When chronic illness rules the world

I’ve just got back from a wonderful few days in the welsh countryside with my lovely man. I hadn’t been feeling well for about a week before we went, but I felt well enough to go and we had planned to mainly do nothing, except a bit of walking if we could, so it seemed like a good idea.

Actually, it was a very good idea. A few days away from the hustle and bustle of life, just the two of us in the middle of nowhere. The chance to switch off from everything was amazing, and I’m so lucky to have opportunities like that. I follow many chronic illness blogs and I know that for many with chronic illness, trips away like that would be absolutely impossible, so I am grateful that I still have some freedom.

Nonetheless, there is, as always, a twinge of sadness that my illness still controls so much of my life. I still felt sick for most of the time we were away, and once in a while it would be nice to just be able to enjoy normal experiences like a trip away without feeling crap. We went for a nice walk, about 5 miles, on our first day there, which was so beautiful, but it definitely tired me out and I felt pretty bad in the evening. I’m such a go-getter, an active person, and I’ve adored the outdoors since I was a little girl. I remember as a small child jumping at the chance to help my Dad in the garden, and I think that love of the outdoors will be a firm part of who I am until the day I die. Nothing much makes me happier than the countryside. So in an ideal world, I would have spent the entire 3 days of our trip outdoors in one form or another.

I look back on who I once was. Many years ago, when my health was in a better place, I would have been up at the crack of dawn, going for a cross-country run, coming back for breakfast before heading out for a 10 mile walk, before heading out for a nice dinner and a few drinks. On this holiday, however, a gentle 5 mile walk was pretty much all I could manage.

Of course, I know that I am lucky I can walk 5 miles. There are many people in the world who are not so fortunate, and there are a multitude of reasons why people can no longer do things they used to once love, of which chronic illness is just one. I know these things, and I remind myself of how lucky I am every day. But sometimes, the sense of loss all gets a little too much and I roll into a big hole of self-pity.

Unfortunately today is one of these days. We were driving back from Wales and we were both feeling a little hungry, so we stopped at a service station to try and grab a snack. My boyfriend found himself a couple of tasty morsels, but there was nothing gluten & dairy free there for me except a packet of rice cakes. I bought the rice cakes. I actually quite like rice cakes, but it wasn’t quite the tasty wholesome brunch I was hoping for, and seeing my boyfriend’s scotch egg (God I LOVE scotch eggs!) was enough to push me into a full-blown wallowing, self-pitying tantrum.

It just feels that illness has taken so much from me, and that packet of rice cakes was all it took for me to reflect on all the things I have lost. Independence, fertility, the ability to pop out for a meal without having to trawl through online menus first, being able to stay up late without worrying how sick it’ll make me the next day, alcohol, cake, waking up for an early-morning run…. etc etc.

I always try my damnedest not to let illness rule my life. Quote from the front page of this blog: ” I do not accept that I should lie back and let Epstein Barr define me”. But sometimes it feels like I am fighting a losing battle. As time goes on I feel like it rules more and more of my life. It is on my mind every second of every day. The first thing I think when I wake up each morning is, how sick do I feel today? The last thing I think when I go to bed at night is, how sick will I be tomorrow? Every single decision I make – career choices, whether to go to yoga class or go home and rest, what to have for dinner, what time to go to bed, whether to make plans with friends – is made with chronic illness in mind. I am so sick of the control it has not only over my body, but my mind, and actually my entire life. I fear that the day is just around the corner when I will be entirely defined by illness. That, if asked to describe me in one sentence, my family and friends would say “she’s the one who’s always sick”.

Lonely companionship

Loneliness is a funny old thing. I’m 28 years old and I have a more active social life than I’ve ever had. I have so many wonderful people I can call friends, friends of all ages from all walks of life who each offer me something different but equally rewarding, and who I can hopefully offer something to in return. I have a big and very supportive family who all live nearby. And I have a boyfriend.

And yet, chronic illness leaves an inevitable trail of loneliness. The unpredictability of good days and bad days means that you can go from a social life in full swing to intense isolation at the drop of a hat. Days and evenings where your fun plans are cancelled in exchange for pyjamas and the television.

Even when I’m not physically isolated, when I manage to make it into work, to yoga class, or even to meet up with friends, I often do these things feeling a long way off 100%. There is a constant trade off between not pushing myself too hard but doing as much as I can for the sake of my mental health. And therefore, sometimes I do things when I know in my heart that my body wants me to rest. I think this is probably something I need to get better at; listening more to my body. But these are hard decisions to make on a daily basis, knowing that going out might make you sicker, but staying home might push you over the boundary into an emotional low.

And so, sometimes, I will be out and about, doing my daily routine while feeling unwell. And it is in these moments, when I am physically still connected to people, that I feel the most isolated. Because in those moments I look around and see my friends, family, colleagues, living the life I long to live. I am filled with envy for everyone who is able to get on with their day to day life without the constant worries of chronic illness. It is a stark reminder of how hard it is for anyone else to understand my situation, to understand how it feels both physically and mentally to be living my world. I guess, ultimately, we are all alone in our bodies; no one else will ever know what it is like to be us. But on those days when I am functioning on the outside as a ‘normal’ human being, while feeling sick and tired as though the life has been sucked out of me on the inside, I feel a sense of deep loneliness and isolation, no matter how physically connected I am to others.

With my usual positive hat on I am trying to find a nice, cheerful way to wrap up this post. But I promised myself this blog would be my place to write my true feelings; not a show for anyone else, but a diary for me. So, here it is. I’m 28 years old. I have friends, family and a boyfriend. And sometimes, I feel lonely.

It’s all in your head

I’ve just finished a book called “It’s all in your head: Stories from the frontline of psychosomatic illness”, by Suzanne O’Sullivan. I picked it up because it is relevant to my PhD, but it turned out to be a very interesting read and one that’s made me think a lot about my own health. It’s quite controversial, there are bits I don’t agree with, and some places where I think the author shows a naivety that is not uncommon among western doctors. However, it really was fascinating and made for easy reading.

I want to briefly digress with a game. I was first shown this during my psychology degree, and it blew my mind! It only lasts just over a minute, but you can read on if you’re not interested. I just wanted to include it for a fun illustration of the power of the mind.

Anyway, back to the book. Suzanne O’Sullivan is a neurologist specialising in psychosomatic illness. A psychosomatic illness is “a disorder characterized by physical symptoms of psychic origin”. I.e. physical symptoms that are considered to be caused by the mind. This dichotomy between mind and body really bothers me. Surely all illnesses involve both the mind and the body, to some extent? Depression is a mental illness but fatigue and appetite change are part of the diagnostic criteria. A heart attack is a physical event, but a period of intense stress or anger can bring one on [1]. Our mind and body are so intertwined that this continuing attempt to disconnect them just seems ridiculous.

The book contains a series of case studies of patients Suzanne O’Sullivan has seen, with a range of debilitating physical symptoms that have been diagnosed as psychosomatic. The wide range of symptoms are quite incredible: seizures, gastritis, migraines, tinnitus, loss of eyesight, paralysis. Patients have given up work, are bed-bound, have spent years undergoing hospital investigations, surgery, taking harsh medications. One thing the author does well is describe just how difficult life has and continues to be for these patients. Their symptoms are not ‘pretend’, they have genuinely disabling symptoms that affect their lives enormously. The core theme running throughout is that, regardless of the individual pattern of symptoms, these patients are at their wits end, desperate to have a diagnosis and a way forward.

This part of the book I can really relate to. My health problems continued for years before I got some answers, and having medically unexplained physical symptoms is difficult for so many reasons. Not having a diagnosis or label makes it hard to explain to other people. It means that you cannot research your own illness, and therefore you feel completely uninformed about what is going on in your body. No diagnosis means, almost inevitably, no cure. It is upsetting, stressful, embarrassing and frightening to have disabling symptoms for which your doctor can find no explanation.

The point in the book is that the search for a physical cause can in itself prolong suffering. Suzanne O’Sullivan says that, once people accept that their symptoms are psychosomatic, they can work with a psychiatrist to understanding the underlying cause, and therefore work towards getting better. Which, surely, is what all of them want? It’s an interesting point, and indeed in the book she describes patients who do get better, and whose quality of life improves hugely through working with a psychiatrist. She makes a case that this is nothing to be ashamed of. The sooner we as a society stop giving less weight to mental health than physical health, the sooner we can all accept the influence of our mind on our body, and we can all work towards living a healthier life.

If someone told me that my symptoms were psychosomatic, that there was no physical cause for them and that I should see a psychiatrist, would I do it? Actually, I think I would. In fact the book has got me questioning whether there could be more of a psychological influence to my illness than I realise, and whether it’s something I should consider. However, I do still have a problem with this way of thinking. Because, at what point should you stop looking for a physical cause? I did get a diagnosis, and a physical cause was found, I have chronic reactivating Epstein Barr which is shown through the particular types of antibodies present in my blood. Actually this is one of the parts of the book that irritates me. The author makes a (very brief) reference to EBV when she discusses chronic fatigue syndrome, stating that since most of the adult population has had it at some point in their life, most people will have EBV antibodies in their blood and therefore EBV antibodies do not mean anything for CFS. This explanation is scientifically incorrect. There are multiple types of EBV antibodies, and the pattern of antibodies demonstrates whether the person has chronic EBV. The bloodwork of someone who has continuous symptoms caused by EBV will be different to the bloodwork of someone who contracted it many years ago and made a full recovery. This is well documented in scientific research and I could pull out many, many papers to this effect. She also makes a comment later in the book that is quite derogatory to people who believe they have food intolerances, and makes a statement that again suggests she does not understand the latest science.

Now, she is a neurologist specialising in psychosomatic illness. She’s not an EBV expert or a food intolerance expert. No-one can know everything, not even doctors. However, it is exactly this attitude that frustrates me about western medicine. There is a belief that the doctor knows best, that their medical training is more important than the patient’s own experience of their body. Despite all of the knowledge gained by science, there is still so much that science doesn’t know. That is exactly what keeps scientists in the job (and exactly why I love working in it) – there is always more to learn. Just because something isn’t recognised by medicine currently, that doesn’t mean it won’t be recognised in 5 years time, and it is arrogant for any doctor to think that what they know now is everything there is to know.

And this is where I struggle with psychosomatic illness. On the one hand, if psychological treatment can help improve a patient’s quality of life then that is great. Clearly physical symptoms CAN originate in the mind. But does this mean that just because a physical cause for someone’s symptoms has not yet been recognised, that they MUST originate in the mind? In any case, the general take-home message of the book is one I definitely agree with. The mind and body are not distinct. We all need to accept that the mind can make us sick. We so easily accept that emotions can affect our body; no-one questions that when we’re happy we might laugh, and when we laugh we make a noise, our breathing changes, our body shakes, the muscles in our face contract…and that these changes happen largely out of our control. So why is it so hard to believe that psychological factors might make us sick?

I have been thinking a lot about this over the last few weeks, about how my own illness may be influenced by my mind. I think it is easy to get defensive about this. For whatever reason, we don’t want to accept that our mind may be influencing our bodies. By accepting that, you are somehow implying that you can control it, that you should be able to ‘snap out of it’ or that you are choosing to be sick. However, if I want to stay true to my own beliefs, to the things I have written about in this post, then I must be open-minded to the idea that those beliefs are relevant to my own situation. Blog post on that coming up.

 

[1] Mostofsky EPenner EAMittleman MA. Outbursts of anger as a trigger of acute cardiovascular events: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Heart Journal 35(21):1404-10.

Relationships, love and infertility

This feels like an oddly personal topic to be writing about on a public blog, especially for me; a private, reserved, keep-myself-to-myself kind of person. But as I’m getting older, infertility is creeping up my list of things I need to be worried about. For me, fertility is a multi-faceted source of conern.

A little under a year ago I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS. Women with PCOS either don’t ovulate at all, or ovulate irregularly and infrequently. Without ovulation, there can be no conception. And so a common symptom of PCOS is infertility. In fact, many women aren’t diagnosed with PCOS until they attempt to conceive and find that they can’t. Luckily for most women with PCOS, there is a drug called Clomid or clomiphene, which can be used to stimulate ovulation and has a pretty good success rate. When Clomid is unsuccessful, IVF is usually the next option.

For me, however, those options are pretty much void. Because my EBV symptoms are so closely tied to my hormones, I currently take bioidentical oestrogen. My own oestrogen levels are excessively low due to PCOS, and when my oestrogen levels are lower, I get sicker. So I supplement with oestrogen and I feel somewhat better. I’m still trying to get my head around this relationship. It seems like friggin’ sod’s law that I would have chronic EBV which is activated when my oestrogen is low, AND PCOS which means my oestrogen is chronically low. I often think about this. I believe that a healthy body is a healthy body, and an unhealthy body is an unhealthy body. I just don’t think that diseases can be independent of each other, and I wonder if my hormones and therefore my PCOS, would improve or even resolve if my body could effectively deal with the EBV. Whether or not I will ever find out the answer to that question, I don’t know.

The catch-22 is that fertility drugs, including Clomid and those used for IVF, would require me to stop taking oestrogen. And that would mean being horrendously sick. It would mean giving up work, giving up my social life and hobbies, and spending the vast majority of my time in bed, horribly sick. This isn’t just a glass half-empty moment; I’ve been there before, with my own super-low levels of oestrogen and the EBV in pretty much a permanent state of activation, and it wasn’t pretty.

So, if at some point in the future I wish to have children, there’s a good chance I’d need to stop the oestrogen in order to do so, and I have to seriously question whether I want children that much or not. The other factor of course, is that raising children whilst chronically sick would be quite a challenge. I already struggle to keep up with the demands of life. A full-time job is extremely difficult at times, and if it weren’t for my current employer’s flexibility with working patterns and allowing me to work from home, I probably wouldn’t have a job at all. Household chores are also difficult at times, and I’m lucky to have a boyfriend who shows me endless amounts of patience, understanding that sometimes I can do more, and sometimes less. But add looking after children to that mix, and I honestly don’t think  I would manage.

So ultimately, I think my ability to have children rests entirely on finding some answers to EBV, and finding a way to improve my quality of life. I gave up on any realistic chances of finding a complete cure some time ago, but I do hope that I may be able to achieve a level of health that will allow me to conceive and raise children.

I’m 28 years old and, for the first time in my life, I have a man by my side who I think I’d quite like to be the father of my children. That is a wonderful thing, but it brings with it many emotions. Sadness and grief that I may never be able to fulfil that dream, disappointment that it might never be the happily ever after I dreamed of as a child, and worst of all, guilt that not only may I not be able to realise my own dreams, but that I may kill someone else’s dreams too.

For now, I am trying to live by the rules I always made for myself. Live for today, not tomorrow. Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do. And think about what you have got, not on what you haven’t.

 

When life’s an experiment

For the last couple of years, my life has been one giant experiment. Since getting a diagnosis, the experiment has at least been somewhat focused. When you don’t even know what the problem is, finding a solution is next to impossible. In fact, for most of the years prior to getting a diagnosis, I don’t think I really even bothered to look for solutions outside of my GP’s office. I think we live in a society where the doctor is assumed to have the answer to everything. If you’re sick, they’ll do a test, tell you what’s wrong, and give you a pill to fix it. Putting so much faith in medicine’s ability to fix it means that if medicine can’t fix it, life feels pretty grim. Where do you go from there? If the doctor doesn’t know, who the hell does know?

It was probably just over a year ago that something changed. I spent several months being sicker than I’d ever been, and my mindset changed. This couldn’t just be it. This couldn’t be what the rest of my life was destined to be like. If the doctors didn’t know, I’d at least try and work it out myself. It was at that point that I started looking for possibilities outside of medicine. Nutrition and wellbeing became a large focus of my efforts. Coming from a science background, I think making the transition away from medicine was hard for me. A lot of ‘alternative’ (which I now know is really just a word for ‘not funded by the drug industry’) treatments are really scoffed at by people in the medical community, and I was surrounded by that community both in my professional and personal life.

At this time a year or so ago, I read a lot about food intolerances contributing to chronic illness, and I decided to get tested. There are a LOT of nonsense food intolerance tests out there. And this is where it gets tricky – trying to tease out the sensible from the stupid. But I found a blood test that detects antibodies to certain foods and food components, and I was happy with the science behind it, so I went for it. It showed that my immune system was reacting to gluten and dairy, so I eliminated both completely. It’s hard to know exactly how much of an effect that had. Ultimately, I was still sick. I still had the usual symptoms of EBV. But there was a definite improvement in my fatigue and some other weird symptoms that I’d never really even th0ught about. I used to get really severe mouth ulcers. I almost always had at least one mouth ulcer and anything up to 15 at once. They were so horribly painful that I dreaded anyone speaking to me, knowing that the pain of talking back would be unbearable. I also used to get a rash called folliculitis, inflammation of the hair follicles, on my chest. When I cut out gluten and dairy, both of these things improved significantly.

Gluten has been permanently removed from my life ever since, and I don’t really miss it. You can get gluten-free everything these days. But last Christmas, I was craving cheese. Dairy felt much harder than gluten because there aren’t the same dairy substitutes, unless you want to consume soy all day long. So I reintroduced some dairy, starting with cheese, then butter, then yoghurt, and finally, a couple of weeks ago – milk. I went for organic whole milk thinking it was least likely to cause upset. For the last two weeks, my mouth ulcers have come back with a vengeance. Just as one starts to heal, another one rears its ugly head. God I hate those things. And that weird little rash has started to creep back in too.

So, it is with much sadness, that dairy has been booted out the door again. When I think about it, I don’t really agree with eating dairy anyway. I believe that cow booby-milk was designed to be fed to baby cows, not adult humans. It kind of makes sense to me that a lot of people might have problems with dairy, because I just don’t think we’re designed to consume it. But alas, there’s no denying that having a big dollop of clotted cream on your strawberries just ticks an awful lot of boxes. Eating out becomes tricky too – most places cater for gluten free, and a lot are ok with dairy free too, but somehow when you ask about both, you get an ‘oh-she’s-one-of-those‘ eye roll.

Of course, if it helps me become ulcer-free once more, it’s a small price to pay. But that’s the trouble with this god damn experiment. It’s just that – an experiment. I really have no idea if dairy is the issue here. It’s a stab in the dark based on a rough correlation I think I’ve seen. But who really knows? There are so many factors at play at any given moment that it could be anything. And honestly, when the uncertainty and potential risks of every single life choice, down to whether to have whole milk or soya on my granola this morning, are so huge, life feels a little depressing.

The advantage of disadvantage

I recently watched a video of Michelle Obama giving a speech to students at the City College of New York (link here: http://qz.com/700823/michelle-obama-told-graduates-of-the-poor-mans-harvard-that-living-without-privilege-is-an-advantage/ )

The general message was this: facing adversity is an advantage, not a disadvantage. It reminded me of a book I once read called David & Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell (well worth a read FYI!). It is a series of stories of what Gladwell calls “ordinary people confronting giants”; people facing all kinds of adversity and disadvantage. I think his message goes a little bit further than Michelle’s. I wholeheartedly agree with her argument that facing adversity makes you stronger, allows you to handle setbacks and makes you better equipped to deal with challenges in the future, giving you an ‘edge’ over those who haven’t faced such adversity.

But in David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell’s argument is that being the underdog in any given situation fundamentally changes you. It opens doors, creates opportunities, educates, and allows you to achieve things that others might deem unthinkable. The advantages of disadvantage, he says, go well beyond just making you more resilient.

I read this book about a year ago when I was at a real low-point with my health, and the message behind it really impacted me. It allowed me to reframe my sickness and see the situation in a totally different way.

Now let’s get this straight: I’m not trying to polish a turd, chronic illness sucks. Actually, all illness sucks. Anyone who’s ever had a cold, a sore throat, a tummy bug, an injury, surgery, depression, pain – in that moment when you are suffering, it’s hard to think about anything else, it consumes you. I think, therefore, that even those who’ve never experienced chronic illness can still picture what it might be like. Imagine that cold/tummy bug/injury coming back over and over and over again, a permanent parrot on your shoulder, a constant threat of illness and pain that could strike at any moment without warning. If I could choose to go back and live the last 12 years of my life without chronic illness, I would absolutely be there in a heartbeat.

But, reframing my illness to focus not on how bad it is or how unfair it is, and instead thinking about the advantages it has brought me, has been massively helpful in my ability to deal with it and stay emotionally healthy. And I don’t just mean superficially telling myself what a wonderful thing it is to be sick, that would be stupid. I mean really thinking about all the positive things that have happened as a result. And the truth is, there really are a lot of positives. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for chronic illness. I mean, I would literally be a different person. It has totally shaped my entire adult life, both who I am and the things I have achieved. And honestly, I quite like who I am, and I quite like my life too.

These are just a few of the examples of positive things that have come from my illness:

  • It has made me extensively research the effect of nutrition on health and illness, and has therefore led me to a way of life that is infinitely healthier than the one I was leading a few years ago. Chronic illness or not, taking good care of our bodies has to be a good thing, right?
  • It has made maintaining friendships quite difficult at times, which therefore means that the friends I have now are all people who are patient and understanding, who don’t pressure me into doing things I can’t do and who try their best to support me in various different ways.
  • Ok, this one might seem a little ridiculous. But I am bloody good at crochet! I started learning to crochet last year when I was unwell a lot and I could no longer do many of the things I used to enjoy (running and playing music were the two biggies). So to fill my time I taught myself to crochet using youtube tutorials. Well, not to blow my own trumpet but I’m pretty darn good at it now so, two fingers to you EBV.

These are just a few examples. There really are many, many more. So, to anyone reading this, I encourage you to reframe your difficulties. Of course, adversity sucks, it’s human nature to want to avoid unpleasant situations and feelings. But no matter what the situation, I promise you that somewhere in there there is a positive to be had, and thinking about the situation from a different perspective may just make it all feel a little less overwhelming.

 

Where I’m at now

Read My story Part 1 and My story Part 2

8 months after receiving a diagnosis, I am doing much better. I have many days where I feel well, I have energy, and I can spend time doing the things I love, with the people I love.

But I am nowhere near a level of health that I am happy with. I still have many days of sickness. The last month has been particularly bad, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of – stress I’m sure is a factor, having just moved house and having some emotional stresses recently too.

My latest bloodwork showed that my oestrogen levels are within the normal range, although still on the low side. All my other hormones are now normal, presumably thanks to the medications I am on and the lifestyle/diet changes I have made.

My attention recently has moved towards other factors besides hormones. Ultimately I have a burning desire to understand WHY this has happened to me. Sure, my hormones have been all over the place and I know that this makes me very sick. But WHY does it make me sick? There are millions of women all over the world with PCOS, but most of them don’t have CAEBV. I believe that something has gone fundamentally wrong with my immune system. I believe that being on the contraceptive pill at such a young age may have had something to do with that; the undeniable link between my symptoms and contraceptive pill use in my teenage years points me in that direction. But I’m not on the pill now, and my hormones are (relatively) normal. So why do I still get sick?

In creating the ‘About ebv’ page for this blog, I have found some new research about CAEBV. I have yet to read them in full (academic publications about the immune system don’t exactly make for light reading…), but I am hoping to get a better understanding of what scientists DO know about CAEBV, and what treatments are being investigated. I know that my chances of receiving any of those treatments anytime soon are very slim, since most of them are only in the experimental stages. But knowing that there are people out there trying to make sense of this illness, and trying to find novel treatments to improve the quality of life of people like me, fills me with so much hope. I am so unbelievably grateful that I have a diagnosis, that I have the ability to follow and understand the science, that there are people out there trying to find answers, and, most importantly, that I have wonderful loved ones who are on this journey with me.

The blogging effect

A little over 24 hours since I became ‘ebvwarrior’. A half-hearted, unconsidered decision. Turns out it may just be the best decision I’ve made for a long time.

I honestly didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading my blog. I don’t mean that in a self-pity kind of way, just that your own life always seems so mundane and average that you can’t really imagine other people being interested enough to sit down and read about it. I confess, this blog is a selfish blog. A way for me to track my progress, write down how I’m feeling, and keep a diary without it feeling like a naff polly-pocket affair reminiscent of my teenage years.

But since posting my first blog I have been inundated with messages from people all over: friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends. The last few weeks have been difficult and frustrating for me health-wise, and I was feeling a little worn down. But today, I feel uplifted and inspired by all you wonderful people who have taken the time not only to read my blog, but to actually take the time out of your day to write me a message of support.

Thank you readers, I feel infinitely less alone than I did 24 hours ago x

The emotions of chronic illness

It seems strange that in deciding what my first blog post should be, I have focused on the emotions rather than the physical symptoms. I am a bit of a keep-it-all-inside kind of person. Battling with this illness for 12 years, friends have come and gone, relationships have ended, that’s just the way of life. There is only really one person who has been there through it all, and that’s my mum. So I suppose you get used to dealing with it all yourself. What’s the point of talking to someone about how you feel when they can’t possibly understand what you’re going through, and when they might not be in your life anymore come next week, next month, next year?

When I’m sick, all my energy is taken up with the sickness, so that talking about how I’m feeling becomes even harder than normal. I’m sure there’s a primal, physical aspect to that – your body needs to preserve energy to fight the infection, right? Social chit-chat is definitely very low down on my list of priorities when I’m feeling sick, which must be pretty hard for my loved ones to deal with sometimes.

Chronic illness is a constant cycle of emotions. When I’m sick I’m filled with sadness, despair, hopelessness, disappointment. When I get better there’s happiness, excitement, hope, but there’s still anxiety, fear, worries about the future.

I am always seeking new information that may help me – new supplements, a new diet, a new medication, a new doctor. But sometimes that information can be overwhelming. I have read about so many different diets that might help EBV. No gluten, no dairy, paleo, vegetarian, autoimmune protocol, low sugar, low carb, and my most recent discovery – low arginine (blog post on that coming up). Then there’s the supplements: multi-vitamins, fish oil, monolaurin, cordiceps, colloidal silver, lysine….I could go on and on. In theory, all this information is great. But where the hell do you start when you are all on your own with a million different things that ‘might’ make you feel better? How long do you try something before concluding it hasn’t helped? Do you do one thing at a time or just bung them all in there and hope for the best? This is where my scientist-researcher brain probably makes life harder. How can it be a controlled experiment with so many factors at play?

So then comes the despair and hopelessness. How can I possibly get better if I have absolutely no idea what might actually help? In science you’re always taught to think about your sources. A peer-reviewed academic publication is a more reliable source than a random comment from one person online. But what do you do when 100s of people say that xyz has helped them with their illness? Is it worth taking the shot, even though your doctor would probably laugh in your face if they knew what you were trying?

And then I feel angry that I am spending so much time and energy researching these things when I could be enjoying life. At what point does information-seeking become obsession? When should you let go and accept the situation for what it is? It is a fine balance between not giving up the fight for good health, and not aimlessly searching for a cure that doesn’t exist.

But the worst emotion, the absolute worst, is loneliness. I am very lucky to have a wide support network of friends and family. But none of them have experienced chronic EBV. Almost all of my friends see me only when I am well, so they truly have no understanding of what my life is really like, and I can’t expect them to. Even my closest loved ones still don’t have to experience it first-hand. No-one else can share my physical experience, it is mine and mine alone, and that is a lonely old place to be. I think that is why I spend so much time researching online. There is a strange comfort in reading a story that mirrors your own, in realising you are not alone. At least I can be thankful of living in the age of the internet, where I can connect to other people who are sick too.

In fact, I have a lot to be thankful for. Love, support, a career, a roof over my head, and a body that, despite its flaws, still allows me to practice yoga sometimes, or feel the sand between my toes. I am not sick all the time. The unpredictability of how and when I’ll be sick is one of the things I find hardest, but at least it means I have days where I can function like a normal human being. In fact, at the moment, I have quite a lot of those days. I get to play with my nieces, practice my headstands, make love to my boyfriend (sorry mum). And chronic illness at least means that I will never take those simple pleasures for granted.