I am very pleased to share this guest post from Darlene Prestwich in which she shares her experiences as a new(ish) advocate. I’ve been doing this so long, sometimes I forget what it was like to jump in the deep end of the advocacy pool. Darlene describes her own experiences with grace, and I am so grateful she is sharing them here today.
This week I’m home alone. My family is on an annual week-long camping trip to a neighboring state. Its incredibly painful sending them off to do things that I absolutely love to do year after year, but I don’t want ME/CFS to take those experiences away from them, too. So they stock the fridge before they leave and go adventuring without me. Last year I found it incredibly difficult to send them off. I was homebound and dealing with a particularly nasty and long-lived crash that looked as if it may be my new baseline. I had to spend much of the day in bed, being capable of self care but not much more. I was lonely, sad, and so very sick.
I could have reached out to friends, extended family, or supportive church groups, but I simply didn’t have enough energy for social interaction. That’s just one of the cruel tricks this disease plays. I decided to venture online and began to get a greater sense of the depth of the ME/CFS community there. Perhaps it was because I needed it so much right then (I’d dabbled around a bit before), but I was hooked. These people were speaking my language! Plus, I could rest mid-sentence if I needed to. Here were formerly active, capable, and successful people whose bodies and brains were so whacked out that simple physical or cognitive tasks could be overwhelming, and even lead to relapse. Many had been able to find a sense of acceptance despite the desolation of this disease and the toll it takes. Some were desperate and didn’t know if they could go on another day; they felt misunderstood, mistreated, and so very broken. It was both heartrending and encouraging and most of all, familiar.
At times going online was simply overwhelming. The combination of new terminology and technology I wasn’t very familiar with was daunting to say the least. It’s incredibly taxing to learn new things when your brain is a foggy mess. But the online advocacy community was so intriguing. Here was a group of people who were trying to rise up, be heard, and effect change. Most were doing it primarily from their beds. A few months into my forays online, HHS contracted with IOM to create a new case definition for ME/CFS. Suddenly I was signing petitions, writing letters, and urging family and friends to do the same. And all at once I went from being pleased that there was a group of people online who were speaking my language, to wondering just what language these people were speaking.
Things seemed to be in code. I’ve never been much for acronyms, and now I was swimming in them. Even Google was stumped at times. Adding to the confusion was how often simply rearranging the same letters meant something completely different: i.e. IOM,OMI, & IMO (or its perhaps more gracious variation, IMHO). Many a browsing session turned into an IAMGOTOBED experience. (Internet Acronym Mess Got Overwhelming, Tired Out Brain Ends Day)
Without advocates who were willing to educate me I would have been completely lost. There are many patient, inclusive, and kind people in this community. It takes work to bring someone up to speed, and it’s a steep learning curve for an absolute beginner. I am very appreciative of those who were—and continue to be—willing to use precious energy to answer my sometimes incredibly basic questions. The more I learn about the history of ME/CFS, the more my admiration grows for those who have been advocating tirelessly for years. (Well, maybe not tirelessly, but in spite of being profoundly tired.) There are also many who have worn themselves out trying to be heard.
These were people with strong opinions who felt passionate about their cause, but who didn’t always agree. The IOM contract was hugely divisive, and it was disconcerting to see how viciously some advocates attacked other advocates. It seemed so counterproductive, especially within a movement which faces the unique challenges this one does. It has been said that advocacy is a messy business and those who want to contribute should put on their “big girl pants” and grow a thicker skin. I’m sure that can be helpful advice, but it seems doubly challenging for people who are often so ill they rarely even put on pants. On the other hand, I’ve watched advocates who were sharply divided quickly leap to other’s defense when attacks came from without the community. I got the sense that this community feels sort of like a family.
I was enjoying this business of being an advocate. I was getting a better grasp of the technology, and with repeated use the terminology wasn’t so intimidating either. Then I ran across an opinion that gave me pause. Someone had posted that there were too many people claiming the title of advocate. They suggested that signing petitions and writing letters Does Not an Advocate Make. Well, I’m not a lobbyist or a lawyer, and I haven’t started a patient organization. I don’t run a support group or make films. I don’t even have a blog. So… maybe I’m just some sort of a wannabe advocate. I suppose the answer lies in how one defines ‘advocate’. I do know that I am advocating. And at times it comes at a substantial personal cost; it doesn’t take much to do that, unfortunately. But it feels good to be doing something; and for now I suppose that will have to be enough.
Through all this I’ve become more open about my illness with my friends and extended family. I’ve appealed to government representatives and become more willing to attempt to educate my various healthcare providers. After all, it takes courage simply to admit I have an illness as lame as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sounds. And although Myalgic Encephalomyelitis now trips easily off my tongue, even my closest family has yet to master that mouthful consistently. I also feel a much greater responsibility to fight for others who are suffering, as well as those who will be stricken down by this devastating disease.
So this week will be quiet, and a bit lonely. But I’m pleased that I have new friends and acquaintances that I didn’t have last year. Many are, without a doubt, Completely Legitimate Advocates. I still have so much to learn, and not nearly enough capacity to do everything I would like. But I’ve come to believe that my voice is important. After all, imo we need every voice we can get.