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My Life Falls Apart

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Exactly when it started is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it was as far back as January 1976 when I fainted suddenly one morning while visiting a friend. I had slept badly the previous night and had not eaten breakfast, so I attributed the fainting episode to the combined effects of tiredness and hunger.

But for several days afterwards I had a bad headache. Feelings of faintness would come over me at unexpected moments and I feared I might pass out again, although thankfully I did not. Over a period of weeks, the headache lifted and the feelings of faintness became less frequent. But something had changed. I did not feel quite well and seemed increasingly susceptible to colds and sore throats, even in summer.

Until then I had always prided myself on my physical fitness. I was a competitive runner during school and university, training up to 60 miles a week by the time I was 18 or 19, with long runs of more than 20 miles on Sunday mornings. When I graduated from university and started work with the New Zealand public service at the end of 1975, I found less time for serious training although I still ran several times a week and regarded myself as fit.

But after the fainting episode, my energy for running seemed to wane. I would go out occasionally and run three or four miles, struggling to complete the distance, my legs feeling strangely wooden. "I'm just unfit," I told myself.

At the end of 1976 I moved to Wellington with my job and lived for several weeks in a hostel, eating irregular meals. I also seemed to have an increasing craving for chocolate bars and similar snacks, particularly after work in the early evening as I walked home.

I moved into a flat in Hataitai, a hilly Wellington suburb overlooking the sea. Walking uphill from the bus-stop to the flat each evening became increasingly difficult but I put it down the fact that I was unfit and determined I would get back to regular running again. A series of colds and sore throats put paid to that idea.

In April 1977, my life took a radical new direction. I resigned my job and went to Pakistan to stay with some missionary friends in Hyderabad. I had been interested in overseas missionary work for some time and wondered whether it might be my eventual calling, so the purpose of my trip was to see first-hand the conditions in which missionaries lived and worked.

Before leaving New Zealand, I had the usual jabs for cholera, typhoid and malaria. The after-effects of injections left me feeling under par, and when I arrived in Pakistan I felt as though I had a bad cold which I could not throw off.

The heat in Hyderabad was intense. I did a lot of walking around the crowded the city and always returned exhausted to my host's house, usually sleeping in the afternoons, as was the local custom. I had a craving for sweets. One way to satisfy it, along with the thirst created by the heat, was to drink several bottles off soft drink each day, usually a local brand called Apple Cidra and sometimes Coca Cola. I also found myself buying packets of Pakistani-style biscuits and eating the whole bag in one sitting.

About two months into my visit, I developed what I thought was the 'flu. I put it down to the heat and the fact that I had been over-exerting myself, and decided to have an early night in the hope of sleeping it off. The next morning when I climbed out of bed, all my strength seemed to have vanished. I felt as weak as kitten, drained of energy as barely able to walk to the bathroom. I sank back into bed.

For several days I spent most of my time asleep and my hosts became increasingly concerned, urging me to see a doctor, which I did.

I managed to drag myself to the surgery of a Pakistani GP who stunned me by suggesting I might have diabetes. Blood tests a few days later showed my blood sugar levels were normal - much to my relief.

Over the next few weeks, my energy slowly returned. I moved to Karachi where I lived in a flat above the home of an English engineer, sharing the flat with two Pakistani students. One morning, I woke feeling weak and trembling, with a bad headache. I was planning to visit someone in hospital and although I did not feel well, decided to go anyway, in the hope I would "come right" as the day went on.

I survived the hospital visit - just - and was about to climb onto the back of my friend's motor scooter to return home, when I fainted. I came to, lying on the footpath, with a sea of puzzled Pakistan faces looking down at me. It was an awful experience. My friend was panic-stricken when I collapsed. Fearing the worst, he ran to his father-in-law's house about 100 metres away, to get help.

I managed to walk back to the aforementioned house and collapsed onto a bed for several hours. Finally, I felt strong enough to take a rickshaw back to my flat, my head still throbbing intensely as I rode in the rickety three-wheel machine over roads riddled with potholes.

My collapse caused great concern among my Pakistani friends. They called an English missionary who took me to a hospital for extensive tests, which found nothing apparently wrong with me. I went to a Pakistani doctor, recommended as one of the best in Karachi. He diagnosed low blood pressure but made no suggestion as to what I could do about it.

About this time, I ran out of the antibiotics (tetracycline) which I had been taking almost continually for the previous seven years, to control my acne. In New Zealand, I had always needed a doctor's prescription to obtain tetracycline but in Pakistan I could get it freely from any pharmacy.

However, I had a niggling doubt as to whether the antibiotics might be doing me harm. Could they have something to do with my constant headaches and weakness, I wondered. But I had to keep taking them, or my acne came back worse than ever, despite the fact that I was then 22 and well past the normal teenage acne stage.

I went to two or three more doctors, in desperate effort to find out what was wrong with me. One advised me to "get out of this God-forsaken country", advice which I was more than ready to take at that point.

I had an air ticket to England and my original plan had been to stay with my grandmother initially and look for work in England. But I felt so terrible - constant headache and feeling that I had the 'flu which I could not shake off - that I decided to return immediately to my parents' home in New Zealand.

Thus began three humiliating years of being unable to work at a full-time job. Three years of being misunderstood and being accused of being a malingerer by family and friends who did not understand the constant pain and exhaustion I was battling.

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