Sunday, 26 July 2009

Feeling spent

The other day, I came across an article in The Observer that attempted to explain how the modern world that we have created makes us sick. The author, William Leith, not only tells the story of Kate and others but also his own story - and it is not least his sharing of what he went through that makes this article so convincing. Here is how it begins:

On a Sunday morning in early June, Kate, a 36-year-old counsellor, was sitting on a sofa, drinking a cup of tea, and saying she didn't think she could go on any more. "I can't see a way out," she said. "I look at my life and I don't see any possibility of hope." She dipped her head and put a thumb up to her eye to brush away a tear. "I know I've said it before. But this time... I've come to the end."

Kate said: "I don't know what to do. God, I could just give up. Yesterday I had this feeling that I could just give up my responsibilities. I could become derelict and hopeless. But that's not the way to go, is it? I have a child. I have my job. Something's got to give. I don't know what, but something's got to give, because I'm at breaking point."

I was talking to Kate about exhaustion. I should say, first of all, that Kate is not her real name - she does not want me to use her real name. What if her boss knew the state she was in? For one thing, she is responsible for the wellbeing of other people - people who are supposed to be more vulnerable than her. Although sometimes, these days, she's not so sure.

What state is Kate in, exactly? She is drained beyond belief. Her facial expression reminds you of one of those young combat veterans you see in war photography; she has a "thousand-yard stare". Her facial muscles are somehow bunched up. Her body, she says, aches all over. She is often dizzy and nauseous. She describes her mental state as "foggy" and "fuzzy". On top of this, she has persistent bacterial and viral infections - this month she has had a cough; last month she had aches and fevers. She has just finished two courses of antibiotics; her cough, she says, is dying down. But when one thing dies down, another always springs up to take its place.

Once or twice a day, while she's working, Kate feels as if she's going to faint. It's as if her entire system is shutting down. "Something descends," she says. "I feel draped in it. It's like a curtain coming down." What's the explanation? Kate does very little physical labour. She does not run, or cycle, or walk long distances, or carry heavy loads. Her exhaustion may feel physical, but it is coming from somewhere outside the physical realm. "It's weird," says Kate.

But there's nothing weird or abnormal about Kate. She is one of an enormous number of people with a similar constellation of symptoms - millions of people at the end of their physical, and spiritual, tether. Frank Lipman, a South African doctor working in New York, has identified the condition in hundreds of his patients - he has a word for it: "spent". Lipman says that feeling spent is an understandable response to the 21st century. If you put a human being in a modern city, and add computers, mobile phones, credit cards, neon lights and 24-hour shopping, he says, what do you expect?

The full text you will find here

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