No strength to move, too tired to sleep
Michelle Fletcher was a healthy teenager, swimming competitively and studying for her GCSEs when she ended up confined to a bed and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. MARK SHIELDS found out how the 17-year-old regained her life from an illness that’s much more than being ‘a bit tired’.
IMAGINE not having the energy to get out of bed for more than an hour a day, yet being too tired to sleep.
Combined with impaired concentration, musculo-skeletal pain, sensitivity to light and sound, and intense, dizzying headaches, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – or ME – affects more than 250,000 in the UK.
The illness can affect anyone – as Michelle Fletcher, 17, has found out in the past two years.
She was a swimmer for the St Neots Swans, competing regularly at county championships, when she came down with what appeared to be a viral infection in June 2009. Her condition deteriorated rapidly, with her energy levels getting lower and lower, and excruciating headaches. In August, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or ME.
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Bed-ridden for eight months, and without the strength to sit up unaided, Michelle was getting no more than two hours’ sleep a night, and had to drop out of school before her crucial GCSE year.
“I had no energy, but I couldn’t sleep at night,” said Michelle, of Dovehouse Close, St Neots. “I was so tired and so ill for so long that there would be days I couldn’t remember what I’d done.
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“My left eye closed up completely, and I could only open it with my fingers, and I became really sensitive to sound or light.
“There’s no test for CFS because it shares so many symptoms with other conditions – the only test is how long it lasts. I was actually diagnosed after 11 weeks, which is quite quick.”
Confined to her bed, she had to rely on her family – twin sister Beverley and parents Gill and Michael – to help do even the most basic things.
As her friends and her sister returned to Longsands College for their final school year, Michelle was left at home for weekly tutoring sessions.
“I had to study in short sessions, just 10 or 20 minutes at a time, before I needed a rest. I had to do it in sections, then take a break.”
As Michelle’s strength slowly began to return, she set herself targets to measure her progress. A change in medication alleviated the headaches, which had previously prevented her standing.
“I’ve always been a positive person, so I tried to be happy about what I could do, and not get frustrated at what I couldn’t do. My big goal was my Year 11 prom: I wanted a picture of me standing up by myself.”
Michelle worked out the stages to achieving her goal: standing with support, standing alone, walking with help, walking unaided.
Nearly a year after she began to experience symptoms, she went to her prom. Later that summer she collected an A* and four A grades in her GCSEs.
New physiotherapy and hydrotherapy treatment increased her energy levels and she began to leave the house every day, took up swimming again, and made the decision to return to Longsands for her A levels.
“I was still getting only two to three hours’ sleep a night, and going to sixth form was too much,” said Michelle. “I lasted three weeks, but then went backwards in my health.”
Keen to try alternative methods to help her condition, Michelle found research on the effects of acupuncture on CFS, and began treatment at the Godmanchester Osteopathic and Acupuncture Practice – with startling results.
“The biggest difference is that I’m now sleeping seven hours a night, and my energy levels are up,” said Michelle. “It’s quite subtle, but a couple of days after the treatment, I find I have more energy.
“Now I’m back to taking the dog for a walk, I’m swimming every week and I’m hoping to go back to my A levels later this year.”
Having discovered the difference that the treatment has made, Michelle now hopes that she can help others in a similar situation
“Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a difficult condition to make people understand. I hadn’t heard of it before I was diagnosed. People think it’s just about being a bit tired, but it’s so much more than that.”