This page briefly explains the idea of hovering hummingbirds as a metaphor for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis.
This paper can be downloaded in Word or PDF format, see the links below.
Copyright © Jodi Bassett January 2005. This version updated September 2009. From www.hfme.org
Some time ago I was flicking through a book (looking for some artistic inspiration) when I came upon a stage-by-stage illustration of hummingbirds hovering and it struck a real chord in me. After a few moments it hit me why – in the same way a hummingbird comes crashing to the ground with a big fat SPLAT! if it falters in the complex series of movements that keep it in the air, in a different sort of way, so do I.
I contracted Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) fourteen years ago; one day I was normal and healthy and the next day absolutely everything changed. Since then I’ve been forced to keep on ‘flapping my wings’ endlessly lest I fall into an even more severely agony-filled and semi-conscious paralysed heap – rest is never an option. My version goes something like this;
FLAP! Making sure I don’t spend too much time flat in bed (consecutively) or my vertigo becomes much more severe and the room just spins horribly and I feel I am falling over backwards as I try to walk, or have to struggle not to fall off the edge of my perfectly flat bed.
FLAP! Trying not to ever stand or sit up for too long or my heart just can’t cope and it struggles to beat properly and I feel really faint-headed and ill for hours afterward. It feels like a heart attack in every organ. Tests show my heart-rate can climb as high as 170 beats-per-minute just from a few minutes of ‘exertion’.
Then I forget for just a few moments about having to be careful about how much light I expose my eyes to and instantly...
CRASH!!! [Burning pain that lasts for hours leaving me unable to open my eyes]. But still I can’t rest and have get myself back in the air straight away…
FLAP! I manage to quickly close all my doors and put my headphones on to block out some neighbourhood noise that would have left me in agonising 10/10 pain and experiencing seizures (and memory loss) and taken me five days to recover from if I’d listened to it at full volume.
Then I forget to avoid one of the foods I am intolerant of (but that I tolerated completely well the day before) and a few minutes later...
THUD!!! [Abdominal pain, headache, bloating, severe itching and nausea for hours afterward]. But quickly I have to get myself back up in the air…
FLAP! I manage to make my bath neither too cold; which leaves me shaking and unable to get warm for hours, or too hot; which makes me light-headed and my heartbeat go all irregular and fluttery for the next six hours so it feels like my heart is really struggling to beat and I’m having a heart attack.
Then I forget to put my blanket over myself properly and within a short while...
SPLAT!!! [I get so cold I can’t get myself warm again and it turns into a horrible agonising shivering fever, which leads to delirium and paralysis and eventually loss of consciousness for several hours. I then spend the rest of the day partly paralysed and feeling (neurologically and cognitively) as if I’d had a stroke].
Because so many normal everyday things cause me to ‘crash’ I have to constantly monitor everything little thing I do and every aspect of my environment to try and keep myself ‘in the air’ as much as possible. It’s a never-ending task and a fairly thankless one too, as my highest level of functioning is pretty low anyway – I’m 100% house-bound and 99.5% bed-bound on my best days, I’m in continual pain and experience many different severe neurological and cardiac and cognitive and other symptoms constantly. But it’s not so much that having a really painful and limited life that is so hard to bear (though obviously that’s part of it) …but to have to plan and work so endlessly, endlessly hard every minute just to keep my life this ‘good’…that’s what really makes it a living hell.
With a bit more research however, I quickly found a more positive reason to identify with hummingbirds - you see although at first glance they are tiny, seemingly defenceless and extremely vulnerable to attack from anyone or anything, they are actually quite tough little critters when you really look at them. They never back down from a fight even if the odds are overwhelmingly against them, taking on other birds much larger than they are when they need to. What their bodies lack in strength and power is made up for by their bravery, strength of mind and..... spirit I suppose you’d call it.
I’ve met so many people with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis that share that same spirit, particularly with severe M.E. People that have remained kind, witty, giving, optimistic and determined to make the best of what they have despite dealing with an unbelievably severe (and potentially fatal) neurological, cardiac and metabolic disease often without the support of family, friends or the health and welfare systems. Indeed often with a lot of direct opposition, criticism and sometimes abuse from these people and organisations.
I consider these people no less beautiful inside than a hummingbird is to the eye. The human spirit is capable of amazing resilience and endurance and I can see no greater example of this than people suffering from very severe M.E., I think they are truly inspiring. When every hour of every day is so difficult and painful, and there’s no foreseeable end in sight, the fact that along with the obvious sadness and frustration that such a life inevitably entails there can also be some hope and humour is just amazing in my opinion.
The world is full of supposed-to-be inspiring stories about people triumphing over, (compared to severe M.E.), really quite small problems; always with the complete support of everyone around them and much back patting and praise when they’ve finished their short ‘ordeal’. Nothing wrong with that really. Except that on the other hand, desperately ill people with severe M.E. who have no support at all yet are able to somehow keep going through one horrendous ordeal of a day after another – often for many years or even decades – are not only never congratulated on their hard work and amazing strength, but are sometimes actually labelled as malingerers, or seen as mentally weak or defective in some way… or, unbelievably, treated as if they were merely very ‘fatigued’ or ‘tired all the time’ instead of horribly ill with a severe neurological disease. It really does just boggle the mind that there can be so huge a gap between perception and reality.
I’ve since featured hummingbirds in many of my paintings and drawings and this is why. I see the same sort of strength and beauty, combined with such heartbreaking vulnerability in my M.E. friends everyday, nothing I’ve seen on this earth is more inspiring to me, more beautiful, or more tragic, heartbreaking and utterly disgusting too.
So I think of people with severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis as hummingbirds now – vulnerable, strong and eye-hurtingly beautiful all at once, and more than overdue for some basic consideration, compassion and care in this world.
This paper is dedicated to Ingeborg, and all the other beautiful hummingbirds I know.
To see some of the hummingbird paintings or prints see the Hummingbird Gallery. 30 – 50% of the purchase price of each item will be donated towards funding M.E. research and advocacy.
A note about Myalgic Encephalomyelitis:
Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) is a debilitating neurological disease which has been recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) since 1969 as a distinct organic neurological disorder with the code G.93.3.
M.E. can occur in both epidemic and sporadic forms, over 60 outbreaks of M.E. have been recorded worldwide since 1934. M.E. is similar in a number of significant ways to diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Lupus and Polio. M.E. can be very severe, or fatal.
It is very important to be aware that Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and 'Chronic Fatigue Syndrome' are not synonymous terms, and that 'fatigue' is not a defining feature of M.E. nor even an essential symptom of M.E. What defines M.E. is not mere 'fatigue' but a specific type of acute and acquired damage to the brain (the central nervous system) caused by a virus; an enterovirus.
‘CFS’ was created in the 1980s in the US in response to an outbreak of what was unmistakably M.E., but this new name and definition did not describe the known signs, symptoms, history and pathology of M.E. It described a disease process that did not, and could not exist. The fact that a person qualifies for a diagnosis of 'CFS' (a) does not mean that the patient has Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.), and (b) does not mean that the patient has any other distinct and specific illness named ‘CFS.’ Every diagnosis of CFS – based on any of the CFS definitions – can only ever be a misdiagnosis.
The bogus disease category of ‘CFS’ has undoubtedly been used to impose a false psychiatric paradigm of M.E. by allying it with various psychiatric fatigue states and various unrelated fatigue syndromes for the benefit of insurance companies and various other organisations which have a significant vested financial interest in how these patients are treated, including the government. This has meant that most people with M.E. are given no appropriate medical care at all. Many are simply left to die at home, alone. The decades of systemic abuse and neglect of the million or more people with M.E. worldwide has to stop. People with M.E. must again be treated ethically and based on the available scientific evidence. To summarise:
The bogus disease category of 'CFS' must be abandoned, (along with the use of other vague and misleading umbrella terms such as ‘ME/CFS’ ‘CFS/ME’ 'CFIDS' and others) for the benefit of all patient groups involved. Knowledge is power. Please see: What is Myalgic Encephalomyelitis?, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis is not fatigue, or 'CFS' or Who benefits from 'CFS' and 'ME/CFS'? for more information. You may also like to read the new paper which lists the many medical similarities between M.E. and Multiple Sclerosis: M.E. vs MS: Similarities and differences
The vested interests of the Insurance companies and their advisers must be totally removed from all aspects of benefit assessments.The poverty and isolation to which many people have been reduced by ME is a scandal and obscenity. Professor Malcolm Hooper 2006
The term myalgic encephalomyelitis (means muscle pain, my-algic, with inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, encephalo-myel-itis, brain spinal cord inflammation) was first coined by Ramsay and Richardson and has been included by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in their International Classification of Diseases (ICD), since 1969. It cannot be emphasised too strongly that this recognition emerged from meticulous clinical observation and examination. Professor Malcolm Hooper 2006
M.E. is a systemic disease (initiated by a virus infection) with multi system involvement characterised by central nervous system dysfunction which causes a breakdown in bodily homoeostasis. It has an UNIQUE Neuro-hormonal profile. .Dr Elizabeth Dowsett
M.E. appears to be in this same family of diseases as paralytic polio and MS. M.E. is less fulminant than MS but more generalized. M.E. is less fulminant but more generalized than poliomyelitis. This relationship of M.E.-like illness to poliomyelitis is not new and is of course the reason that Alexander Gilliam, in his analysis of the Los Angeles County General Hospital M.E. epidemic in 1934, called M.E. atypical poliomyelitis. Dr Byron Hyde 2006
Copyright © Jodi Bassett, January 2009. This version updated May 2009. From www.hfme.org
For more information, and to read a fully-referenced version of this text compiled using information from the world’s leading M.E. experts, please see: What is M.E.? Extra extended version. Permission is given for this unedited document to be freely redistributed. Please redistribute this text widely.
To download other papers from the HFME site, see the Document Downloads page.
Permission is given for this document to be freely redistributed by e-mail or in print for any not-for-profit purpose provided that the entire text (including this notice and the author’s attribution) is reproduced in full and without alteration. Please redistribute this text widely.