When I got sick, about 20 years ago, for the first time I started thinking about diseases and loss of health. And I remember coming to the conclusion of how fortunate I was, from a physical standpoint. Not of how fortunate I had been in the past (that was obvious), when I could conquer mountains, running on rocks with my 15 Kg bike on the shoulders; no, of how fortunate I was in that very moment, while confined at home, mostly lying horizontally. I was fortunate, I could still move my hands, I had still all my body, even if I couldn’t use it in the outside world, even if most of the usual activities of a 20 years old man were far beyond reaching, I realized how fortunate I was. And after 20 years I still say that, as for the physical functioning, I am a very lucky man. There are even some years, during the core of the summer, in which I can run for some minutes in the sun. I am blessed.
I am aware that this might offend some patients, but I think that those who have ME/CFS in the vast majority of cases are fortunate too, from a physical standpoint. Yes, it is annoying to need help from others for so many things, but with assistance and some arrangements, you can go on with a productive life… unless you have cognitive impairment.
Actually, I never felt fortunate concerning my cognitive functioning. That has been a true tragedy, I have lost my entire life because of the cognitive damage, by any means because of the limitations of my body. I would have had a meaningful life (according to any standard) even with physical limitations way worse than mine if I had had a functioning brain. But I lost it when I was 20 before I could get the best from it and that is the only real tragedy.
As an example of what I am saying, consider a person like Stephen Hawking: he has been a prolific scientist, he had a stellar career (literally), he shaped our culture with his books for the general public, he was a father of three, and so forth. And yet for most of his life, while he was doing all these things, his physical functioning was way worse than the one of the average ME/CFS patient (worse even of a very severe patient, probably). For many years he could use only the muscles of the head. That’s it. Think about that. Was he missing or invisible? Definitely not!
Was he a disabled man? Yes, technically speaking he was, but in fact, he has never really been disabled, if we judge from his accomplishments. He once said that the disease somehow even helped him in his work, because he could concentrate better on his quantum-relativistic equations¹.
So what I am saying is that if we consider the physical functioning in ME/CFS, it is a negligible problem in most of the cases. The only thing that matters is the impairment in cognition (in the cases in which it is present), especially if it starts at a young age (consider that after you reach your thirties there is very little chance that your brain will give a significant contribution to humanity, even if you are perfectly healthy, so it is not a big loss if you get sick after that age). That is disastrous and there is no wheelchair you can use for it. For all the other symptoms you can find a way to adjust, just as Hawking did in a far worse situation.
This might be one of the reasons for the bad reputation of ME/CFS: there isn’t awareness about cognitive issues, no one talk about them (and in some cases, they are in fact not present at all). But I am pretty sure that the real source of disability in these patients, the lack of productivity, is due to their cognitive problems (when present). Also because in a world like ours, you can work even without using most of your muscles. It is not impossible, I would say it is the rule for a big chunk of the population.
The following one is an interview with Norwegian neurologist Kristian Sommerfelt, in which he points out some analogous considerations. He has done some research on ME/CFS with the group of Fluge and Mella, including the well-known study on pyruvate dehydrogenase. From the subtitles of the video (minute 3:38):
“This [the cognitive problem] is a very typical ME symptom and some of what I believe causes the main limitation. I don’t think the main limitation is that they’re becoming fatigued and exhausted by moving around, walking, running, or having to sit still. If it were just that, I think many ME-patients could have had a much better life. But the problem is that just actively using the mind leads to problems with exactly that, using the mind. It comes to a stop, or slow down, depending on how ill they are.”
¹ It seems that Stephen Hawking had a very unusual presentation of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS): one half of those with this disease die within 30 months from the first symptom; moreover one out of two ALS patients has a form of cognitive impairment which in some cases can be diagnosed as frontotemporal dementia [R]. So, Stephen Hawking was somehow lucky, in his tragedy, and he doesn’t represent the average ALS patient. I mentioned his case as an example of a person with very severe physical impairment and no apparent cognitive decline, not as an example of the average ALS patient.