[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006, 00:21 GMT 01:21 UK
Celebrity Health - Shirley Conran
Shirley Conran
Shirley has had ME for 35 years
In a series on celebrities and their health, the BBC News website talks to author Shirley Conran, OBE, about her ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis).

Shirley, aged 74, famed globally for her books including Superwoman, Lace and Tiger Eyes, first started writing after her diagnosis 35-years ago.

She was formerly married to design tycoon Sir Terence Conran and they have two sons Sebastian and Jasper, both of whom are designers.

Shirley speaks about her condition to raise the profile of a new chronic fatigue (CFS) and ME service which has recently opened at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London.

HOW DID YOU FIRST REALISE SOMETHING WAS WRONG?

In 1970, I was 38, happily divorced and had a wonderful job as Women's Editor at the Daily Mail, and I loved it. Then I was rushed to hospital with viral pneumonia.

One said that my problem was a form of mass hysteria, the next said I was work-shy, while the third one said that I was trying to draw attention to myself
Shirley Conran

After four weeks I was told by the doctors and nurses that I was now healthy, but the other patients could see that I was not.

HOW DID YOU GET DIAGNOSED?

I eventually left hospital with an illness - post-viral syndrome (PVS) - that didn't exist, according to my kindly GP.

When I asked him exactly what it was he said it was just a term - like lumbago. After many physical tests, my GP understandably sent me to a "specialist" - the soothing description then used by doctors when sending a patient to see a psychiatrist.

I saw three such "specialists". They all produced a different diagnosis.

One said that my problem was a form of mass hysteria, the next said I was work-shy, while the third one said that I was trying to draw attention to myself. I could not agree with their opinions.

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO THE DIAGNOSIS?

One day I sat down with a mug of tea and thought: my head feels as if I have flu and a hangover; I can't walk more than a few paces, I can't bear light or noise, I'm dyslexic and I am constantly exhausted.

I didn't know then that I was - and am - a typical middle-of-the-range ME patient.

I soon ran into debt, and because of money problems, we had to move home five times in the next 18 months, from a very nice house in Regents Park Terrace to a small flat where my two sons had bunk beds in a room 7ft square.

I got deeper and deeper into debt.

My friends were all very supportive; in fact, one of them fixed me a book contract with a publisher, because he pointed out that I would have no deadline, and could write a sentence or two at a time.

Writing in this way lifted my spirits and took my mind off my illness; I laughed at my own jokes - in fact, I was happy to be making jokes again.

I eventually produced a book about how to minimise housework: ironically, I called it Superwoman - it was an international bestseller.

WHAT WAS YOUR TREATMENT?

I had been sent to a fourth psychiatrist to whom I am forever indebted: the late Dr Jonathan Gould - once head of Barts psychiatric department. I saw him privately in about 1971.

CFS/ME can leave people totally exhausted
A new service has recently opened at Barts

He taught me to be a pragmatist: to dump the oughts and the shoulds; to do only what was possible for me.

He said that I was responsible for maximising my well-being, and that a patient has a medical responsibility.

And he helped me to make the most of what energy I had.

He also discovered that I responded well to vitamin B and before I went on my first world tour, his nurse taught me to inject myself twice a week.

HOW DID YOU FEEL DURING THE TREATMENT?

If I needed to lie down, then that's what I did, wherever I was.

If I had to cancel an appointment at the last minute, then I did so.

Because wheat, wine and mushrooms now made me ill, I became a picky eater: I exasperated some people and missed a lot of fun. My way of dealing with my illness was and is - to accommodate it, ignore it, and remain positive.

When writing my books I have to be completely ruthless. If I am writing there is no going out, or answering the telephone otherwise I would not get my book written.

HOW DO YOU FEEL NOW?

I have not improved in the last 35 years, but I have learned how to better manage my symptoms.

Everything I do is aimed to save time and energy. I have relapses: I spend about three months a year in bed in the dark. Not all at once, but up to six weeks at a time.

I have about four normal half-days a year, which I find reassuring, because I know that somewhere inside me the "real me" is still there.

WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE TO OTHER PEOPLE WITH THE SAME CONDITION?

Every unfortunate person who contracts ME needs a good doctor to help them come to terms with this illness - particularly as symptoms differ so widely.

Ideally, there needs to be a team in a clinic where physicians and psychiatrists work together alongside occupational therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists.

Pacing* and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) help me a great deal.

I suspect that many ME patients may reject these therapies too soon, having attempted them with too much ambition, and perhaps over-encouragement.

*Pacing is a lifestyle programme where patients and their occupational therapists determine a patient's ability to undertake various mental and physical activities.


RELATED BBC LINKS

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific