Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME: Support for Family and Friends – An Interview with JKP author Elizabeth Turp

Elizabeth Turp is an integrative counsellor working in NHS primary care and private practice in the UK. In 2005 she became ill with CFS/ME.

Here she answers a few questions about her new book, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME, which provides families and friends with an accessible introduction to the condition, and explains what can be done to support those who have it.

What is CFS/ME, and what is your personal experience of it?

Chronic fatigue syndrome / myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) is a complex, variable and disabling illness in which the sufferer experiences extreme fatigue, flu-like malaise, sleep problems, and a range of other possible symptoms (including pain, cognitive problems, palpitations, bowel problems and dizziness) that are made worse by exertion. These are experienced across a wide range:

  • People with ‘mild’ CFS/ME are able to work and may appear to be ok, but often struggle and are unable to do much outside of work;
  • ‘Moderate’ CFS/ME brings greatly reduced mobility and participation in everyday life, an inability to work, and increased pain and cognitive symptoms;
  • ‘Severe’ CFS/ME will often mean being confined to bed and finding even eating and talking difficult.

The book includes case studies and advice from people who have CFS/ME at all these levels to help readers understand its complexity and changeable nature.

I became ill gradually in 2004 and was lucky to get diagnosed quite quickly in 2005. My family and friends mostly struggled to understand CFS/ME, but then so did I, and so do doctors. Some people found it so difficult that they ignored or dismissed it, which hurt, but others were unbelievably supportive, patient and loving. To put it bluntly, my relationships either adapted to my changing needs and symptoms, or were badly damaged. At my worst I was unable to work, and I couldn’t read, walk, speak on the phone for more than a few minutes or drive without pain. As is usual with CFS/ME, not many people saw the real ‘rock bottom’ times, I tended to not tell my family how bad I felt. As I began to get better my relationships with others continued to evolve, not least because I had to put myself first in order to make the changes that my body needed to recover. Some of these baffled other people because I didn’t ‘look ill’ but I was lucky enough to have enough people around me who accepted what I was doing and made the effort to understand and support me. Just as my expectations of myself have had to radically change, so have my loved ones expectations of me. All my relationships are very different now, mostly for the better!

What are the hardest aspects to deal with for family and friends of people with CFS/ME?

As you will see from the huge variety of topics covered in the book, there are many difficulties that CFS/ME brings for those close to a sufferer. Seeing your loved one suffering and in pain, struggling and facing potentially losing everything and not being able to make it better is probably the worst. The changes in role that someone with CFS/ME is forced into, no longer being able to do everyday practical and social activities, can have a huge impact on family members and friends, both emotionally and by increasing the pressure on them. For friends, I think the hardest thing is being able to find ways to keep communication going. The more understanding friends can get about CFS/ME the easier this is to do because it is often necessary to find new ways to keep in touch that fit in with the sufferer’s symptoms.

What are the most helpful things caregivers can do for their loved one with CFS/ME?

The final chapter of the book ‘Top ten tips on how you can help’ discusses the most important things friends and family can do to help their loved one but also themselves. The most important of these is to listen to your loved ones actual experience and needs, being careful not to assume you know what they are going through or that it is always the same. This can also help them to cope with the emotional impact of the illness, which can often bring isolation and fear. Ask them what helps them or what they would like you to do. Physically there are many specific things that can help that are discussed at length in the book, but it is hard to generalise here as each person’s experience of CFS/ME can be so different.

What is the most important thing caregivers can do to help themselves?

This question is central to the book because it is intended first and foremost to help the friend and family member cope with what can be a very upsetting, confusing and difficult situation. Looking after themselves by eating, sleeping well and making time to relax is important, and also being honest about their own limitations – this is the key to negotiating levels of support and contact that suit both the sufferer and the friend or family member.

What else would you like readers to know about CFS/ME?

Although I have made a good recovery from CFS/ME and currently have few symptoms, I have to live a much reduced lifestyle to stay well – good sleep routines, minimizing stress, not saying yes to every request and seeking a lot more support than I used to, especially when I get over-tired. I only work part time now, which gives me the flexibility and time to focus on rest, relaxation and maintaining my physical wellbeing. Recovery from CFS/ME is the ultimate lesson in balance, and you can have a relapse. The danger for people whose CFS/ME symptoms have improved is that others see them looking well and doing things again (and writing books!) and think this means they are fine, when the reality is far more complicated!

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

6 Thoughts

  1. I was diagnosed with M.E at around about age 9 and have grown up with the condition, having periods of time where my M.E is mild and also relapsing and having periods of time when it has been severe and I have slept for days on end and been confined to my bed. I completely agree that recovery is very much based on balance in lifestyle and I have also found that being positive (although its not always easy) helps a lot!
    I will definately be buying a copy of this book!!

  2. I was fooling around on google and under images I put in chronic fatigue syndrome. I went through all the pics to see if I could find someone who looks as sick as most of us feel…ah…not just yawning or on the couch. AHAH. And here you are managing and writing and smiling:))) Just Saying hello from WISCONSIN.

  3. I was wondering if anyone knows of a forum in which relatives of people with ME can talk to each other? My husband has had ME for some years now and we have had to fight very hard to get his condition recognised by the medical staff in the area. We are now at a point where we all appear to be in agreement over what it is that is making him poorly. It would be really good to be able to share my experiences with others who have been in a similar situation. He talks to ME sufferers on Facebook but I am looking at the whole situation from a different perspective.

  4. This reply is 18 months late and I will probably not hear anything back! But in response to your post, Lavinia, it sounds like I am in exactly the same position as you, and I found myself on this page whilst looking for support for those affected by a family members ME.
    I will keep looking!
    Please do reply if you happen to see this…

  5. Has anyone managed to find a forum for family members? Would really like to speak to people who have an ME/CFS sufferer in the family.

  6. My best friend has this illness and I feel really bad, because she has had to give up so much and she has lost so much. Everytime I look at her I am crying cause I know how much pain she’s in and there isn’t much that I can do to help. She hasn’t been to school in months and that’s had a huge impact on me but I want to put on a smile for her so she can feel happy. I am understanding more and managing it more but it is hard for everyone in and around the situation.

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