It is a thankless task to disentangle the ways the brain affects the body and the body affects the brain – the more so as researchers like Antonio Damasio demonstrate how many of our mental processes are a product of somatic reflexes and memory. People who experience chronic fatigue syndrome or post-viral fatigue have an even more confusing task in that many doctors deny the physical origin of these conditions, or at any rate the physical nature of their long-term symptoms. During the long history of these chronic conditions the contributions of physical and mental elements will change. It is confusing. And so people with these conditions find themselves questioning their own – and other people’s – perception of reality. Nick Duerden has created, using his diary, a convincing retrospective narrative of his own shifting perceptions and feelings as he first succumbed to viral infection and then struggled to recover.
Any sickness that involves huge loss of function and vitality, and that is prolonged for more than a few weeks, must affect the psyche. Low back pain that lasts more than six weeks has been shown to have this effect. A mystery ‘viral’ illness that is invisible on the initial blood tests and therefore without a defining title, will certainly have such an effect, bringing with it many doubts about prognosis and suitable therapy. Nick Duerden well describes his experience of profound and draining fatigue, and his sense of bewilderment. He is remarkably honest in his inability to be accurate about his condition, accepting in retrospect that mind and body were both left reeling in the virus’s aftermath. Even as he regrets the NHS’s lack of resources that meant poor testing and hasty diagnosis, Nick also sees that the body’s crash was partly a product of his psyche’s need for a break, to step off the stressful merry-go-round, and to engage with long-suppressed emotional trauma. We readers travel with him the tortuous routes through the internexus of mental and physical, as Nick recounts the dispiriting months of fatigue and breakdown.
Another major theme of Nick’s story is his exploration of therapies outside the NHS, his ‘adventure in alternative healthcare’. With certain exceptions Nick Duerden is able to pick out the valuable nuggets provided by different (often heavily marketed) alternative practitioners. Many of them are remarkably honest that they are not providing anything really new, but packaging old truisms in ways that communicate to modern audiences. In no particular order Nick tried F**k It therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, mindfulness, yoga, Vedic meditation, among others, and is willing in retrospect to recognise the value of techniques promoting relaxation and inhibiting his previous fight-or-flight existence. Indeed, he picks out the domains where many alternative therapies score over the NHS: hope, time, motivation. Not that all alternative therapists exhibit a willingness to listen: there is a woman performing muscle-testing using a pendulum at the other end of a Skype connection, and a physiotherapist who talks a lot about her boyfriend and her outside life. But many therapists are empathic listeners who enable Nick to voice his own history, an important part of his recovery.
As so often in these stories of recovery there is a loving family, wife Elena and two young daughters. (I am left wondering if those without such support never get to tell their story because they have succumbed under the loneliness and hopelessness of it all.) Elena was a staunch and level-headed source of encouragement during these years, researching possible therapies, helping with the children, while also encouraging Nick to be as active as possible. It would be interesting to read her retrospective view of Nick’s crash and subsequent story.
Nick Duerden comes to see that he will never again be the person he was before his ‘crash’, the cycling, running go-getter. But then, we will never again be who we were yesterday. (On his journey Nick fits in an interview with Norman Doidge, the author of the best-known introduction to brain plasticity.) Nick learned to be kinder to himself, and has learnt some useful techniques in living more wisely. He still meditates. And unlike many of us, Nick is aware of the scars he has collected on his journey and who he is, and he even feels that the ‘scorch marks’ inflicted by chronic illness may be useful in the end.
Get Well Soon is a fascinating and humorous story that is recommended for anyone with a chronic illness.
Duerden, Nick (2018) Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare, London, Bloomsbury
Audiobook available for this book, narrated by Kris Dyer