Saturday, October 29, 2011

How To Be Sick by Toni Bernhard (and My Story of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers

by Toni Bernhard

During a trip to Disney World in April 2009, I suffered a massive cold. Almost all of us did — my husband, my daughter (then five-years-old), my mom and myself. Only my 18-month-old son escaped with just a runny nose, but then he had his own porta-crib away from the rest of our germs. All that recirculated air, we said, before downing more Disney-priced Sudafed. Still, it was a vacation, and the adrenaline helped us power through. Soon after we were home, everyone recovered …

Except me.

Not until December 2010 — that's a full 20 months — did I figure out why I felt unrelentingly exhausted, why the lymph nodes in my armpits and along my collarbone felt swollen and inflamed, why the muscles in my arms and legs ached. And why, most of all, these afflictions never, ever went away. After puzzling more than one doctor and physical therapist, and after blood tests came back normal (thus ruling out anything scary/cancer-y), process of elimination led me to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

It's a silly-sounding name, isn't it? Aren't we all tired, one might say. Hell, I have a good friend who worked for three months cleaning floors without a day off — starting at 4 am, no less. Shouldn't he be the one who is "allowed" to be fatigued? Shouldn't I feel silly for having to quit a 17 hour/week barista job because it's "too much?"

The answer is no. We are talking about two different kinds of fatigue. All the days off and good nights' sleep in the world will not cure me. I still need them — in fact, they are a priority — but I will still have a chronic illness.

The commonly accepted definition of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), according to the Mayo Clinic, is this:

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a complicated disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that can't be explained by any underlying medical condition. The fatigue may worsen with physical or mental activity, but doesn't improve with rest.

Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) is an alternative name given to CFS, partially to give it a more serious name, and partly to specify the group of CFS patients whose immune systems continually produce flu-like symptoms.

Myalgic Encephomyalitis (ME) is the name for CFS that is used in many other countries, and I suppose there is a joke to be made about how Americans have to do things "special." Literally translated, ME means "muscle pain and brain inflammation," but the symptoms are commonly the same as CFS.

And what are those symptoms?

On July 20, 2011, the Journal of Internal Medicine e-published ahead of print “Myalgic Encephalomyelitis: International Consensus Criteria," which the CFIDS Association of America summarized here. It's not a perfect set of criteria, but it has handy visuals and covers it well enough as a start.

But to summarize that, eh, summary, here are some primary and secondary symptoms:

Loss of memory or concentration
Sore throat
Painful and mildly enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits
Unexplained muscle pain
Pain that moves from one joint to another without swelling or redness
Headache of a new type, pattern or severity
Unrefreshing sleep
Extreme exhaustion lasting more than 24 hours after physical or mental exercise

The secondary symptoms are not part of the official definition, but are often reported in CFS patients:

Abdominal pain
Allergies or sensitivities to foods, alcohol, odors, chemicals, medications or noise
Chest pain
Chronic cough
Dizziness, balance problems or fainting
Dry mouth
Irregular heartbeat
Jaw pain
Morning stiffness
Chills and night sweats
Psychological problems, such as depression, irritability, anxiety disorders and panic attacks
Shortness of breath
Tingling sensations
Visual disturbances, such as blurring, sensitivity to light, eye pain and dry eyes
Weight loss or gain

I experience 100% of the primary symptoms and around 75% of the secondary symptoms to varying degrees. Some days, my leg muscles ache to the point of making walking difficult and other days, they are mild annoyance compared to the armpit lymph node that feels like it wants to burst out Alien-style (you're welcome for that visual, by the way). Concentration problems abound, and I also have times where my hands forget what they are doing and just let go of whatever I'm holding. (This is also annoying when you've just paid for your drink. Or are making someone else's drink.)

The mental and physical symptoms fluctuate in severity, sometimes by the hour. To put it mildly, I get frustrated. I tire of being tired. This isn't a sob story; I just want to outline the complexity of this condition and to spread general awareness. Not everyone experiences it in the same way, which makes it even harder to treat, and it's a relatively "new" illness in terms of scientific study.

Once I had a diagnosis, I started to do a little research on CFS management and studies related to the condition. More than one site recommended reading Toni Bernhard's How To Be Sick. Bernhard's suffered from CFS since 2001, contracted after a plane ride from California to Paris left her sick and bed-ridden for three weeks. It's enough to give a person a complex about flying.

(Particularly one who has irrational phobias, anxiety, and mild OCD, but I digress.)

Despite my connection to her story, and my connection to Buddhism, I hesitated to buy the book at first. Let's be real — Many self-help and health books are shit, and awards aren't necessarily indicative of quality. However, after reading some of Bernhard's articles on the subject, where she would talk about mindfulness and allowing yourself to admit weakness, I wanted to know more. How could I live with this new reality of mine without going insane?

First, I could take comfort in synchronicity. I've said before, I like it when the things I like overlap. How To Be Sick's forward is written by Sylvia Boorstein, a smart woman introduced to me through Dani Shapiro's Devotion. Boorstein's metta phrases are written on the inside of my current notebook, and it's because of Boorstein and Shapiro that some of Bernhard's Buddhist terminology did not seem completely foreign. I can even draw parallels to Neal Pollack's Stretch, in which I further acquainted myself with terms like samsara. When I often have no set system for my reading queue, I enjoy it when my choices become, in retrospect, orderly. Meant to be.

The first noble truth — the fact of dukkha [suffering] — helps me accept being sick because that fact tells me my life is as it should be. "Our life is always all right," says Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. "There's nothing wrong with it. Even if we have horrendous problems, it's just our life."

Life education is everywhere, and when we are ready to listen, it will help us bear our load. The world can be sad, scary and disappointing, but it can also be small, compassionate and inspiring. Bit by bit, my reading has helped me make sense of my mental turmoil and physical pain, and it's only been recently that I've quit trying to power through. Treating CFS is a diplomatic summit, not nuclear war.

Even if I never fully recover (very few CFS patients do), my life is still valuable. My life is still filled with love, and I take comfort where I can.

When I was still debating over keeping my job, I had just started reading How To Be Sick. I'd owned it for a couple of months, but had circled around reading it, afraid of admitting my limitations. Research into the condition can be extremely depressing at times, and I wasn't sure I was ready. Luckily, Bernhard comes across like a thoughtful and sympathetic friend, and I was glad that I'd finally started reading.

Then, one bad afternoon, I fell onto the bed and sobbed to my husband that I couldn't stand the physical pain anymore. I hated standing for six hours at work, and even though I truly did enjoy making coffee, my symptoms were always worse on work days.

"I think you need to put in your two weeks," my husband said. I didn't know if I agreed, until I read this:

It's easy to look back and see what a mistake it was to continue working while sick — it probably worsened my condition — but many people who have contracted a chronic illness have done the same. First, there's the financial need to keep working. Second, there's the utter disbelief that this is happening to you (reinforced by people telling you that you look just fine — people who don't see you collapse on the bed as soon as you get home). Each morning, you expect to wake up not feeling sick even though for weeks and then months — and then years — that has never been the case.

I knew I had to quit. I'd survived, barely, for one year, and now it was time to go. The realization, to be honest, made me feel like an asshole. I felt some guilt about the burden on my co-workers, and even more for placing additional burden on my husband. Even though I didn't make a lot of money, the money still helped.

Still, I had to take care of me. Extra money means nothing when I'm too tired to cook my children dinner. This book has helped me continue my self-care, and for that, I am grateful.

Bernhard writes in a very direct, soothing manner befitting a longtime Buddhist who has the benefit of perspective. Already a grandmother when she became ill, her accumulated wisdom over the years helped her adjust. Yes, she is the first to admit that her symptoms — including anxiety and frustration — still get the best of her at times, but Buddhism has taught her how to bring herself back to the breath. We will fail, but we can always start again.

Each chapter is centered around one facet of dealing with chronic illness, loosely centered around the Four Noble Truths, and the approaches that have worked for her. "You need not be a Buddhist to benefit from the practices in this book," she writes in the preface:

If a suggested practice resonates with you, truly 'practice' it. Work with it over and over until it enters your heart, mind, and body and becomes a natural response to the difficulties you face as the result of being chronically ill or being the caregiver of a chronically ill person.

If a suggest practice resonates — Bernhard is not pretending she knows what will work for everyone, and that's an important distinction. There is no cure-all for chronic fatigue, and to claim otherwise would be dishonest.

Lest we think that healing and Buddhism is all serious business, Bernhard provides some funny moments as well. In the chapter "Soothing the Body, Mind, and Heart," she talks about using metta phrases to calm and forgive oneself for being sick. "It's not my body's fault that it's sick," she says. "It's doing the best job it can to support my life."

The trick, however, is to direct that loving-kindness towards others — friends, acquaintances, even those that make us angry — in order to make compassion second nature.

During the 2008 presidential election, Bernhard felt an extreme aversion to Sarah Palin. "I didn't like Palin's political positions. I didn't like her lack of humility when asked about her reaction to being picked as a vice presidential nominee," she says. Soon she realized that her disdain for the woman was causing her unnecessary stress, and she decided to direct metta at her, even if it felt artificial at first.

"Sarah Palin: May you be peaceful. May have ease of well-being. May you reach the end of suffering … and be free by seeing the error of your ways and becoming a completely different human being." This is, of course, not exactly what the Buddha had in mind..."

I laughed out loud at that one.

Elsewhere, Bernhard discusses how Zen Buddhism can help shift our perspective, even if we are not students of Zen. "Zen teachings tend to be short and to the point. In addition to koans, they often take the form of gathas — short verses reminding us of our practice — and haiku," she says.

I also love a book of gathas called The Dragon Never Sleeps by Robert Aitken. His gathas are indeed an exercise in meditation and poetry. Many of them also make me laugh. Poetic mindfulness plus a laugh — great medicine for the chronically ill..

Here's a sampling of Aitken's gathas:

When wayward thoughts are persistent
I vow with all beings
To imagine that even the Buddha
Had silly ideas sometimes.

Hey, the Buddha was human too, after all.

Bernhard also deals with more practical matters such as dealing with the loss of friendships, missing out on social events and ways to let our caregivers know we appreciate them. Constant pain can become awfully crazy-making, I know, and her ideas do help with reeling back in our thoughts that seem beyond control.

How To Be Sick is a book I'd wholeheartedly recommend to anyone dealing with chronic illness, but especially those with CFS/ME, lupus, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, or any other complex condition that is not easily treated. I'm glad I finally read it, and it's one I'll be referring to every time I need a little extra help.

For more information on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME, check out the following sites, as well as Toni Bernhard's site, also called How to Be Sick:

The CDC's page on CFS
The CFIDS Association of America
ME Association

And to the people in my life: Thank you for being patient.

(Edited to add: This review also appeared on Persephone Magazine on 1/31/12.)


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.


  1. Thanks for coming by my blog and commenting! I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this post your wrote...very informative and inspirational...Wishing you well on your journey.

  2. I happened to see in my stats that your blog was a traffic source so I went and took a look. Thanks again!

  3. thanks for this review, i have fibro following a neck injury incurred failing to save my husband and daoism has helped so much. i love the overlap of zen between dao and buddhism, particularly dogen...remembers this is a comment space not an endless ramble space ;)
    and...feel welcome to visit birds sing artblog, i post a lot about pacing art/creativity to fibro and lots of pix of super slowly turning a derelict garden around ;)
    all good wishes on your journey!

  4. Good wishes for your journey as well! I'm glad you liked the review.