M.E. awareness day: In Denial

Coneycat on Livejournal wrote a blog post about the tendency of some people (often women) to berate others for complaining about what they deem “First World problems”. The problem being that problems are problems, and feeling guilty about having them doesn’t have the slightest effect on the problem.

Don’t do that to yourself. You have a problem. It may not be a big problem in the general scheme of things, but it’s yours, and you deserve better than to add to the problem by feeling guilty about having it. Plus, when you’re feeling guilty and like a bad person for perceiving something as a problem despite the fact for the most part you have a pretty nice life–well, you’re getting attacked from the inside as well as the outside. And that’s not only not helpful, it’s not fair either.

This type of guilt is, of course, programmed into women, so that we will continue to shoulder the problems of the world without complaint. It is also a factor in how women with M.E. (the majority of sufferers) are treated. Many quacks – and by quacks I mean the types who deny the heaps of medical evidence and the W.H.O. classification – run clinics where M.E. sufferers are denied their essential supports and told that they can do without them if they want it enough. Women and children with M.E. are mentally and physically abused by the health system. Sophia Mirza was forcibly sectioned having refused to attend a clinic where GET and CBT were mandatory for patients. She died two years later.

The element that links these incidents is denial. It is difficult to understand how a doctor can say with a straight face that patients think themselves ill. Yet a small group of psychiatrists are defining British government policy towards M.E. with this very argument, and while some are growing wealthy applying harmful “cures” to these supposedly recalcitrant women, there is no funding for biomedical research into the illness.

This is nothing new. Multiple Sclerosis was once termed hysterical paralysis. Neurasthenia was the nineteenth century term for an unexplained illness that was like M.E. and also regarded as a “women’s illness”. In the post World War I period when what was hitherto called shell shock was defined by psychiatrists under the name of neuresthenia. The reason for this was killing was a manly virtue, and that the “nervous” men who could not cope were effeminate. There was a practical aspect to this attitiude.

The neuropsychiatrists and front line medical officers who had argued against pensions believed that this type of state support simply reinforced a neurosis as part of what Freudians called “secondary gain”. The primary gain from a symptom is freedom from anxiety or conflict: the secondary gain consists of the practical advantages that can be achieved by using the symptom to manipulate others. [1]

Or, as Joanna Bourke puts it more bluntly: “Pensioning officers never relaxed their attempt to prove that mentally ill men were liars and malingerers.” During treatment for shell shock, the “degenerate races” fighting for the British army (i.e. the Irish) were singled out for especially savage electro-shock treatment to promote “cure”. The Irish (excluding the Ulster Protestants) were believed to be mentally weak and effeminate and thus less fit for the manly business of war. [2]

At a time when psychiatrists are subtly rehabilitating the idea of “neuroses”, if to be a woman is to be prone to hysteria, it is no wonder that sufferers from the modern “neurasthenia” feel criminalised, or why they are treated as morally repugnant, or perhaps why they feel that society shuns them. It may even be possible to state that they are the victims of a war. (Ironically, many are treated so badly that they go on to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

When someone insists that they possess scientific facts and detatched, incisive reasoning, and that you, their opponent, are emotional and illogical, the chances are that the opposite is true. Next time someone tells you that M.E. is a First World problem, the result of overprivilege and boredom, you might tell them that there are sufferers all over the planet, in every continent. You might even point them towards the U.S. survey that showed that “Latinos demonstrated the highest prevalence of CFIDS at 726 cases per 100,000-twice that of whites, at 310 per 100,000. African Americans, also previously considered to be far less afflicted than whites, had a prevalence rate of 337 per 100,000.” [3] It is the business of women and men to reject the historical, imperial, authority which, promotes denial and cripples medical research, and to insist on an adherence to scientific fact.

Written, somewhat belatedly, for M.E. Awareness Day
More on CBT, psychiatry and ME in this blog post (CFS Facts blog).

[1] The Veterans Charter and Post-World War II Canada, Peter Neary, J. L. Granatstein (McGill-QUP, 1999), pp. 148-50
[2] Effeminacy, Ethnicity and the End of Trauma: The Sufferings of ‘Shell-Shocked’
Men in Great Britain and Ireland, 1914-39
, Joanna Bourke,
Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 35, No. 1, Special Issue: Shell-Shock. (Jan., 2000), pp.
[3] “No More Yuppie Flu”, by by Renee Brehio, December 1, 1999 ProHealth Library. Accessed 13/5/2010.


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