My experience of CFS began with a brief illness in July 1987. I was 30 years old at the time, with a month old baby, and a two year old. It felt like a flu, with a fever lasting through most of the night. The next day, I was better although with a distinct feeling that something had changed. Over the following week or two I experienced my first rounds of muscle pains in my shoulders and hips, swollen glands, fatigue and depression. I went to the doctor, and was screened for Epstein Barr virus and mononucleosis. There was no conclusive diagnosis, and I was left to come to my own conclusions. As my symptoms continued through the rest of that summer and into the autumn, I began to look into the matter on my own. At the time there were a number of recently published books that suggested I was suffering from Candida, or overgrowth of yeast in my digestive track. At one point my family doctor sent me to Vancouver General Hospital for an evaluation of my myalgias, etc. They appeared to be gathering clinical data, but I didn’t hear from them afterwards.
In 1989 I experienced iritis, which was treated with steroid drops by the ophthalmologist. Meanwhile, my pattern of flare ups settled into a pattern until I became pregnant with twins in the spring, and experienced a sustained break from the pain and fatigue. The babies went to term and were born in December 1990, and my CFS symptoms did not return to their usual pattern for some months. When I asked doctors about it, and about the theories of what I might be experiencing they were skeptical, and suggested it may be psychological.
While I was struggling with a bout of depression in 1995, the psychiatrist prescribed a combination of Effexor and Valium, which I was taking when my father died suddenly of a heart attack. A year of grief followed which was bearable for being understandable, and somehow easier to face than the depression that had preceded it. Over these years, my CFS flare ups were frequent and made life difficult to manage. Although I could always get through the day by pushing through with swollen glands, stiff hips, fatigue, anxiety and a feeling of desperation, it was often very difficult. I went to a naturopathic doctor, and was given intravenous vitamins, and a very long list of foods to avoid. The vitamins and dietary changes didn’t appear to make any difference. I also took a course in Transcendental Meditation, and began to meditate on a regular basis.
Over this time, I found relief came with hot baths, stretching, meditation and drinking alcohol. The baths and alcohol offered the most predictable respite, and I remember the naturopath being taken aback when I told him about the drinking. Although I’m reluctant to speculate about the reasons, I’ve wondered whether its immunosuppressant effects of may have come into play.
Since the last 1990’s, my flare ups have gradually decreased, and now only occur every few months. These periods generally last for a week or two; often just after I’ve recovered from a cold or flu. One thing that’s striking about the symptoms is that they are always much more disturbing than those associated with a “real” illness: an actual head cold is comparatively luxurious because it doesn’t come with the deeply wrought discomfort of the muscle pain and desperation. I also find that oral analgesics (acetaminophen, ASA, ibuprofen) do not bring relief.
In late 2011 I was experiencing a difference sort of pain in my upper back and legs, which turned out to be accompanied by a high ESR, and I was diagnosed with Polymyalgia Rheumatica. My rheumatologist oversaw a gradual tapered dose of Prednisone over the next three and a half years, ending with a course of Methotrexate for the final six months after discontinuing the steroid.
When the planned opening of the Complex Disease Clinic at BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre in Vancouver was announced, I asked my doctor to support my application, and she ordered the requested blood tests in April of 2013, and submitted the results in along with my application. Some months later, I telephoned to ask about the status of my file. Due to organizational issues, it hadn’t reached the point where I would be contacted to complete the intake process. As of December 2016, I still haven’t heard from them. My doctor is angry because she was criticized for the number of tests, and their cost, and so would be unwilling to do so again in the future.
I am hoping my case will eventually be reviewed by this clinic so I can share my experiences with both CFS and PMR. My family doctor and rheumatologist remain unconvinced about the existence of the CFS/ME and/or FM. While I am fortunate to be free from symptoms most of the time, flare ups remind my how profoundly this mysterious ailment can affect both mind and body.