Saturday, 13 August 2016

Who has control of the story? - Anna Katharina Schaffner's EXHAUSTION

I recall when I read Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton in 2012, my favourite line was, 'Who shall have control over the story?'. I thought, naturally, of the way the illness myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) - an illness I have had for thirty-three years - has been ceaselessly misrepresented in the media, and of the way health editors, journalists and academics have locked onto the narrative of a group of UK psychiatrists - who harmfully conflate ME with unexplained 'chronic fatigue' - and recycled it uncritically, for the last two decades:
'At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses, he said, behind all the accusations and abuse, was a question of profound importance: Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? 

I think most would agree that ME sufferers have not had the power to tell their stories, that they've not been allowed a voice. The vacuous 'yuppie flu' headline in the 1980s is nothing compared to what is dished out now. It's highly unusual to read accurate accounts of the illness in the media - unless it's a first person account - and the question of who shall have control over the story has been in my head again these past two weeks or so.


A few years ago I had a friendly exchange with a young academic on a medical humanities thread, she was researching the history of exhaustion for her book, including ME and 'chronic fatigue syndrome'. ME, of course, belongs no more in a 'history of exhaustion' than MS or lupus or cancer, but I pointed her in the direction of my novel, of Dr Melvin Ramsay's brilliant 1986 book on virally-triggered ME (my now retired neurologist wrote the preface), and of the International Criteria Consensus 2011. I clarified that ME was not 'chronic fatigue' or indeed chronic fatigue syndrome. I explained that post-exertional malaise (PEM) - also known as post-exertional neuroimmune exhaustion (PENE) - is the cardinal symptom of ME. She thanked me and said she would explore these texts.

I thought no more of this until the weekend before last, when someone on Twitter told me that Anna Katharina Schaffner had quoted me extensively in her new book EXHAUSTION and was 'trying hard to present us in unflattering ways'. I googled and found a Times Literary Supplement review* in which the reviewer had said:
In a chapter called 'Mystery Viruses' Schaffner frames Nasim Marie Jafry's semi-autobiographical novel The State of Me (2008) with a nuanced exploration of the controversial diagnoses of chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis and post-viral fatigue syndrome. The author shows how and why both sufferers and medical researchers have so much invested in alternative somatic and psychological explanations'.
I was, of course, intrigued and got a copy of her book. I figured the truth would lie somewhere between 'unflattering' and 'nuanced'. Sadly,  nuanced it is not. Schaffner, while attempting to appear empathetic has, consciously or unconsciously, managed to misrepresent me in several ways - including misquoting me - and 'Mystery Viruses' is - wearily and, perhaps, unsurprisingly - little more than a puff piece on Professor Simon Wessely. He's referenced in 80% of the bibliography along with the dreadfully cruel social historian Edward Shorter (I guess he deleted this post).  Schaffner can see why ME sufferers would be offended by the latter, but nevertheless finds him 'thought-provoking' and gives him generous room in her chapter.

Bizarrely, not one reference is made by Anna to any ME biomedical researcher by name - as if they simply don't exist. Since she's a reader of my blog,  she could have, for example, mentioned Stanford's Professor Jose Montoya, specialist in infectious diseases, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting briefly last year. Montoya wants USA medical institutions to apologise to ME patients for the way they have been treated (the Norwegian government has already apologised to its sufferers - an anti-cancer drug Rituximab is currently under trial there for ME). Schaffner acknowledges ME is a controversial diagnosis, but sets up a false opposition of scientists against patients. Let's not  forget in early 2015, the Institute of Medicine's (USA) definitive report which - after examining 9000 research papers - concluded that ME is not psychological.  Research in the USA has been energised lately through the National Institute of Health. And the first European ME tissue biobank opened in London in May. (Interestingly, ME sufferers in Scotland are not permitted to donate blood.)

The task ahead is to unlock the mechanism of this poorly understood illness. That is all that is important. But Anna insists, instead, on embracing the dying narrative of UK psychiatrists, which casts ME sufferers as ungrateful militants.  I do wonder is the reading public not bored with this particular narrative by now? ME sufferers have  horribly diminished - often ruined - lives, but certain writers are still feting Simon - who apparently left the field fifteen years ago - by putting him at the centre of the narrative. Why do they persist in their misguided praise? Why are they not following the science?

Anna says in her introduction that 'works of fiction, in particular, can grant us precious experiential insights into how particular physical conditions...may feel', and yet on reading my novel appears to have wilfully misunderstood why ME sufferers are rightly angry with Wessely and others, who stubbornly push their harmful biopsychosocial theory,  for which they have not a scrap of evidence. When they suggest ME sufferers are perpetuating their own illness with aberrant beliefs, these psychiatrists are simply acting out their *own* beliefs. Really, think about it - how can 250,000 ME sufferers in the UK alone - former lawyers, doctors,  students, dancers, engineers, artists, teachers etc - all be keeping their own hellish symptoms going by faulty thinking? A kind of synchronised somatising? It's utter nonsense.

Schaffner has  not, I assume, accessed any of the medical sources I suggested, and gives a garbled history of the terminologies of ME and CFS: for the whole chapter she refers to 'CFS/ME' - the favoured label of UK psychiatrists. The rest of us talk about ME - or 'ME/CFS', if we have to. (It is admittedly confusing as in the USA, true ME is referred to as CFS, which is where the name originally came from in 1980s. Many researchers use the name CFS.  Dr Daniel Peterson - involved in the Lake Tahoe outbreak in 1984 - speaks up here in support of the name ME, acknowledging that the label CFS hugely trivialises the illness.

However, during the 1990s, Simon Wessely and others effectively tried to 'disappear' Ramsay-defined ME, the illness I have, merging it with CFS, using the much broader Oxford Criteria (1991), which can include patients who *do* have a psychiatric basis to their fatigue. The CDC (Fukuda) 1994 criteria in USA that Anna refers to also have problems of being too broad, but she is, doubtless, unaware. Leonard Jason, professor of psychology, is excellent on criterion variance and the importance of case definitions. Ramsay-ME has by definition more severe physical impairment. The problem is that no one is speaking about the same illness and UK psychiatrists seem happy to conflate them. Most journalists writing about ME/CFS have no idea of the many different criteria. It's an unholy mess. People are misdiagnosed as having ME when they actually have CFS. It was recommended by the National Institute of Health in 2015 that the Oxford Criteria for CFS be retired as they could harm research.

This is how and why nonsense about ME is written and how a dysfunctional narrative has been perpetuated. The wrong people have been controlling the story. And younger, naive writers pick up the baton. Listing the symptoms of ME, Schaffner includes 'a perceived sense of effort', making her bias - and ignorance - obvious early on. Post-exertional malaise - described in this short film by Dr Mark VanNess is listed in the Institute of Medicine (2015) report as one of several  core symptoms, objectively verifiable:
          Post-exertional malaise (PEM)
PEM is worsening of a patient’s symptoms and function after exposure to physical or cognitive stressors that were normally tolerated before disease onset. Subjective reports of PEM and prolonged recovery are supported by objective evidence in the scientific literature, including failure to normally reproduce exercise test results (2-day cardiopulmonary exercise test) and impaired cognitive function after exertion. There is sufficient evidence that PEM is a primary feature that helps distinguish ME/CFS (SEID) from other conditions.

Before moving on to discuss my novel, Schaffner writes, How does living with chronic fatigue actually feel?' - disrespectfully disregarding that ME is not 'chronic fatigue' and that neither I nor my character Helen Fleet live with chronic fatigue (I had pointed this out to Schaffner in our exchange). I live with a poorly understood neuroimmune illness, which has many very disabling symptoms, severe fatigue being only one. These other hellish symptoms are described in detail in The State of Me, but Schaffner does not seem to think they are worthy of discussion. (Of course, since she has appropriated ME -  via my novel - for  a monograph on exhaustion, it would not suit her to look at the many other symptoms.)

My character Helen Fleet is no saint - I wanted her to be flawed - ill people are not saints in real life or fiction. And Helen Fleet is not me and I am not Helen Fleet, but all the medical procedures are true. Schaffner, at first, seems to empathise with Helen, recognising her humour in helping her cope with a life of chronic illness. But she skips over the utter hell and shock and heartbreak of being largely bedbound, aged twenty, getting a diagnosis of ME - wrongly referring to Coxsackie B4 as 'a rare virus' - it isn't - and failing to mention that a cluster of people became ill with ME in the west of Scotland at this time (described in Melvin Ramsay's text, which I recommended to her).

More tellingly, she ignores  the fact that Helen is diagnosed by a consultant neurologist. She ignores the 'full house of abnormalities', the abnormal muscle biopsy and EMG. And goes on to ignore the (albeit experimental) immunotherapies Helen has: the plasma exchange, the anti-viral drugs, the ACTH injections, the vitamin C/magnesium drips, the evening primrose oil clinical trial. Of course, she is constrained by how much she can quote without permission, but it is bizarre she would not reveal to her readers that my character is diagnosed in a neurology clinic by a consultant neurologist, as I was. Of course, that might undermine her 'Wessely as saint' narrative later on, the Wessely who has stated: 'Like it or not, CFS is not simply an illness, but a cultural phenomenon and metaphor for our times'.

Schaffner then starts to dabble in amateur psychology examining the causes of my own illness, by psychoanalyising my character Helen. She suggests that because fictional Helen's fictional parents got divorced, that maybe Helen (and I) are suppressing painful childhood emotions. Her audacity is quite something, others have commented on how intrusive, not to mention, unethical this is. She can simply not understand why Helen is so against a psychiatric explanation of her illness. She seems to forget that Helen's story is informed by my lived experience of ME since the age of 18, along with a consultant neurologist's diagnosis in 1984, and mounting, incontrovertible biomedical evidence that ME is physical. But this is not quite enough for this young academic - she appears to know more than me about my own illness. Perhaps she would like to track down the others who got ill in the west of Scotland post-Coxsackie virus and psychoanalyse them too?

Schaffner goes on to highlight Helen's 'scathing' attitude  towards those who suggest her illness may not be physical in origin. Her empathy for  Helen evaporates and she gets to what she really wants to say, no longer literary critic but judge and jury, exploring the issue of how I/Helen/ME sufferers dare to be scathing about psychiatrists (who don't believe ME is physical), in particular, Professor Simon Wessely. You have to wonder, did she even read my novel or did she just flip through it looking for extracts that would suit her chapter?

She describes Simon as 'one of the most important CFS researchers in Britain' - I beg to differ - he has conflated CFS with ME and caused utter chaos since the early 1990s. Schaffner is breathtakingly careless, though, as she appears keen to merge my anger at Wessely with those who have allegedly 'targeted' him (the threats narrative was tirelessly explored in UK media). She may like to know that Simon Wessely and I exchanged several long emails a couple of years ago (polite but ultimately fruitless, in my opinion). And I certainly do not regard myself as being scathing, I'd say my reaction, under the circumstances, is rational and healthy. Schaffner has quoted selectively from my blog, but she could so easily have read all the research that I post and tried to learn, but instead she took the easy option, recycling the weary, psychogenic narrative that the London media loves to recycle again and again. I guess she missed this quote from a journalist in 2007: 'I’m sure there is a lot of psychiatric literature on how denying another person’s reality triggers all sorts of deep hostile responses'. And I guess she also missed Simon's open letter conversation from 2012 with the Countess of Mar, a long time advocate for people with ME.

Anna also writes: 'Jafry not only wishes that doctors who suggest graded exercise or CBT would fall ill with ME themselves...'. This is simply  dishonest. I often say - as Helen does - let those who don't believe that ME is a physical illness have it for a day or a week, then they will soon believe.  I say let them try graded exercise when they have experienced severe ME (they wouldn't, they couldn't). I say that graded exercise (GET) is dangerous for people with ME, because it is.  Nowhere have I said I want doctors who recommend GET and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to get ill themselves. But Schaffner  happily misrepresents me. Well-meaning doctors who are in the dark may recommend these therapies because the hugely flawed NICE guidelines tell them to. There was, in fact, an excellent article recently in the British Journal of General Practice, highlighting the fact that GET and CBT can cause harm.

Schaffner seems largely unaware of the abuse and neglect that people with ME have suffered, the unrelenting, detrimental nonsense in the press. I recall five or six years ago someone on a forum saying that ME sufferers just wanted to fucking stay at home and eat pot noodles all day. And an anonymous doctor suggesting 'lead in the gullet' was what was needed. This kind of online  abuse is not unusual. It would be unacceptable for any other patient population to endure this.

Neither, of course, does she acknowledge the ongoing problems with the PACE trial (which underpins GET and CBT as safe, effective therapies). This is the trial that used the Oxford Criteria;  the trial where you could be more ill at the end than at the beginning and still be considered recovered; the trial that cost £5 million pounds. Schaffner tells us blithely that  GET and CBT are  'moderately efficacious' for the relief of symptoms. I think those who have gone from mild to severe ME after graded exercise would disagree. **We are still awaiting the results of the outcome of the QMUL tribunal in May over the PACE trial and its refusal to share data. But because the trial was spun so successfully in the media, no one is really aware of the problems, apart from ME sufferers and the scientists who are challenging The Lancet over its publication of PACE in the first place.

I often say it can take a decade to adjust to a life with severe ME, we do everything in our power to recover, to keep hold of our lives, but the illness is bigger than us. This is not nihilistic, it is fact. We relapse severely when we push ourselves; we learn to pace, it is how we cope, how we endure, how we survive. We also have to cope with the emotional stress that comes with physical decline. Our families suffer as they watch us, helplessly from the sidelines. They too have lost a daughter or a husband or a mother or a brother to this hellish illness. Yet, on top of the physical hell - and it is hell in its acute/severe form - we as an ill population have to face these ongoing, irrational claims by a group of psychiatrists. I honestly don't know how I'd have coped when first diagnosed had I been subjected to those who arrogantly  tell us that pacing/resting is counter-productive, and who promote GET and CBT. I count my blessings I was diagnosed a good seven years before these particular psychiatrists dominated the narrative, before they controlled the story. Their advocating CBT, of course, is not to help us cope, as with other physical illnesses, it is to rid us of our false illness beliefs.

I'd confidently say that all ME sufferers, regardless of severity of illness, have been neglected or derided at some point by someone somewhere, but there is a truly invisible, neglected group: 25% of  patients are so severely ill, they are housebound/bedridden for decades, they don't make any improvement at all. There are patients who tragically die.  What have these 'CFS' psychiatrists done for the most severely ill apart from cast doubt on their psychological health?  It's scandalous.

As I said at the beginning, Anna has misrepresented me in several ways, consciously or unconsciously, though no doubt appearing nuanced to those who know little about ME. I think perhaps the most ludicrous sentence she has written is:  'In her view, the cardinal symptoms of of ME, are post-exertional malaise, or post-exertional neuroimmune exhaustion, which are caused by viral triggers'. 

In my view? Dear god.

And while I find it both amusing - and somewhat impudent - that she questions myself and the many, many ME sufferers and advocates who dare to challenge the authority of UK psychiatrists, I'm not sure if she's being incredibly naive or simply disingenuous. She has, of course, been heavily influenced by the never-ending spin coming out of King's College. It's a little disappointing, but she is certainly not the first and no doubt won't be the last to appropriate ME as a chapter for her book (ME is the 'go to' illness if you need a chapter) with no real curiosity for truth. I'm glad she used extracts from my novel, hopefully others will now read it, but in doing so she demonstrates a lack of control in her own narrative. She is a literature scholar, after all, not a judge of how patients should respond to inappropriate and harmful treatment.

While Schaffner finds it 'ironic that Wessely should have become such a hated figure in the CFS/ME community', I find it 'ironic' that her book is published by Columbia University Press, which states: Columbia University Press seeks to enhance Columbia University’s educational and research mission by publishing outstanding original works by scholars and other intellectuals that contribute to an understanding of global human concerns. In early 2015, Mady Hornig and Ian Lipkin, both highly respected ME researchers at Columbia University, had this to say: Immune Signatures in Blood Point to Distinct Disease Stages, Open Door to Better Diagnosis and Treatment. But as I said before,  Anna mentions not one single biomedical researcher by name. They are not important in her landscape.


I can see that the narrative of ME is a morass from the outside, but those who really know, who really understand are patients such as myself who have lived through the politics, and seen the embedding of psychiatry since the 1990s, the very harmful conflation of ME with fatigue. In her cultural history of exhaustion Schaffner could have done something different, she could have explored why a group of doctors is clinging to an outdated model of ME, a veritable sinking ship, she could have asked why on earth this is happening. But she didn't. In 2016, almost thirty-three years after my own diagnosis, it's chilling that the psychogenic narrative of ME is still being given time of day. All that should be being discussed is biomedical research. Anything else is redundant and indulgent. It is we sufferers and serious biomedical researchers who should have control over the story.

*I've since had some emails with the TLS reviewer, who is a cultural historian - he was respectful and empathetic - while we still disagree on some points - and I think has learned more about the politics around ME.

** I see that QMUL has been ordered to release the PACE trial data. 

And here is info about the recovery data being sought.

*** And on re-analysis, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has declared the PACE trial findings to be invalid - GET and CBT are ineffective for 'ME/CFS'. Oxford criteria, once again, found lacking.

**** Blog from  Prof Vincent Racianello (immunology) on The Lancet/PACE circus, 29 August 2016


Mary Schweitzer said...

Brilliant and brave commentary. I cannot imagine having a book so mis-used as this woman has yours, and on such an important subject. I'll just add that the World Health Organization has classified ME as a NEUROLOGICAL illness since 1969.

Epilepsy was once considered possession by the devil. Tuberculosis was thought to be due to a poor lifestyle and living around bad humours. Until the loss of myelin sheath was discovered, MS patients faced a diagnosis of "hysterical paralysis." Autism was called "cold mother syndrome," because the mothers were correctly reading the signals from their children that they did not want eye contact, often did not want cuddling. In each case, the imaginary diagnosis - and by that, I mean a diagnosis fixated in the imagination - gave way to a biomedical diagnosis.

Ultimately, the perspective of the British biopsychosocial school assumes from the beginning that the patient is experiencing Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS - an insurance company term). Given that founding assumption, they then build a skeleton of a house with the conclusion that the patient must have false illness beliefs.

Research at the top levels of biomedical science at Columbia University, Cornell University, and Stanford University in the US; Griffith University in Australia, universities in Japan - all are finding complex and serious abnormalities in patients with ME/CFS (Canadian 2003 definition). What kind of scholar trips along on one narrow theory and abandons all evidence to the contrary? If the Wesselyite school is correct, why are they so afraid of the information available in medical science today?

Thank you for tackling this difficult subject.

Sabine said...

Brave and to the point!

nmj said...

Hey, Mary and Sabine, Thanks for your comments, not sure how brave my post is, just speaking truth to power. I find the ongoing misrepresentation by these psychiatrists - and those who seek to emulate them - unbearable. Sadly, the 'detractors' don't realise just how much energy it takes to correct the nonsense. More than a week's precious energy, writing this, but I wanted to respond to Anna's chapter, sooner rather than later. I am absolutely shattered.

Lilpink said...

Excellent rebuttal. I do wonder how the Wessely School and their hangers on actually explain how any of us so neatly arrive at the exact profile of this disease (as outlined by Ramsay or more recently by CCC / ICC) in a world before social media a world where the term 'ME' was almost unheard of except in very particular circles. How could I as a girl in 1970 know which symptoms to choose as my 'aberrant illness belief' when I didn't even hear the name of my disease until 1986 and wasn't diagnosed until 1990? How have so many patients around the globe been able to produce this facsimile independent of each other decades before this disease was 'yuppie flu media fodder'? Bit odd that isn't it?
I do feel a bit sorry for people like Schaffner who think they're making a name for themselves in writing such badly researched nonsense, not least because the science has now reached such a critical point that I think any suggestion of psychogenesis will be testable and found utterly wanting not only in this disease but others that are scrambled under the same spurious banner. That's why I almost didn't bother to comment here..because I think 'advocacy' is now a bit of a waste of energy, well at this pedestrian level anyway (by which I mean my response, not Nasim's original response) . I'm too unwell to involve myself with trying to educate the 'uneducatable'(sic ;) ) whist knowing that their embarrassing demise is fast upon us. But knowing Nasim's work as I do it seems rude not to support her truth (which is absolute) against such waffle (which is equally absolute in its 'waffliness' ).

nmj said...

Thanks, Lilipink, That's what's so galling for those of us diagnosed way before social media. I too had never heard of myalgic encephalomyelitis in early 1984 when I was diagnosed, I could not even pronounce it back then. I'd never heard of Melvin Ramsay, or of Royal Free Disease. When I read his book a few years later, I was reassured by how his description of ME matched exactly what I had gone through since Coxsackie virus. It's almost impossible to convey the shock of absorbing an ME diagnosis back then, fictionalised in my novel, though it was a relief too to know why I felt like I was dying.

I have no real desire to diss Anna, but I would have respected her more had she got in touch to thank me for my book extracts, which she obviously found useful. And she could have simply said that she disagreed with my opinion of Wessely. But that would have taken a maturity, which I don't think she has. Still I hope she sees the blog post and learns from it. I still have to read the other chapters in her book, they may have real merit, I don't know. but 'Mystery Viruses' is shockingly uninformed.

Sally Burch said...

Well said.

It constantly amazes me that it was ever socially acceptable to talk about ME patients in such a belittling fashion, let alone that this still goes on after so much research clearly demonstrates a physical aetiology.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Hi Nasim, excellent article, thanks for reminding me to read it! I think it's shocking that she would use your book in that way, both at such length and by misrepresenting you too, particularly after your earlier lengthy exchange with her. Definitely rude and unethical on her part.

nmj said...

Thanks, Sally and Juliet, for your comments. Yes, the chapter is belittling because of the well-worn/absurd psychiatry angle - but also misrepresents me, personally. One wonders when it will all stop, and when as a patient community, we will have peace. Coincidentally, a few days after I wrote my post, QMUL have been ordered to release the PACE data, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) in USA has re-analysed the PACE trial and found it to be, well, nonsense (not quite their words!). Have updated blog to reflect.

Deborah said...

Libel suit anyone? Also, this strikes me as beyond fair use of NMJ book.

nmj said...

Hi, Deborah, I think Anna has misrepresented me, but libel is certainly not a word I would bandy around. She is, however, clearly out of her depth when it comes to ME politics. Having just listened to her on WBUR - - it confirms (to me) that it was inappropriate for her to include ME/CFS in her cultural history of exhaustion, or at least to use my book as a springboard. But she is hardly the first to appropriate ME for a book chapter, we have Suzanne O'Sullivan - surely, the worst offender of all - and also Jo Marchant. I am particularly unhappy about Anna's commentary re my thoughts on GET and CBT and 'wanting' doctors to get ill, and I would like those words to be changed if there is a reprint. They can perhaps be changed in the ebook. I will need to contact The Society of Authors for advice, but frankly have been too exhausted at this point to chase it up.

Creek said...

Very upsetting! To be misquoted, taken out of context, one's words twisted to suit someone else's theory--perhaps agenda-- such risks, anyone takes, in publishing anything, but so cruel for these injustices to be visited on a writer made vulnerable not only by having spoken up in public, but by being disabled by illness. Applause to the amazing Nasim Marie Jafry for taking this on so rationally, articulate as always.

Deborah said...

nmj, I'll read your comment and then the book chapter if it can be gotten without adding to her royalties or Columbia's profits and then perhaps have a more well-tailored comment.Meanwhile,
Best wishes,

nmj said...

Hi, Creek, Yes, as a writer friend observed, Schaffner has 'systematically misread my novel'. And also rather stupidly and clumsily conflated me with my fictional character. I hear through the grapevine, *she* feels misrepresented by my blog post, which is simply, and breathtakingly, arrogant beyond belief. I wrote to her editor ar Columbia Uni Press a few weeks ago with my concerns, but have had no response.

Thanks, Deborah. Wishing you well.