simply feel as if you don’t have to keep up appearances. Just one person who really gets it can make a huge difference. (And that person could be you!) You can often find a buddy through a support group or meet-up. But sometimes they just appear, like ports in a storm. Once you start looking for friendship, it comes knocking.
Forums: There are several excellent, longstanding forums where people come to exchange ideas, talk about the latest news, chat, and generally feel welcomed into a community: ProHealth, Phoenix Rising, Hawkes’ Health, Not Crazy, ME-CFS Community, and ME/CFS Forums are among the best. Forums are great because they are organized into topics, which allows you to focus on whatever area interests you.
Yahoo Groups: It is surprising how many yahoo groups there are for people with ME/CFS. If you do a google search on “Yahoo Groups”, then, once you are in the directory, type in “chronic fatigue” or “Myalgic Encephalomyelitis” in the “Find a Yahoo Group” bar, dozens of groups will pop up. Many of these groups are local, that is they are meant for people who live in a specific city or region. Yahoo groups are not just a good way to connect with people, they keep you informed about the latest news in the CFS/ME community.
Meet-ups: Meet-ups are local social groups that share a common interest. Like old-fashioned support groups, meet-ups get together in person. There are 115 CFS/ME meet-ups in 8 countries.
Blogs: ME/CFS Blogroll is a list of over 300 CFS/ME blogs started by Elisa, a longtime ME/CFS advocate. In her words, “It helps with the isolation – to "hear" all our voices and views and it gives me hope to find help… and to feel better, some day!” I couldn’t agree more. It is very liberating to read a blog post that expresses precisely how you feel. What’s more, you can always leave a comment, or start a blog yourself. Free expression is an excellent safety valve for the frustrations of “down time.”
Helplines: Many CFS/ME organizations provide helplines. These are usually staffed by volunteers and are meant to help people with CFS/ME find support groups, local physicians who may be receptive to patients with CFS/ME, legal help for obtaining disability, and other sorts of assistance. Although much of this information can be found online, it is nice to talk to a person who is helpful and sympathetic.
A final word …
Don’t give up on finding fellow inmates!
You are not alone.
Erica Verrillo is the author of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Treatment Guide ,2nd Edition. You can visit her website at CFS Treatment Guide. Erica also posts regularly on Onward Through the Fog, a blog with coping tips, news, reviews, and practical advice on how to recover from this debilitating illness.