I wondered slowly into the room unsure if this part of the hospital really was the place I had travelled 40 miles to be. The whole building looked as if it had been forgotten, which I suppose was appropriate considering many of the patients in it felt the same. The room was filled with chairs, half of which were filled with nervous and expectant people. Some hobble in as if they are young people trapped inside an old person's body while some walk in normally but warily. One woman wears sunglasses and some lean against the wall.
Three women stood at the front of the room and as a natural hush fell on the people in it, one of the women introduced themselves. After further introductions and housekeeping two disappear to the back of the room and the third begins to describe a complex biological system. Everyone listens with interest, some also with wariness as she talks about each section of an ever-increasing diagram. The pens run out as she scribbles in unreadable handwriting on a whiteboard. Then comes the turn of the second woman. She is a clinical psychologist and starts her section by asking those in the room what they have to deal with on a daily basis.
The people in the room, previously supressed by uncertainty suddenly come to life and symptoms and cares are flying across the room. This is the start.
So today I went to a 'First Steps Seminar for CFS' at Sutton Hospital, marking the fifth hospital visit this year. I had no idea to expect from such a seminar and was sceptical as to its usefulness for someone like me who has had CFS/ME for almost 5 years now. As it was, it proved to be very reassuring and informative. The team came across as having integrity, care and understanding. No politicians' talk from them. One of the team described their thoughts on how CFS/ME exists and is caused. This part was new to me and so was of the greatest interest (but also because I have an interest in biology, and of course psychology). It made so much sense, and to have a biological explanation for my symptoms was reassuring because CFS/ME is often supposed to be a psychological illness. Generally, it came down to how the body reacted to stress hormones and dysregulations all over the place.
Secondly we went through common symptoms and emotions that come up in CFS/ME sufferers. The patients in the room called out symptoms as they occurred and there were many nods and sounds of agreement from the rest. The symptoms of CFS/ME are so broad, varied and confusing that it is easy to be overwhelmed by them and to wonder exactly what symptom means what. Seeing each symptom and each emotion that have taken over my life appear one by one on the whiteboard was amazing as the people around me were going through exactly the same. Not one disbelieving face was present.
This was also where the patients came to life. Each were fairly outspoken and each quite obviously had some sense of frustration - at how the medical system had previously treated them, at the lack of practical help, and the everyday struggles for some kind of existence. One person sitting behind me mentioned he had been ill for 10 years and yet here he was at a 'First Steps Seminar' at this point due to his symptoms being ignored and discarded by the medical profession. Others appeared to be newly diagnosed and in a state of panic. I remember vividly being in their place this time last year and it gave me some hope that I had gone through that phase and worked some things out for myself. I still wouldn't say I'm doing well but I have come a very long way.
This post is about me discussing a more positive experience, and although the team will probably not see this post I would still like to praise their handling of the seminar and the obvious hope they have given to a handful of people just like me. My criticism here is not of the seminar or the team whatsoever, but of the system generally. You have to have symptoms for at least 4 months before a diagnosis can be given and so that it 4 months of real struggle before any help can even begin to go your way. Some people like me and the man behind me have waited years for help. Everyone in the room was dissatisfied, anxious and frustrated. The CFS/ME itself is only half the battle.
And I have named this post Jupiter as this is what was playing on the radio as well travelled home from another hospital appointment yesterday. It's a famous classical music piece by Holst, and is entitled 'Jupiter, bringer of Jollity' so I thought it was appropriate.