It started with a bout of mononucleosis. Two college roommates and I got it at the same time. They felt better after a month. I didn’t. Decades later, I’m still living with bone-penetrating exhaustion and brain fog as thick as pea soup. I spent much of my 30s and 40s tethered to my bed, too weak to function. I’ve had to abandon both my career in international relations and my social life.
My mono had morphed into something more permanent, a neuroimmune disease the World Health Organization calls myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). It affects between 1 million and 2.5 million Americans and 17 million people worldwide.
It’s a disease that can force you to put your life on hold. According to the Institute of Medicine, it can reduce an individual’s ability to function more than heart failure, multiple sclerosis, or end-stage kidney disease. There’s no generally accepted diagnosis for ME. It can take up to five years to be accurately diagnosed, and up to 90 percent of people with it are never accurately diagnosed. Worse still, the FDA hasn’t given the green light to any treatments for it.
Those of us with ME have long hoped the government would come to our aid. Instead, in 1988 it gave the disease a new name, chronic fatigue syndrome, that stigmatizes people with this condition. And the National Institutes of Health has generally looked the other way. Year after year, the NIH has set aside a paltry $5 million to $7 million of its $30 billion annual budget for ME research. Compare that with the $100 million set aside for research on multiple sclerosis, which affects about 400,000 Americans.
Labelling ME as chronic fatigue syndrome gives doctors, the media, the public, and even family members permission to assume individuals are exaggerating, that we’re simply refusing to pull it together. With such a name, who could fault folks for thinking we just need to take a nap, some fish oil, and a vigorous walk? This type of thinking has led to individuals with ME, some too sick to care for themselves, being abandoned by both disbelieving families and physicians.
Last October, two things seemed poised to break the logjam of government neglect and stigmatizing research. First, investigative journalist and public health expert David Tuller successfully debunked the PACE study, a randomized trial that had cemented the widely held but erroneous belief that ME is a psychological disorder rather than a physical illness. Tuller’s work showed that the many flaws in the trial’s methodology seriously undermined the credibility of the treatments it supported — cognitive behavior therapy and graded exercise therapy. The investigation prompted 42 scientists and experts from Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and elsewhere to release an open letter to the Lancet supporting Tuller’s analysis and demanding an independent analysis of the trial.
As any ME patient can tell you, behavior or talk therapy and pushing yourself physically won’t make you well. In fact, exercise often causes me to relapse, requiring weeks or months of home-bound bedrest. Telling an ME patient to exercise is dangerous, tantamount to prescribing sugar to a diabetic.
Also last October, the federal government promised to bolster research on what it now calls ME/CFS. Many of us thought this condition would finally get the type of government attention and funding offered to multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, two other neurological diseases also without a known cause or cure. Unfortunately, half a year later, the government falls short in making a serious commitment to ME. The NIH’s offering in the last six months includes one study of just 40 ME/CFS patients that will take at least two years to complete and some supplemental research money to expand grants already awarded.
In an effort to get on the US Department of Health and Human Services’s radar, ME patients and their caregivers will stage a protest, #MillionsMissing, at various cities around the country on May 25. What’s missing are millions of dollars of federal research funds into ME and millions of patients missing out on their own lives, from attending school to climbing the career ladder to simply spending time with family and friends.
Of course, many of us are too sick to attend the protests in person. We’ll be there in spirit — with empty pairs of our shoes symbolically standing in for us — as we advocate for our lives from our beds.
Rivka Solomon is a Massachusetts advocate for myalgic encephalomyelitis who is helping coordinate the #MillionsMissing protest. She is working on a book about her quarter century with the disease.
Thank you for your article Rivka and thank you for driving the 5/25 ‘Millions Missing’ protest in San Francisco. I hope you aren’t too crashed!
Thanks to Rivka Solomon for this excellent essay and to STAT for publishing it!
I have become much more sick in the last 2 years of 23 years of this illness. I have now given up hope of feeling even close to “normal”. It’s not about being tired, it’s about being ill… feeling SICK for decades not days! How could you not feel depressed with this? I always thought the medical community would reach a point of discovery about CFIDS before I was this old. I was wrong. I overestimated the number of those in power who cared about our suffering. That is depressing in itself.
Thank you for your eloquent description of this horrible disease. We need a very real boost in research funding with an impetus to push to for clinical trials and medical education. One million plus Americans with this illness and effectively ignored is simply unconscionable!
Yes, I have it, I am exhausted and has been exhausted and ignored by the doctors for over 3 decades! Of course, I was told that I am depressed! I can clearly divide my life into two phases, before and after mono. I tested positive for mono, I saw under the microscope my own blood, (every single lymphocyte with a huge round tail, not even a single one looked normal), my body temperature (BT) permanently dropped 2F – and I regard it as one of the main (possibly) diagnostic symptoms of the disease. Being a medical researcher, I did my own research. I am convinced that drop in BT affects our physiology tremendously. EBV (Epstein-Barr virus) also affects the health of the liver. Fat limiting diet combined with a treatment with Garlic and Licorice keeps me functioning but there were days that I was hardly able to get up in the morning. I had to force myself with all my remaining strength, to go to work.
Thankyou for post ing this information , I found it interesting x
I had cfs and most people thought it was me making it up. Mine lasted for 6 years maybe more. Like you when I exercised I would get worse. I still have fatigue more than most but I keep it to myself now.
Thank you for writing this article. I have had the illness since 1981. I ‘m glad there are people willing to keep pushing for research and recognition, especially because I simply can’t do it. The anger, sadness, grief, and memories of all the losses and indignities make it just too draining.
Wow wonderfully written.
Hi Rivka, Thank you for taking the time and your energy to write this welcomed piece. Your continued efforts along with other patients and advocates continues to make a difference. Today Vicky Whittemore of NINDS presented the NIH’S MECFS Working Group’s proposal to fund a multi centered research consortium during the open session of the National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke Council. The proposal was voted on and unanimously approved. Dr. Walter Koroshetz of NINDS was in attendance and supported the proposal. To view the meeting go Here: https://videocast.nih.gov
The recording will be archived and available for future viewing.
Again, your work is much appreciated,
Really great to hear it was approved!
Comments are closed.