I’m not entirely sure why I am writing this one. Maybe I’ll post it and delete it a few days later. Perhaps this will never be posted and will join the thirty five odd articles and posts I have written and then chosen not to post on this blog, either because I am scared of abusive comments (but that said, I tend to get Internet abuse whatever I do these days) or because I don’t feel I’m saying anything worth reading. I suppose, in part, I’m writing this because this blog is about me. I have spent a lot of time writing analytical stuff about CUSU, video games, gender politics, welfare at Cambridge, but barring a series of articles about being a survivor of a brutal campaign of harassment, I haven’t actually said much about myself.
So here goes: I am utterly exhausted.
I’m reminded of the line in the Fellowship of the Ring, where Bilbo admits to Frodo that he feels like “butter spread out over too much bread.” I feel like I am running on the last dregs of energy, and that I have been for a good few years now. I can never fully recharge, but never quite grind to a halt. I am stuck in a permanent rut where I manage to achieve what I need to do (for the most part) but am always, always tired.
A large part of this is to do with the fact that I suffer from CFS, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. For those of you who don’t know, this is a physical and mental health condition which, as the name suggests, is characterised by a permanent or semi-permanent sense of exhaustion. I was diagnosed with CFS in my 3rd year at Cambridge. It had gotten to the point where I was struggling to leave my college room, attend supervisions, and the fifteen minute walk from Sidney Sussex College to the Faculty of English felt like a million mile journey. My GP speculated and tested – it might be anaemia, or even glandular fever, or perhaps connected to my pre-existing bipolar disorder (a symptom of which is exhaustion during depressive phases). Eventually, he called me and asked me to come into the surgery. It took two weeks to get an appointment – I found it very difficult to do things in the mornings, and the process of calling at 8.30am every morning (my GP at the time did not take advanced bookings) was a huge effort. When I did finally meet him, he said, “I’m afraid I have to conclude you have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.”
What does that mean?
“It means, Chris, and I’m sorry to say this, you’re probably going to be exhausted and drained for the rest of your life. There’s steps you can take to head off some of the side effects, but really? You’re going to have to deal with this for the rest of your life.”
My GP attributed CFS to my stupid working habits. I regularly pulled very long weeks, working 80 or 90 hours a week. My free time activities were energy drains – activism, campaigning, constantly gigging as a stand up. I slept very little (a throwback to terrible insomnia I suffered during my first and second year) and I ate a poor diet – I would subside on one meal a day, and had developed the bad habit of smoking to head off hunger. I suppose I didn’t help things, following this, by running as a CUSU Sabbatical Officer. Again, the very long hours of that job (and I mean long. Two am in the CUSU office again? Yep, fourth time this week) and the high stress levels (everyone is sad, and you can’t help them because the rules are unfair. you can’t change anything and the student press is dying to tell you how much Cambridge students hate you and think your organisation is basically worthless) did not help. By the end of my CUSU year I was a mess. I lost two stone, my smoking habit was worse, and looking at pictures of me from that period reveals a gaunt, pasty skinned and very depressed person.
Exhaustion still dogs me. Partially, because I take on a lot of responsibilities. For example, I currently work a full time job, which, in all fairness on its own is less draining that a Cambridge degree or MPhil. In addition to this, I am still very active as a comedian. I run a regular smoker, did a sketch show this term, have a solo show in works for next term, another sketch show, and audition and perform regularly. I am actively still campaigning against the travesty of poor welfare provision at Cambridge. I recently joined the Green Party, and became a very active member of the Young Greens committee, taking on event organising and the duties of treasurer. I try to maintain this blog, which gets about 1,000 readers a month. I write a regular column for The Cambridge Student, and contribute articles to Varsity (even if I do get driven of Twitter by TERFs as a result). I also need to manage my house, as chief tenant, and deal with bills, groceries, maintenance, and so on. Just writing that list makes me feel tired.
Many of the things I do shouldn’t be that draining. My job is generally regular hours, but varies – I work with young people, and anyone who’s a secondary school teacher will tell you, they take a lot of energy. I am solely responsible for St Catharine’s access work. I work with 130 different schools, and in the six months I’ve worked there, I’ve hosted almost 1,300 students, 109 teachers and several student societies outreach events at the college. In addition to this, I travel regularly across Cambridge, Suffolk, Peterborough and Rutland to work with school groups ranging from year 7s to year 13s. I don’t drive, and this means a lot of time relying on infrequent and dodgy rural transport. The number of times I have had to leave at the crack of dawn and return in the early hours of the morning when visiting a couple of schools is quite shocking really. I need to get a car, but finding the time, and the energy to learn to drive is proving very very hard.
With the things I do outside of work, I freely admit that I have taken them on and am responsible for them and the impact they have on me. But I do these things because I love them. I do not claim to be a particularly good stand up comedian, but the satisfaction I get from performing and from running the Newnham Smoker is immense. My welfare campaigning responsibilities are far too important to drop. Having seen the full extent of the problem, I feel a moral obligation to try and change it. I joined the Greens because I wanted to get involved in a positive left politics, and I’ve thrown myself into making sure the that my voice matter in the party (and to the Greens credit, I have actually felt this, most of the time). I maintain this blog, and write for the student papers because I feel it’s important to share my knowledge of Cambridge’s welfare problems in a public forum. More cynically, as I am taking time out of my studies, it is beneficial to keep my hand in in writing regularly.
But at the same time, the energy needed to sustain these things is huge. And my energy levels are usually heavily depleted. CFS creates tiredness that sleep never really satisfies. A long lie in or a “good” night’s rest won’t make it go away. Couple with that the fact that, as another symptom of CFS, I find that sleep doesn’t give me rest. I have been getting around 7 hours a night this last week, vastly more than I used to get a student, and yet I feel awful. I’ve had a constant headache for two days, my limbs feel leaden, and I find it hard to concentrate on anything – it feels like I’ve been awake for several days. Yet I have been sleeping, and so I get angry at myself – how can you claim to be tired when you are getting more rest than normal. So I try to push through, and when I find myself feeling too ill to do anything, the anger increases, I get more tired, and it goes on and on like this.
Mornings are hellish for me. I wake up every single day with intense nausea. My joints ache as if I’m an eighty year old. I feel dizzy and unstable. I regularly fall down a couple of steps on my way down from my bedroom. I cycle to work feeling drunk – everything is unstable, and I’ve narrowly avoided accidents by the skin of my teeth, due to sluggish reflexes. I am utterly useless in the mornings at work. I find it difficult to speak, my coordination is all over the place, and the pain in my joints makes it difficult to walk. By about 11 am, I tend to feel more human, assuming I’ve plied myself with huge quantities of caffeine, but by the late afternoon I feel dead again. Losing so much time during the working day means my evenings are spent catching up, which means less sleep which means less energy the next day and so on and so forth.
As I said at the beginning, I’m not sure why I’m writing this – maybe just for the sake of it. I’m not trying to make a pithy, insightful point, or encourage you to think about some nuanced point of gender politics or even be amusing. Maybe I want people to sympathise with how difficult life is for me, and how much I struggle with everyday task, or at least be understanding when I am late or struggle to meet deadlines. Maybe I just want to share the rather hopeless feeling that I am going to be this way for the rest of my life (there is no cure for CFS). Or maybe I just needed to get down in writing that I am utterly, utterly exhausted.