THE CHAMELEON BUG
In 1740 the Scottish poet James Thomson wrote: ‘Rule, Britannia, rule the waves / Britons never will be slaves.’ The words, which appeared in ‘Alfred: A Masque,’ went on to epitomise the greatness of Britain. They defined the character, the iron will, of a nation.
That will was built upon an orderliness and sense of duty rarely equalled. As author George Mikes wrote, in ‘How to be an Alien’, (1946): ‘An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.’ As to the respect the British won, poet Alice Duer Miller wrote, in ‘The White Cliffs’ (1940): ‘I am American bred, I have seen much to hate here – much to forgive. But in a world where England is finished and dead, I do not wish to live.’
The purpose of the above is not to be patriotic, even though I may well be, but to compare the green and pleasant lands of the past with our perceptions of the present. Where, for instance, is the respect, when American writer John Updike wrote of England (‘Picked Up Pieces’, 1976): ‘A soggy little island huffing and puffing to keep up with Western Europe?’
But don’t rely on non-Britons to say it how it is. Here is English novelist Margaret Drabble, saying, in her 1989 ‘A Natural Curiosity’: ‘England is not a bad country… It’s just a mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped-out, post-imperial, post-industrial slag-heap covered in polystyrene hamburger cartons.’
Drabble made clear the mood of the time. The Union Flag had been taken over by football hooligans and neo-fascists, the idea of Britishness in terminal decline. Today its history, good or bad, is being shunned; the once great institutions ignored. It is as if belonging to a country is an embarrassment. Why is this? And accepting that it is happening, is it a good thing?
As for the first question, Britain – and, indeed, any country – can best be described as a society. Based on John Donne’s assertion that ‘no man is an island,’ a society is a coming together of people into a complex system of manners, customs, meaning from the past, and direction for the future.
The great 19th century Parliamentarian Edmund Burke described society thus: ‘Society is indeed a contract … it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’ (‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, 1790).
Without society there is no country, no past, and, in answer to the second question posed, no future. And it is my belief that today it is society that is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. We have glorified individuality, which is the opposite of society, and become increasingly atheist, material and compartmentalised.
The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was well aware of the dangers of such a state. In his ‘Leviathan’ (1651) he wrote: ‘During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.’
This, I argue, is the state we are in today. Brits, and most of the West, are in Margaret Thatcher’s world where there is no such thing as society. We are in a world of individual indulgence, of individual choice, where the right to be is greater than your duty to others. We are individuals who think our individuality is liberating. But this book will argue that such feelings are a form of victimhood.
We believe we live in the greatest of ages, and our freedom of choice upholds the sentiment. But could it be that our certainty is based on a series of confidence tricks? Take, for instance, the idea that our way of living produces longevity.
The greatest proof of such a claim is the simple fact that people are living longer. But is this because of how we live today, or how we lived in the past? For instance, take a person in his nineties today. He would have been born in the 1920s to parents traumatised by World War One and the flu pandemic of 1919. As a youth, he would have suffered the poverty of the Depression. No sooner was that over than he was thrown into the even greater trauma of World War Two.
He lived in a world where to smoke was glamorous; where people by the million lined their stomach each morning with bread and dripping. The modern health evangelist was nowhere in sight, and counsellors were an idea not yet thought of.
Many times in his life he would suffer food poisoning, for modern packaging and food standards were yet to come. Hygiene was poor and he would live with dirt and grime about him.
The claim of longevity being the result of modern living requires us to accept that the exact opposite of the above factors are essential to keeping us alive. Yes, medical science also plays a large part. Yes, hundreds of thousands from the past died of epidemics and industrial illnesses. Yes, tens of thousands even died in child birth. But the claim that longevity is due to how we live now is nonsense. No such claim can be made until people are living into their nineties in seventy years’ time. But there are hints in the lifestyles of the long-lived as to what kept them alive so long.
In the past, the majority of people did not eat to excess. In the main, their food was natural. Their daily lives were much slower than today. In their lives they knew who they were, finding identity and meaning in their society. Luxury items were fewer and technology was at such a level that manual work was part of every life. When they went out for a walk, the air was fresher and less polluted. And when things went wrong, there was a sense of family and community which fortified them psychologically.
All these factors must surely have played a major part in the story of longevity. But the important thing about the above is that none of them are existent today. Hence, rather than modern life providing longevity, our modern ways could be going on to kill us, making us all victims of our insanity.
This book is about modern life, how it arrived, and how it is not the great life we think it to be. I suppose the seed of the book was grown in 1982 when I was subject to a congregation of events that changed my life.
Events have a habit of congregating to produce a conclusion that hits you out of the blue. They are often not seen until it is too late, leaving you to think that, in retrospect, it could have been different. But that is wishful thinking. What’s done is done, we’re told, so get on with it; learn from the past, but never regret.
I was in the RAF at the time. Newly promoted, stress was an undisclosed subject in the early 1980s, so I never noticed the signs, the irritations, the feelings of ill health, or the fact that I was drinking too much. I was doing my job, and doing it well. What else mattered? But month in month out, that monster called stress continued to build, continued to do its dastardly best, scoring up the first notch on the congregation of events that were soon to erupt.
The second wasn’t an event but a creeping process; the viruses – three of them in 6 months. I guessed I was just unlucky, but boy, did they drag me down.
The third event was innocuous enough. We’ve all done it I suppose – you know, that momentary lack of concentration that leads to a minor accident. The result of mine was simply a cracked rib. Nothing serious, nothing to worry about, nothing to cause a change in action – just a cracked rib, for God’s sake!
But a week later the fourth event occurred. Again, it was innocuous. It was just a military exercise. I’d been on dozens. Like war, they were 95% boredom, 5% action. The only real irritation was that, for possibly three days at a time, you don’t get sleep. The rib caused a bit of trouble, but I performed marvellously. But then came event number five.
This was the real stupid one. The morning the exercise finished I began two weeks leave. And rather than go to bed to catch up on sleep, I arrived home and packed my pregnant wife and two children into the car to drive two hundred miles for a fortnight of peace. The rib was aching a bit, but strapping it up eased the pain considerably. And off, into oblivion, I drove.
I made twenty miles before it happened; before it all congregated; before the months of stress, the viruses, the cracked rib, the days without sleep and the stupid decision to drive caused me to pass out at that wheel.
How I stopped the car I do not know. All I do know is that when I came round I was on the hard-shoulder, the handbrake was on, and my family was very, very frightened.
This event happened in 1982, and it has been that long since I last felt well. For when I came round, action man had become a wreck. Since that day I have become dizzy when I stand, have lived with a mild, flu-like fever, and experienced every ache and pain and minor ailment imaginable. On that fateful day I came down with M.E., more commonly known today as chronic fatigue syndrome.
But at the time it was unheard of. Rather, said the military medics, I had a mild anxiety state. Pack him off, they said, to a psychiatric unit where he can get better … or else.
Hence, six months later, when the symptoms never ceased, when every test under the sun had been done, off I was packed for week after week of group and relaxation therapy.
Was it successful?
Well, the fact that to this day I am still affected suggests not. Oh, it made me beautifully relaxed, and at times it helps me a lot. It even, I am only too pleased to say, allowed me to reassess my life – to change it into a way of life by which I can live. But cure?
Sadly not. And that realization is the first point that sent me on the road to this book. For it prompted a simple question: if the medical authorities could not cure me, did not even know what the problem was, how much else didn’t they know? Quite a lot, I soon discovered – and not just the medical profession, but everyone else.
You see, I began to read – to begin a quest for knowledge. And as my reading matter expanded to cover just about every area of thought, I found myself shocked time after time. But what shocked me? Not the brilliance of our thinkers, but their inherent stupidity – for I realised that throughout history and throughout thought, and just as incompetently today, experts pass off supposition as fact. But what really spurred me on in this quest? A further experience – an event that very few human beings are privileged to have.
About six months after coming down with chronic fatigue syndrome an event occurred so life changing that it set me on a quest for knowledge that finally led me to the conclusion that culture could be all-pervasive. I had just completed many weeks of relaxation therapy and beautifully relaxed I had caught a train home. However, about half an hour into the journey, the engine caught fire.
It wasn’t a big fire. No one was hurt, and the fire services were soon on the scene. But damage had been done and a voice came over the intercom to announce that there would be a two hour delay while the engine was changed. I, being beautifully relaxed, sat back, lit a cigarette, and began to take in the view of the countryside. However, it wasn’t long before my attention was taken by an extraordinary scene around me in the carriage.
My fellow passengers were changing.
To this day I have tried in vain to highlight the extremeness of what happened. But such experiences are beyond words, above restricted literature.
Suffice, then, to say, I could sense headaches begin, could feel the increased heart rates, could sense the cold sweats that were breaking out. I could hear raised voices, see tightening jowls; almost taste the emotional ether that was inevitably escalating as tempers frayed.
Jekyll was turning to Hyde.
As the wait progressed, a change began to set in. It took a long time coming, but eventually the tempers, the anger, began to subside. But in its place came another emotion. Some would call it unease, others, almost fear. I would call it neurosis.
To a man and woman – but not, I noted, children – psychological insecurity became evident. And why did such trauma break out? Because these poor people were going to be late. Their ordered, fast-track, hectic lives had been interrupted by cruel fate, and they were unable to cope with its effect. They were going to be late, and they could not handle it. But more than this, I realised later, prior to my relaxation therapy, I had been one of them.
What had I been doing to myself?
This, I became convinced, was the reality we live by. We don’t see the stress we put ourselves under because, whilst it is culture that defines that we should live like this, it is also culture that places blinkers upon us so we do not see. Only by coming out of society, as I did, could this reality be seen. Only by becoming detached can we see the stupidity of modern life, and the madness that lies just below the surface of our existence. And maybe it was the reason I came down with M.E. in the first place.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; Myalgic Encephalomyelitis; Yuppie Flu – three names that have entered popular consciousness over recent years. Yet unless you’ve suffered, you cannot imagine what those words mean. They belong to the legion of the misunderstood, along with Hay Fever and Migraine. After all, Hay Fever means you sneeze in spring, and migraine is a headache.
Living with someone who suffered both, let me tell you they are no such thing. Hay Fever is a two month drugged up hell, complete with raging temperatures and real illness. As for Migraine, a mere headache wouldn’t normally see someone banging their head on the wall to ease the pain.
There are real problems with non-fatal illnesses. They are ill-defined among the well. People understand cancer or heart disease. They understand that they kill, and that is as bad as it gets. But non-fatal illnesses are perceived as minor irritations that people must learn to live with. And of course, this is true, but the misunderstanding entailed in this simple shrugging off can lead to additional factors which make the symptoms worse.
Typically, if a person has cancer you’d ask if they were well enough before inviting them to a barbeque. Yet the Hay Fever sufferer is expected to place herself in the most damaging location to ‘have fun’ without a second thought, and a refusal of the invitation can lead to accusations of being unsociable.
Obviously, I don’t equate this with the cancer sufferer, but simply make the point that misunderstanding among the well can lead to the Hay Fever sufferer being labelled a killjoy, if not a social pariah. And it is even worse with the M.E. sufferer.
I live almost daily with extreme tiredness, dizziness, a mild fever, aches and pains, and a dozen more embarrassing symptoms. If a virus is going round, you can guarantee I catch it and I often suffer periods of insomnia. Over the years I’ve come to terms with these symptoms, and I’m adept at hiding them from view, giving the impression that I’m quite well. But if there is one thing that an M.E. sufferer needs more than anything else it is the understanding of the medical profession. The social pariah syndrome is one thing, but to be virtually ignored by the majority of doctors causes one to laugh at the Hippocratic Oath.
Regardless of decrees by the World Health Organization and British Medical Council, most GPs I’ve had dealings with give the impression that they believe M.E. sufferers to be either depressives, hypochondriacs or malingerers. Dealing with the latter two, with practically all other minority groups there are laws against such discrimination. As for the sufferer being depressed, many are. But the depression can be seen as an effect of M.E. and the treatment they receive from the medics rather than the cause.
This discrimination highlights a major problem that has to be overcome regarding M.E., and forms a template that provides much victimhood due to attitudes in the intellectual establishment. The medical profession is incredibly arrogant. They are arrogant because they see medical treatment as a great success.
In most areas it is. But because of the arrogance their success creates, they think they know best in all areas of illness. However, come an illness that is ill-defined, such as M.E, the profession ceases to be professional. We all fear the unknown, and doctors are no exception. And when we face the unknown, we deny its existence. This is the main problem we must overcome regarding M.E. – that great psychological barrier – the psychology of the doctor himself.
There is a viable area for study that could lead to understanding of M.E., tying it into a general understanding of factors in society that lead to victimhood. Today there are believed to be two types of illness. They are the physical and the psychological. Throughout the medical profession the two are specifically delineated, with physicians and surgeons for the physical and psychiatrists for the psychological. But recent ideas suggest this separation is not as definite as it seems. Rather, a state of mind can have a dramatic effect on physical illness.
This idea goes across the board, from dermatological ailments such as psoriasis, to heart disease and cancer. The role of the mind is increasingly being seen as having an effect upon our physicality above what is termed psychosomatic, hinting that there exists a limbo-land of illness between the physical and psychological. I suggest that M.E. could find its roots in this limbo-land, being neither a physical ailment, nor psychological.
In my case, I can see a definite cause in stress. Indeed, stress was thought of as the cause until various M.E. organizations pointed out that not all sufferers are high-flyers, as indicated by the term, Yuppie Flu. But such organizations miss the point.
You do not need to be a high-flyer to take pride and insist upon perfection in what you do. And by insisting upon such perfection, you are more likely to be stressed out in your attempt to achieve it. Such a psychology remains true whether you are a business tycoon or cleaner. We can thus highlight a specific character-type who is more likely to contract M.E.
Regardless of what they do, an M.E. sufferer is more likely to be a perfectionist. However, until recently, very few of us needed to be perfectionists in the way we do today. Poverty, the inability to advance, and the non-existence of a pervasive media meant that people were very much their own expression. But throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s, and into the 21st century, the rise of affluence, the career structure for all, and an increasingly influential media has caused us all to think about image.
Today, we must all go with the flow. And to have image, we must, of course, take pride in what we do and increasingly become the perfectionist. And it has got to be significant that the rise in the number of M.E. sufferers, indeed, the very illness itself, has shadowed this need for image.
Due to the need for image modern life offers abundant opportunities for stress. But rather than being the sudden stress of facing danger, for instance, this new stress is constant, forever with us, forever affecting us. But taking what we now know about the mind’s effect upon our physical body into account, could a constant state of low-level stress ‘reprogram’ the body’s metabolism to take the stressful state as the norm? This is perhaps the most important question concerning M.E.
For if the mind can reprogram the body then a psychological state will have produced a real physical effect, which would continue to exist even after the stress has lessened. But what would be the effect of this reprogrammed state? The sufferer would always be tired. The change in breathing pattern would lead to lack of oxygen and consequent dizziness. The constant feeling of stress would lead to aches and pains. The slightly increased metabolism would lead to a slight rise in temperature. The state would cause a lowering of the immune system, resulting in more easily succumbing to the viral infections that are often thought of as the cause. They could actually be the first effect. But most importantly, the effects would be so subtle that they would not be observable during physical examination.
M.E. could well be what I call the chameleon bug. Neither physical nor psychological in an easily understood way, it is real but like the chameleon, almost invisible to examination. It camouflages itself well. But more than this, it can also be seen as a growing epidemic. When I contracted M.E. in 1982 it was virtually unheard of. Today, a conservative estimate admits to over quarter of a million sufferers in the UK alone.
The prevalence of M.E. is rising. And if it is linked to our lifestyle and need for image, then as the need increases, so will the number of M.E. sufferers. And contrary to medical statements, most sufferers do not recover. What they do is change their life to a point that the symptoms barely exist.
But in contracting M.E., they have become direct victims of the way our culture works. This is, of course, just one example of hidden victimhood in our society. There are many more ….