Putting Together The Jigsaw Puzzle
In July 1982 I left Radio Rhema to work as a journalist with a private radio station in Christchurch. The new job was stressful and involved rotating shift work. Day shift, night shift and early morning shift, one after the other, started to take a toll on my body. The old symptoms returned. First headaches, then faintness, panic attacks and a feeling of being totally drained of energy.
I managed to keep working until April 1984. Then, I knew I needed a change from pressure cooker of radio journalism. We moved to England, my parents' home country, where they had returned a few years previously along with my two younger brothers and a sister. I got a job with a London book publisher. Though I suffered bad headaches most afternoons and came home exhausted at night, I managed to hold down the job but I knew I could not keep living that way.
Once again, I turned to the study of nutrition in an effort to get well. I read about macrobiotics, food combining, vegetarianism, Ayurvedic medicine, the Pritikin diet and many more theories, experimenting with each in turn. This was much to the frustration of my poor wife whose patience was tested to the limit as she cooked the various meals I requested.
Then I read about hypoglycemia - low blood sugar. The cure, the books said, was to avoid sugar and simple carbohydrates like honey and fruit juice. Caffeine and alcohol were also factors, according to most experts. Now this made sense. I had known instinctively for several years that sweets and coffee made me feel bad, yet in all my nutritional studies I had overlooked the obvious. Perhaps it was because I had always loved sweet things. Not only cakes and biscuits, but healthful natural things like dried fruit, fruit juice and honey.
In my days as a runner I had learned to stoke up on carbohydrates for energy. I had become addicted to sweet things. Now, I started to see light at the end of the tunnel. After a few days of avoiding sweet things, my energy started to come back, my headaches got less and I felt a new sense of vitality. Then I had a particularly stressful day at work and came home exhausted. I craved something sweet. I knew I shouldn't but I could not stop myself bingeing on half a dozen muesli bars.
Next morning, I woke feeling rotten. It was just like a hangover. I was back to square one again, my discouraged mind told me. But I now knew the answer. Be careful with sugar. As long as I kept away from sweets, my energy and health came back, slowly but surely. 10
There were many ups and downs over the next three years as we moved to a new home in the Cotswolds, then to Cardiff where I worked for a magazine publisher. I was well enough to do a day's work and live an almost normal life but I still was not 100 per cent.
I knew diet was crucial to my health. But I continued to relapse regularly and eat sweet things, or stuff myself with other carbohydrate food, like bread, when I was tired or under stress. Something was still missing from the dietary jigsaw puzzle and I continued to seek until I found it. The answer came unexpectedly in a book I found in a Cardiff bookshop, the name and author of which I cannot now recall.
Its message has stuck with me as the cornerstone of my philosophy on diet ever since. It is this: Eat when I'm hungry, eat what I'm hungry for, and stop when I've had enough.
It is so simple. But the most profound truths are always the simplest. According the book, we have natural instincts which can tell us what to eat, if only we will learn to listen to our bodies. Forget the rules about calories, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Just listen to what your body wants. It will naturally gravitate towards healthy foods.
The book also stressed the need to be gentle on yourself when you have a dietary lapse and binge on "forbidden" food. Don't worry. Just listen to your body and eat less at the next few meals, of simple food, until you get back into balance.
I grasped hold of this new theory and immediately felt a new sense of liberation in the area of diet. I found I could eat small amounts of sweet food - perhaps a muffin or a biscuit - as part of main meal and not suffer any adverse effects from low blood sugar. I also found that it I overate of any food, I would get bad headaches and loss of energy.
Initially I found myself bingeing on sweet things quite often, as a result of this new, liberated approach to diet. I suffered the inevitable ill effects. But I also found I was slowly gaining weight (which I needed to do as I was underweight) and also becoming more energetic. In late 1989 we returned to New Zealand. I worked for a small newspaper in Hokitika and spent one of the most enjoyable years of my life in that small West Coast town. Then, we moved to Ashburton where I spent six years as a reporter at the Ashburton Guardian.
My health and energy gradually improved during that period. There were still bad times, when I got overtired, binged on sweet foods and suffered the inevitable heachache and fatigue. But the overall trend was upwards. I started running again and went on several outings of more than 12 kilometres with the local harriers. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to run again. But I found it was easy to overdo it. Often, I pushed myself too far or too fast and came home exhausted. Then I would crave something sweet, with the familiar consequences.
As many others with chronic fatigue syndrome have discovered, exercise is not the panacea which popular literature portrays it to be. We are so bombarded with the exercise message today, with magazines proclaiming how marvellous it will make us feel.
Maybe so, but not for those of us with chronic fatigue syndrome. Gentle exercise, yes. But we overdo it at our peril. This has been a hard lesson for me, a former competitive runner, to learn. But painful experience has taught me to listen to my body and to rest when it tells me it is tired.
In September 1996 we moved to Napier, where I spent five years as a journalist with Hawke’s Bay Today, one of New Zealand’s largest regional daily newspapers. Then I became press secretary for a politician in the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington for two years.
These were stressful jobs – on top of the demands of a family - but by this time I had learned my limits and how to give my body the right food and rest to ensure good health.
Today, I am a freelance journalist and web copywriter, working from a home-based office in Ashburton. I am 99 per cent recovered from chronic fatigue syndrome. I say 99 per cent, rather than 100 per cent, because I still sometimes get fatigued more than I would like. I still get headaches when I push myself too hard, or overeat of sugar. But now I know the reason whenever I suffer fatigue and headaches.
health is in my hands. It’s wonderful to look back and see how far I’ve
come from those dark days 20 years ago.