Over the past 4 years, I have been struck by the sheer number of M.E/CFS sufferers who keep their health private. They are free to do so, that is their choice to make. However, as the founder of ME Foggy Dog, I waived that right to privacy in order to raise awareness. As you will know, I talk about everything and anything that comes under the umbrella of M.E/CFS. There aren’t many things that I have thought are too intimate to discuss, you guys even know about my M.E affected failing love life and weight problem! Many of Foggy’s Followers message me to tell me that I am brave and strong for being so open. I just figure that we need to share the bare nakedness of the illness to make sure that Joe Public ‘gets it’. We can’t pull any punches. There is no need to dramatise our situation – it’s powerful in its vulnerability.
This openness makes me feel vulnerable and leaves me open to negativity, exactly the stuff that the people who choose to be private are scared of. I am well aware that my openness has caused me to miss out on job opportunities, business contracts, and many other things where having a disability could be an issue – not able to work enough hours etc.
In my mind this sense of vulnerability goes hand in hand with the stigma attached to M.E/CFS. Last year, when I started social enterprise training in Winchester, I had to give a 2-minute pitch to apply for funding (which I won but have since given back due to leaving the course). I was looking for something to add a bit of oomph to my pitch. I found it on Instagram. I discovered an M.E. story that was so powerful it touched me immensely. I spoke to the Instagram follower and asked their permission to use it in my pitch. This person hasn’t even told their friends and family about their illness, they are so terrified of the stigma attached to ME/CFS. It broke my heart to hear this and was very grateful that I was given permission to tell their story on this occasion. I could see it struck the six people on the panel. They asked why someone would be so scared of people finding out and I explained the ignorance and misconceptions surrounding ME/CFS. The panel agreed that the training organisation I was hoping to set up was needed to knock down some of our barriers and deal with the stigma.
I have met people who have symptoms and have been diagnosed with Post-Viral Fatigue Syndrome (or similar) but won’t consider the tag M.E because they are scared of it. It would make them feel too vulnerable and open to negativity. Yes, that’s right, just the idea of having the label of M.E is too scary for some people to accept. They tell me they have friends with M.E but are desperate to not have the same condition because they see how cruel it can be. The label itself isn’t what makes us vulnerable, it’s the stigma and negativity that goes with it.
Prior to setting up Foggy, I didn’t really talk about my M.E/CFS in work (apart from with Occ Health or managers) and only mentioned it to close friends. I felt too vulnerable and open to criticism if I opened up to a wider circle. I would always be braced for nasty comments or opinions. That feeling of vulnerability isn’t pleasant. Now, I know that this nastiness comes from a lack of awareness and wide range of misconceptions. Those people who chat online about awareness being ‘pointless’ need to see how the general public being ‘aware’ can only help to reduce our feelings of vulnerability, and help to combat the stigma surrounding M.E/CFS. We should not feel embarrassed or ashamed about having an invisible disability.
I have been told that there is strength in vulnerability and I am slowly coming around to the idea. We show strength in the face of adversity.
(and Foggy OBVIOUSLY)