Right before Christmas I spontaneously answered an appeal from an organization I’ve been a part of since 1991. They’ve changed their name in an effort to reposition the invisible malady we share. The idea was to spread the work about ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) by asking ten people to donate twelve dollars each to raise money for much needed research. I made an embarrassing selfie Vimeo video, showing myself in the state I’ve hidden from the world, my town, my friends for twenty-five years. I hate asking people for money, so I tried to downplay the donation aspect while encouraging my friends to “share” the message to help raise awareness of Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia. I took in a deep breath, said a prayer, and clicked the “post” button on Facebook well after midnight, before I lost my nerve.
I have over a thousand “friends” on Facebook, some I’ve never met in person. Many of themfrequently “like” the inspirational quotes I post, photos of my precious granddaughter, humorous jokes, pretty pictures of the beach. The resulting response of silence to my linked video in my Facebook world was palpable, deafening really. What on earth had I done? Had I just “lost” a bunch of “friends?”
Slowly, a few responses trickled in, applauding my courage. One night I received a private message from a long lost friend, thanking me for my candor, explaining how my video had affected her family. Her son had been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome a couple of years prior, but things had been getting very tense in her household, as her husband just didn’t understand and he had been getting more and more frustrated with their son. She had showed my video to her son, who said my description was “spot on.” She had showed it to her husband and “something clicked” and he finally “got it.” The role of caretaker to those of us with ME/CFS is a lonely and weary one, too. I sighed, finding comfort that I had helped someone. The personal embarrassment was worth it, if I had only helped that one family.
I called my best friend in Tennessee and asked her opinion.
“It was pretty depressing,” she admitted with her familiar chuckle.
“I know, right? But that’s how I really am about 75% of the time.”
“Really? I would’ve guessed about 25%.”
“No, I just don’t answer the phone or talk about it every time I’m so down, even with you. You know me better than anyone and you really thought I felt this way only 25% of the time? Should I delete it?”
“No, but maybe you could do a follow-up video explaining more? And just shoot from the hip, no script, just telling it like you just told me.”
I took her advice and recorded a more upbeat video. I put on make-up and filmed it outside on my deck, sunshine and chirping birds in the background. I got a few more “likes.” I raised a little money. But another friend, one who had lived with similar health challenges for decades as well, told me she liked the first video better — that she felt like I had negated all the wonderful honesty I’d expressed in the first one when I posted the second one.
So I did a third one, this time using YouTube. It was right before Christmas. I held my iPhone out and recorded another selfie with Christmas music in the background. This one was a mix of the two. I got a few more “likes,” more heartfelt donations, and several private messages thanking me for validating similar feelings, for expressing the day to day realities of living with CFS and Fibromyalgia in a way that reached family members who had not been very understanding until seeing my video.
After Christmas, my husband found a “scooter” on sale at a medical supply place and, after 25 years of hiding my pain, painting on a smile for the world, living a mostly housebound life, I took my first spin. I was a nine-year old with a new bicycle! You could not wipe the smile from my face! I felt only joy and exuberance as I felt the wind in my hair as I zipped down the street!
“I hope this doesn’t make you feel … disabled, handicapped.”
“Well, of course it does! But I’m so over it! I’m 55 and I am so over it!”
The first few times I drove my “Go Go,” I stayed on the same two streets I’d walked for years whenever I could get out of the house. But two weeks ago I branched out and took a “walk” (“a scoot”?) beyond the side street on which I’ve lived for fifteen years, but have only seen, I realized, from a car window. As I motored past Wake Forest Elementary, a nostalgic tear slipped out behind my Ray Bans. I recalled the many times I had joined first Caroline, then Hallie, for lunch in that noisy cafeteria. Light and noise and smells had assaulted my sensitive body and I’d smiled my way through the thirty minute experience before I drove home and crashed in the bed, resting up before time to pick them up in the carpool line at 3:20. The sounds of those little elementary school children, their energy, their boisterous joy, the innocent, promising twinkle in their eyes — I am so glad I got to experience them! I am so grateful that I braved the times I sucked it up and went to my daughers’ schools even when I didn’t feel up to it. I almost always paid a dear price later, but no one can take those memories away from me.
Continuing, we turned the corner and then another corner, the Seminary campus on our right. Roosevelt, my little terrier mix, trotted right along with me, both of us learning how to navigate the moving vehicle and the leash, adjusting our speed from “hare” back down to “tortoise” when he galloped and fell behind; stopping abruptly when he found a bush he was determined to sniff, to lift his leg and make his mark while I untangled and readjusted the leash situation. Ideally, I needed him on my left, freeing my right hand to press the lever forward when we were ready to go; to release when we needed to stop suddenly.
“I don’t think this is an all-terrain vehicle, Roosevelt,” I said when we hit a rough parts of the sidewalk, ran over anything larger than a sweet gum ball, navigated turns. Cars sped past us as we made our way down Durham Road, the major 35 mph thoroughfare through our small town. I kept my head down for a few houses, but at some point I got the courage to look up, to smile and nod my head to people whose faces turned to look at me through car windows, rolled up in the chilly winter air.
Near the end of our mile-long scoot, I got my new scooter stuck on uneven pavement and had to exert great effort to help it get over the hump. Then we met with a rather large branch that had fallen on the sidewalk. Ignorantly, I tried to go over it instead of getting off and moving the debris. The plastic basket popped off and I stopped us abruptly. We’d almost rolled over it. We’d almost tipped over. I got off, figured out how to reattach the basket, and moved the branch. We finally made it back to our street without seeing anyone I knew.
I took out my iPhone and recorded a little of our scoot-walk, capturing Roosevelt’s cute little run beside me. When I posted that on Facebook, I got over 70 “likes” and quite a few comments.
One friend asked to see a picture of the actual scooter. I retrieved the only one I had, the one taken by my husband the first day he had surprised me with the after Christmas gift. I was wearing no make up, no bra, my wild hair unruly around my ear warmer headband. It was not a flattering picture at all. But something inside me said, “What the hell? I’m 55. I already posted that depressing video. Who gives a rip?” So I commented back on that post and attached the awful photo, once again getting over myself and letting real life — my real life — show.