Comfortably Numb?

Just when I was settling into a grimly satisfying but joyless routine of water-chugging, pulse monitoring and elastic sock wearing, last week went a bit wonky.

I fell out with my closest male friend. I’ll spare everyone the details as recounting the sorry tale would risk turning into a Vicky Pollard-esque monologue. Suffice to say, a situation arose which left me feeling hurt and angry, so that I lashed out and made things even worse. We are currently not on speaking terms.

The day after the argument, I felt generally worse in myself again. Some of the symptoms I recognised as normal for me when I get upset – shivering and an dodgy stomach seem to be par for the course when I’m feeling emotional. However, the heart rate also went a bit crazy; I felt really weak and breathless on standing and when I checked my pulse, it was 150. The last few mornings, I’ve woken early, drenched in sweat. I’ve slept for a couple of hours each afternoon, which I haven’t needed to do for weeks.

Only time will tell whether or not my friend and I will sort things out. One thing is for sure, emotional stress definitely has an effect on ME symptoms. In fact, it can have an effect on the body even if you are well.

Living with ME can be very isolating and this is something I hate. Yet, in a way, existing in your little bubble of chronic illness can protect you from having to deal with some of the emotional strains of what is, for most people, everyday life. When you have to be extra-careful with your health, it’s tempting to try to avoid any upset, but this can mean failing to deal with things that need to be confronted. We all have to be able to deal with arguments, disagreements and fallings-out. It’s part of having healthy relationships at home, at work and in our social lives.

I don’t have any concrete answers for how to deal with emotional stress. All I know is that we can at least learn from our experiences. I’m learning that there is a balance to be struck between facing up to emotionally charged situations and knowing when to step back from them. Call it emotional pacing.

Reflecting on this situation has made me realise – it’s better to feel something than nothing. After consulting with my doctor earlier this year, I decided to come off the antidepressant I’ve been taking for the last couple of years. Thankfully, I haven’t been depressed for a long time. The medication definitely helped. But it was doing nothing to help with my chronic back pain or fatigue symptoms and I wondered if I would actually now feel better, from the ME perspective, without it.

On gradually reducing the dose, I’ve noticed an increased emotional response which may just be a return of my normal emotional responses. I first noticed this when I started to well up at the series finale of “Call The Midwife”. This is a little embarrassing but not, I suspect, particularly abnormal. Let me assure you that being depressed and being upset are not the same thing. Many people actually like having a good cry. My best friend memorably said, “There’s nothing I enjoy more than sitting down with a DVD and box of tissues.” She was referring to the classic tearjerker “Beaches”, although the more grubby-minded of us took her comment the wrong way.

When I was depressed, however, I cried at everything. Not in a cathartic way, but in a black, morbid way. I read metaphors for death into Iggle Piggle’s saying goodnight on “In The Night Garden”, his little boat floating bleakly away across the Styx. I now find this thought utterly ridiculous but at the time I saw this grim inevitability in everything.

So this is now my rule for “How much emotion is too much?” Crying at “Call The Midwife”? Normal. Crying at CBeebies? Call the doctor.


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