I have decided to undertake a project this year. I wanted to see just how isolated I have become since having ME, so, for the whole of 2019 I will be keeping a record of the time I spend in the company or vicinity of other people.
As well as satisfying my own curiosity, my aim with this project is to help others understand the extent of the isolation I live in. I want to help people understand just how severely ME limits my ability to interact, communicate with and be around people. I’ve explained before that ME is defined by a pathological inability to produce energy on demand at a cellular level. Unlike the common misconception, ME is not an illness that causes me to feel tired, it’s an illness that limits my energy production. I think most of the people I know can understand how this affects my ability to undertake various physical and cognitive activities, but I’m not sure they know just how severely it affects my ability to simply be around people. I have gone into this before, especially with my last post, Post Thirty Two. Some Things I’d Like My Visitors To Be Mindful Of., in which I explained how carefully I have to plan and manage the time that I spend around people. I think this post and this project as a whole tie in well with Post Thirty Two, but with this project, I’ll actually be able to show them just how drastically my reality has changed due to having ME.
What this project is not about.
Importantly, I want to be sure that people understand that the isolation I live in is not a choice I have made, it’s not because I lack ‘motivation’, nor is it caused by neglect. This project is not a reflection on any of the people in my life, it is not about lost or fading friendships or a lack of offers. I have lost friends, it’s true, but that is irrelevant to this project. I’m not lacking people, I don’t need to join a befriending scheme, what I am lacking is energy, I am simply too unwell to be around people.
This project is not about loneliness. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how I could calculate the amount of time I feel lonely. It’s too subjective. How would I accurately log a feeling, especially one that comes and goes in waves? Of course I do feel lonely at times, sometimes excruciatingly so, but this project is about isolation, not loneliness. The results of this project will say nothing about how often I did or did not feel lonely in 2019. It is not a project about my emotions, I have no interest in doing that.
It’s not a scientific experiment, it’s a personal project. My counsellor likened it to more of an evolving art installation, which I like the sound of.
How is this going to work?
To figure out how my current level of isolation compares with the time I spent in the company of people before I had ME, I came to a figure that I think represents an average month for me, pre-ME. I based this on the couple of years immediately before I became unwell, from 2012 – 2014.
First, let’s give you an idea of what my life was like in those pre-ME years, in terms of the time I spent around other humans. I worked full-time for a homelessness charity called Cyrenians. My job was based in a small depot in Leith, Edinburgh, with a small team of staff and many volunteers. I also lived in Leith and had a ten minute walk to and from work everyday. I owned a beautiful flat in the Shore area, a top/fifth floor tenement flat with ninety eight stairs to my front door, in which I lived alone. I attended classes at the gym pretty regularly, both Spin and Body Pump. My gym was also in Leith, just round the corner from my work. I also attended an evening class, wood carving, which was again, in Leith. I volunteered with another couple of homeless charities. I socialised with friends on a weekly basis, whether in the pub, a restaurant, a coffee shop, or at the cinema, a concert or the theatre. I also enjoyed spending time alone (but surrounded by people) – reading a book in a coffee shop, exploring museums and art galleries, and I liked to make use of Edinburgh’s many green spaces, Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat, Princes Street Gardens, etc. I spent time with my family – my two sisters, my mum and my niece and nephew, who I babysat for fairly regularly. To get around Leith I mainly walked, but to go to the city centre, or anywhere else, I would use the bus. I travelled as much as I could. In those couple of years before ME I especially enjoyed travelling around the UK to see my favourite bands – my favourite bands rarely came to me, so I had go where they went. By turning a concert into a short holiday I got to see parts of the UK I’d never been to before, including Manchester, Cornwall, Halifax and Brighton. I also spent time in London and Kent roughly once a year. I went to Iceland for the first time and I completely fell in love with Reykjavík, and have returned a few times since then. This was my life pre-ME, in terms of the activities I did that involved being with or around other people. It was fun and I was enjoying myself, and despite being an introvert, it was full of people, but perhaps more importantly, it was only full of people as and when I chose to be around people. I was afforded that luxury before I had ME, now my illness dictates when I can be around people.
So, I calculated that, pre-ME, I spent at least 253.4 hours per month in the company of other people. I broke it down as follows…
- An 8 hour work day Monday to Friday, and 4 hours every fourth Saturday. I haven’t included any overtime.
- I estimated 18 hours per week for the other activities in which I was in the company of, interacting with, or in the vicinity of other people, as described above.
- I lived alone pre-ME and I still do, so my time spent around other people will automatically be lower than anyone who doesn’t live alone.
I plan to write a blog post with the results of this project early-2020, or I might coincide it with International ME Awareness Month in May 2020, but I thought I would give you a sneak peek at January’s data.
So, as you can see, I have created categories for each person/set of people – my mum, who is also my carer, other family members, friends, medical, counselling, acupuncture, my cleaner, The Super Store (a shop between my house and my counsellor’s office) and the Sainsbury’s delivery man (for non UK readers, Sainsbury’s is a supermarket).
Each of January’s categories in more detail.
My mum/carer – 16 hours
It’s important to note that when my mum visits me, it’s not always a social visit, these 16 hours include the time she spends doing various jobs for me around my home – washing my dishes, unpacking groceries, changing my bedding, filling my pill boxes, emptying my bins, etc. So when she’s here for an hour, possibly only half of that time will be spent in conversation. When I’m not feeling well enough for a proper visit she will leave after having done whatever jobs I need doing. So sometimes her visits will be as short as 5 minutes, if she’s only dropping off some shopping, for example.
Other family – 15 minutes
The 15 minutes of ‘other family’ time were when each of my sisters (one with her boyfriend and the other with my niece and nephew) attempted to visit me but I was too unwell each time, so could only have a quick hug/chat by the front door.
Friends – 0
I wasn’t well enough in January to see any friends or do anything beyond the essential (medical, counselling, my mum’s visits etc).
Medical – 1 hour
I had an appointment at Borders General Hospital in January. I have included the time spent in the waiting room. This entire outing took 3 hours, with around 1 hour, maybe a bit longer, being for the actual hospital bit, the rest being the time it took to get there and back. My mum drove me, so I included the travel time in the ‘mum’ category.
Counselling – 3 hours
My counselling appointments are 50 minutes long, but I’ve rounded it up to 1 hour, to include the time I spend walking there and back. This may seem insignificant, but my walk to and from counselling, even though I’m not interacting with any of the people I pass on the way, is the time of the week I feel the least isolated. It’s not just because I can see the other people, they can see me. I’m present, I’m not invisible, I’m out there, existing, not only in my life, but in the lives of the strangers who walk past me on the street. I would compare this to the time I spent walking to and from work, or the gym, or my evening class, or on the bus to and from the city centre in my pre-ME life. This is time spent in the vicinity of other people, but not interacting with them.
Acupuncture – 1 hour 20 minutes
My acupuncture appointments are in my home, roughly every two or three weeks. The actual acupuncture session is 30 minutes, but of course it takes a few minutes to update the acupuncture man with my symptoms since last seeing him and for him to put the needles in, so I log each acupuncture appointment as 40 minutes.
Cleaner – 15 minutes
My cleaner comes round when I have my counselling appointments, and I include the 5 minutes I spend chatting with her before I leave for counselling. Because I can only manage one ‘outside’ appointment per week, if I have a medical appointment, I will cancel that weeks counselling appointment. On those days, when I don’t have counselling, but I still have my cleaner round, I’ll retire to my garden shed to get out of her way, which is nicer than it sounds, my shed is quite lovely.
The Super Store – 5 minutes
The Super Store is a small health food shop just round the corner from my house. I don’t go in often, only occasionally when I’m passing on the way home from counselling, and when I do, I always feel noticeably worse the following day, so I really shouldn’t. I usually have my mum buy what I need from this shop, but sometimes it’s nice to go in and browse and do my own shopping, as though I’m an independent adult.
Sainsbury’s delivery man – 5 minutes
Finally, I included the short time I spent in the company of the Sainsbury’s delivery driver. It might not seem worthy of including, but if I haven’t seen anyone for a few days, those few minutes of interaction can make all the difference.
Of the total 22 hours I spent in the company of other people in January, 7 hours and 5 minutes of that time were outside of my home – this includes my one medical appointment at Borders General Hospital and the time it took for my mum to drive me there and back, my counselling appointments, and one 1 hour drive with my mum for a change of scenery. This 7 hours and 5 minutes isn’t just the only time I spent outside of my home around other people, but the only time I spent outside of my home in January full stop. This is why I describe myself as ‘mainly housebound’, as opposed to simply ‘housebound’, many people whose ME is more severe than mine are unable to leave their homes, or even their beds, at all. I don’t include the time I spend in my garden as being ‘outside’, I count that as being at home.
If the online percentage calculator I found was right (with my ME foggy brain I am not even going to attempt to work out the percentages myself), this means that I spent 91.31% less time in the company of other people in January than I did per month before I had ME.
The pre-ME figure of 253.4 hours was spent mainly outside of my home, so this means that the time I spent outside of my home in January was reduced by 97.11%, when compared to my pre-ME life.
On average there are 730 hours in a month, so based on January’s data, in which I spent 7 hours and 5 minutes of it outside of my home, I am 99% housebound.
I look forward to seeing how these percentages differ as each month passes.
I plan to write a blog post in 2020 with the results of this project. I don’t know yet how I will present the information, what observations I’ll make or what conclusions I will draw. It will be an evolving project, what seems important to me now may not seem so important when it’s time to bring all the information together, and I will add new categories as and when I need to. Hopefully the end result will be of some value, but even if it’s not, it’s a good excuse to play with spreadsheets and percentages, which despite being cognitively draining, I really enjoy!
About the title – This Is How We Become The #MillionsMissing.
I was given the idea for the title of this project by @JBKid7 on Twitter. When I shared my idea for the project with my January stats, @JBKid7 shared it with the caption “This is how ME affects us. This is how we become the #MillionsMissing.”.
If you don’t already know, #MillionsMissing is a global campaign for ME health equality. Lead by #MEAction, the first global protest/demonstration took place in May 2016 and has since grown each year to an astounding 100+ cities and virtual protests in 2018. We protest around the world for increased government funding for research, clinical trials, medical education and public awareness. Most people with ME are too ill to attend the demonstration so they send in shoes with a label summarising their story to symbolise their support. The empty pairs of shoes are displayed at the protest as a striking visual image of the #MillionsMissing.
The name #MillionsMissing symbolises the millions of people with ME who miss out on everyday life, and the millions of pounds missing from biomedical research into this devastating illness. In terms of missing out on everyday life, I thought this would be the perfect title for my project. There are approximately 17 million people with ME worldwide, 250,000 of them here in the UK. That’s a lot of people missing out on everyday life. We are the #MillionsMissing.
Health Rising. Metabolomics Study Suggests Chronic Fatigue Syndrome May Be Oxidative Stress/Low Oxygen Disease
Frontiers. Onset Patterns and Course of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
PLOS Blogs. Consumer-Contested Evidence: Why the ME/CFS Exercise Dispute Matters So Much
Bustle. How To Find A Doctor When You Have ME/CFS, Because The Process Can Be Challenging
Virology Blog. Trial By Error: HRA Report Does Not Vindicate PACE
White House Chronicle. The Deadly Hurt of Loneliness — It Kills
Springer Link. Myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome: how could the illness develop?