My Dance with the Serpent
By Jerry Crum, Carson City, Nevada
I live with a serpent. Believe me, it’s not my choice, I’ve never liked snakes and never will. But for reasons unknown to me right now, the serpent has chosen to take up residence within me. I’d like to tell you how I live with the serpent; how I’ve learned to respect it, take advantage of it when it’s weak, and withdraw from it when it has the advantage. This serpent has given me some new wisdom. Even serpents are not all bad.
Do I really live with a snake? No, not really. Do I have CFS? Yes, for three years now. This serpent is my own personal model for CFS. Why do I use this model? Simply because it gives me the ability to be as healthy as I can be every day. It gives me predictability.
Think about a model for a minute. It is the representation of something. A representation is okay as long as it reacts the same to a given situation as the real thing does. How do you know if you have a good model? You test it. Then, if it gives you predictability, you have a good one (at least for that situation). Let me show you how my model works. For me, CFS is a cobra, coiled up a few feet away from me, staring me in the eye. I’m staring back at it too. The cobra can strike me; the bite is not lethal but it does weaken me. The challenge is to live with the cobra and not get bitten, or if I choose to get bitten (that’s what I said), take responsibility for it.
For example: I’m having a good day, my mind is fairly clear and I do not feel that familiar intense fatigue. Friends invite my wife and me over for dinner and a movie. Should I go? The cobra helps me decide. Right now, he’s not within striking distance. But I know that visiting friends can be stressful (even good time cause stress). Stress causes fatigue. And fatigue allows the cobra to move closer to me. But if I play it smart and listen to my body, I will know when the snake is getting within striking distance. At that point I can explain to my friends that I am tired and have to call it a night. Being true friends, they will understand. And once again I have controlled the serpent, and not allowed it to control me.
There is a rhythmical nature to CFS. There are ups and downs, good days, bad days, and days that are in between. For me, it’s like a slow dance. When the serpent moves toward me, I withdraw from it. When he moves away, I move forward. To do it well is like learning any dance; it takes time and practice. At first you stumble and make mistakes, but if you keep practicing, it becomes natural – like my dance with the serpent. For me, this model works very well. I no longer have those extreme up and down moods. This is not to say I don’t have bad days, I just know what to do when they come along; the cobra warns me.
My serpent, like I said before, has taught me a bit of wisdom which at times is hard to accept but nonetheless I believe is true. It has to do with choosing to be bitten. He edges closer to me and I am tired; the lymph nodes in my neck are swollen. I know that if I don’t push myself during the day and go to bed early I will be able to cause him to withdraw. But those friends, bless them, have asked us out to dinner. I choose to go. I know I will get bitten. And I take full responsibility for being bitten. For me that means the next day I don’t complain to my wife, I don’t make an appointment with my doctor and lament about how bad I feel, I don’t blame work, and I don’t burden friends (or anyone else who will listen) about how this disease has ruined my life. In other words, I act like a responsible adult.
This is a bitter pill, but think about it for a second. I knew the serpent would strike; I make the choice. Does this mean it was a bad choice? Not necessarily. If I take the responsibility for my actions, part of which is telling my wife what is going to happen so she can plan (and perhaps help me with my choice), leaving enough time to recover so that work is not affected, then for me, this time, the choice was a good decision. Yet, this does not mean that it will be the right choice next time.
What it does mean, regardless of my choice, is that my life is much more stable. It has given me the ability to have a measure of control over something which I did not have before. Obviously, it does not solve every problem associated with CFS, but for me it has helped tremendously with a very important facet of any chronic illness – coping.
I hope that my serpent and I have given you some ideas on how to cope with your situation. We are all individuals, each finding our own way of dealing with life’s situations. Perhaps snakes are not your thing. Maybe there is something else that works for you. Why not share it with us? Now I must leave. Writing this article has been a lot of work and I see my “friend,” the serpent, slowly slithering towards me.
This story originally appeared in the CFIDS Chronicle, January/February 1989.