Thursday, 17 March 2016

CFS and ME

At a recent visit to my doctors, she raised the possibility that I might have CFS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as ME or PVFS.  Which, I have to say, sucks big time.

So I have been exploring and considering what this might mean, what CFS might be caused by, at least in my case. I think I have come to an understanding that seems to work for me (and I am not offering any wider perspective, or any clinical perspective).

When I am ill, one of the things my body (and this is common to most people) does is goes to sleep. My mum says that I always used to do that, and I still do, because sleep is a natural healer. Often, when I am ill with a virus or similar, this works because the body has a chance to fight the problem, and I get better after a day or so.

The problem, as I understand it, is when this reaction goes out of control. In PVFS (Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome), the sleep response doesn't stop once the body is capable of handling the remaining infection. I have suffered with this before I think, and eventually I got over it - after three months.

The other time when it can kick in is when the body can tell that it is ill, but sleeping is not the solution. Depression is a case in point, when sleeping is unlikely to improve things. I suspect this is the case for me here, so I am hoping that this will lift given some time.

But this is not to dismiss the fact that ME can be, and often is, very long term - many years. I suspect this is still the same process, but where the response does not die away after time. the body continues to think that it needs to sleep to heal, but it doesn't.

So, that is how it feels. As I said, it is not a clinical assessment, just a representation of how it feels for me.

On a day when I have nothing else to do, I will sleep later than usual (9-9:30), enabling me to do a little bit, but nothing too strenuous. I will eat lunch around midday, and then need another snooze before being able to do a little bit in the afternoon. It is not unknown to be asleep or nearly asleep all afternoon. After tea, the evening is normally OK, but I am not a night owl, usually heading for bed for 10:00 - 11:00.

That has quite an effect on my life. I do manage to work, which is exhausting but satisfying. I know that I am fortunate to manage to work, despite the fact that this takes me out for the evening. What is more, it means that I cannot concentrate for a long period - this means that writing something like this blog is a struggle. Keeping the concentration to compose and type a piece of this is difficult.

"OK so it is just being tired then? I get that when I do too much". Once again, this is missing two of the three letters. The third word is "Syndrome", which just means that nobody really understands what it is about. The other two, that are so often missed are "Chronic" and "Fatigue".

"Chronic" means that it doesn't go away, it doesn't get better with sleep, it is always there, and there is no immediate chance of it going away. It is not just being really tired when you have been busy - it is being tired whether busy or not, whether you have had a good nights sleep or not.

"Fatigue" is not tiredness. It is the ache and struggle to move that comes with a body that wants to stay asleep, to recover, and not to have to move. And it is that ache that comes when you are so tired that your muscles are sore. And this doesn't go away with a bath and sleep.

So yes, it is real, and it is disabling.Over last weekend I was on a retreat, and I discovered what I could do, with no pressure. If I had a nap in the morning, and another one after lunch, I could cope and be gently sociable the rest of the time. I could do some writing and reading with this regime. One day I even managed to go out for a while (I would walk down the garden occasionally). That is about it. That is my ability without getting tired and incapable.

Against that it should be noted that I hold down a full time job. If you have understood that, you might realise just how much this costs me, how much it takes to achieve that and why I can do little else.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The virginity myth

I read an article some time ago arguing that virginity was, in fact, a myth. I suspect it was related to a book The Purity Myth, but the article did explain all sorts of false ideas about what virginity is and isn't (I would link if I could find it again - sorry). There were two significant factors highlighted:

1. There is no way to tell is a woman has had sex or not. The hymen can be broken in many ways, and can repair or be repaired.

2. Virginity is impossible to define in any meaningful way.

There is a more significant aspect for the purity culture campaigners that I will come onto later, but I want to consider the second point above first.

What is virginity? Does it mean not having had sex - and how do you define sex? If you mean male-female penis/vagina sex, then there are many gay people who are virgins. If you define it in terms of experiencing orgasm then I would suggest you cannot find more than a few teenagers who are virgins - masturbation is a part of growing up. Or are we going to define it as orgasm with another person, meaning that whacking yourself off means you are still a virgin, but getting a hand job from your partner means you aren't? What is the conceptual difference that makes these so different?

Sorry to be so graphic, but it seems important to some people to define virginity, and define it in a way that is very physical. The reality is that it sexual experience is not so easily defined and categorised. For which we should all be grateful.

The truth is, for most people today, this is not a problem. For those who argue that sexual experience should be entirely limited to marriage are firstly condemning newly married couples to some difficult times (if you have spent the last ten or so years resisting sexual desires, how are you expected to suddenly release them? Especially having been told that they are bad, sinful and dirty?) but also condemning those who behave in a more natural way, who learn how to channel their desires properly. What is more, these very ideas are based on completely mistaken scientific and theological concepts (and nothing gets me angry like bad science combined with bad theology). I want to look at a few aspects of this and explore how meaningless they are.

1. Where do babies come from? Today, we have a reasonably good idea of the processes that are required to produce a baby. But there have been a lot of strange ideas about how you get pregnant and how you don't. I have heard, within my lifetime, people arguing that you can't get pregnant the first time you have sex, or unless you have an orgasm. More importantly, there was an idea that the male seed was a baby, and the woman's role was purely to host it as it grew. We know now that both partners play an important role in the generation of a new life, and actually, the female contribution is possibly more significant - a woman releases one egg every month, whereas a man releases millions of sperm in the same period. The male contribution does seem rather more random.

But the idea that the man creates a new life, while the woman simply stores it tends to dismiss women, as so often, into a subservient role. If semen is babies, then it contains life, and should be considered near sacred. If it is merely a half cell, ready to join another half cell and together create life, then it is rather less special. Some of the ideas of sex being only for within marriage and only for creating babies makes a degree of sense within that idea, but if you destroy that idea, it loses a lot of its power. Of course, the patriarchy would not let something like that diminish its control.

2. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been a controversial figure through history. In the context of this discussion, it is the idea of her "purity" and "perpetual virginity" that is of significance here. She is held up, in her idealised state, as the perfect woman, to whom all women should aspire. The problems are manifold here: firstly, the "idealised" Mary is idealised by men - the male priesthood - and is not a real person; secondly, she cannot be the model for all women, because she is in a specific time and place; thirdly, the idea of her perpetual virginity is a strange one, that doesn't really accord with the biblical stories; finally, her purity is about a poor and dangerous interpretation.

To take the first two together, what we have is powerful men telling women that they should aspire to be their idealised woman. That is at least verging on abusive, and has been used in an abusive way throughout the centuries. This is wrong is every way - this idealised person is a myth, and a dangerous one; the idea that a woman from the first century in Palestine should be the model for all women across the world and across time is peculiar. She was never meant to be a model, and we know so little about her, it is dangerous to use her as such.

Mary is always described as a "virgin", a word that is actually better translated as "a girl of marriageable age". It is more to do with her status and age than her sexual experience, although there is a very high chance that she was sexually inexperienced. Her claim to the angel that "I am still a virgin" was just about saying that she hadn't had intercourse with Joseph, so her pregnancy was not something expected. She was chosen by God not because she was virginal, but because she was willing. She was "pure of heart" because she was young and prepared to accept that God could do something with her. It is more about her attitude than her sexual history.

3. Sex is evil. This is a message that the church has given for so many centuries that it is hard to change the idea.The church has - and does - have a problem with passion and intensity. Sexual activity for pleasure has always been a problem for the church (while accepting, sometimes reluctantly the necessity for reproduction).

There is more than a whiff of gnosticism about this, the separation of "spiritual" from "physical". the problem is not just that this emphasises our spiritual as more important than the physical (which I would broadly concur with), as the fact that it divides them (which I wouldn't). If we separate them, we diminish both sides, we restrict the possibility of the spiritual. In truth, we can find God in the physical, because (in my view at least) if we can't we will not find him anywhere. So yes, it is possible to engage in physical activity - including sexual activity - and not find the spiritual, but I don't think it is possible to find the spiritual without engaging in the physical. That is, to me, the core message of the incarnation.

This is the problem with "purity culture", the idea that we can keep ourselves pure and unsullied until marriage. It diminished marriage, it diminishes sex and it diminishes the spiritual. More than that, it harms people, burdens them with guilt and a sense of dirtiness. It is a form of abuse and control. In the end, it does people more harm - physically, mentally and emotionally as well as spiritually - than any amount of sexual activity is liable to.