There are the type of problem where if you get stuck, you can go to your teacher and ask for the answer.
Or your mum, or you friend, or you doctor.
Then there are solo problems. Problems which you can’t ignore, and problems in which no one can help you. Problems where people’s solutions will be half-formed and baked, where people’s diagnoses will be the bear minimum required to stick an “explanation” on your record, where you have no choice but to skip the people who are summarising the research for you and go straight to the research, analysing everything that has ever been written about a topic for yourself with no hope of appeal. When there’s no “give up” button, no way to opt out of dealing with the problem.
Just you, and the problem.
In March of 2020, having never had many problems with sleep or energy, I suddenly started to feel incredibly tired every day. I began my research in solving the problem relatively simply, drawing on what was familiar with Youtube Videos and books. I read and made notes on exalted sources of wisdom on the topic, such as Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep. I followed the advice to a T, ordering an LED lightbulb from amazon such that I could dim my entire room to red for the evening hours to avoid blue light, setting up shortcuts so I could activate white noise on my phone without turning on the screen.
I exhausted all of the classic advice for many, many months before I realised that none of it was having any effect, at all. I wasted hundreds of hours in the terribly bored state of wanting to do things with my day but not going on technology as it was close to bedtime, with absolutely no effect.
My mum had never been a big believer in doctors, and being 14 at the time I was not allowed to get a diagnosis myself. It took a momumental amount of effort, but I managed finally managed to invoke the critical amount of her attention to get an official diagnosis.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Now, you may think that that’s great. A diagnosis! However what one search on google will unfortunately confirm for you is that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), is not really a diagnosis, the same way sleep apnea would have been, for instance. In truth, CFS is a catch all term, and is really the name for “we don’t really know what’s going on with you”.
So I left the hospital and continued to research. School was incredibly difficult during this period. Where work had been easy it now was an immense challenge to focus, and to be productive during class. The previously mild sensation of boredom now became mind-numbing, and it almost felt like I was watching my previous intelligence and productvity slip away from me.
At its worse, particularly during the summer, I would have weeks where I was totally disfunctional. I would worry, and sincerely believe, that this would be my life. I’d look back at the things that had happened before March 2020 and worry that I’d never be able to replicate my previous level of productivity.
But my life was mine, and I had things I wanted to do with it. So I continued, researching, ordering devices and supplements, directly interfacing with the literature and reading scientific papers to see if it was safe for me to try melatonin, for instance.
Most of the interventions I tried were not helpful, however for every five that were inneffective there was one that would help in some small way, that I would carry with me into the future. Examples include earplugs, a bluetooth sleep mask you can play white noise through, weighted blankets, and iron and vitamin D supplementation, for instance.
It was unfortunate that I was still deep in the whirlwind of trying to find solutions on my own during the mock examination period during Year 11, leading to easily the worst grades of my life for that set of exams.
By the time the real GCSEs rolled around, I had just found a set of solutions I believed to be barely passable, and it was time for them to be immediately tested in fire.
There is a feeling of uncertainty so pure, one where in truth no part of you knows how it will end up. I put everything I had at the time into those exams, and was so relieved to find I did not fail. I certaintly did worse than if me from a year ago had taken them in my place, but I was proud of my results in the presence of the obstacle.
Come September, I was still trying to find a more secure, more robust solution. The solution to my GCSEs had been an unstable, unpermenant stopgap, and I needed to solve the problem. So come September my attempts to fix my sleep earned me a reputation when I joined my private school for the first time in September 2021, a year and a half into the process, where I wore bright red glasses for six hours a day in order to block blue light and shift my sleep schedule forward.
I had been wanting to experiment with sleeping through the day as a solution for a while, but was unable to due to the physical limitations of my home. In December of 2021, I recieved a £1.2k grant from the FTX Future Fund to sleep in an Airbnb over the Christmas holidays. I am incredibly grateful to FTX, but this also did not help.
Finally, after trying everything available to me over the course of two entire years of nonstop effort, 2022 began to bear fruit in the form of multiple clues to the true solution, ones that allowed me to be significantly more functional over a sustained period of time. I immediately used this new energy to study for the SAT, then to simultaneously direct and edit a documentary while writing a book, and then to study for my A-Levels, achieving predicted grades of A star A star A.
I am sorry to say that it has proven incredibly useful to me to have a policy of not talking about mechanisms I am currently in the process of trying regarding this issue, however I can say that over the past six months they have proven far more stable than anything else.
Some feelings, you can only experience. You can read as much as you want about hopeslessness, about desperation, about true mystery and not knowing and trying for years to figure out the answer to a single question, and you can not understand it until you experience it.
I am grateful for my experience with a chronic health issue, to be able to know what it feels like, and to have practice trying so hard to solve what so felt like so many stages along the way an impossible problem. I am grateful for the help and advice I received and the grant, and am glad to have come out the other side of it functional and thriving.
It makes every victory feel all the more sweeter.
Now I walk around with a great sense of potential. I worry little about my future becuase I know that wherever I end up I will be able to pick up the pieces and continue buildling. This was also how I felt prior to March 2020. As humans, we can claim to understand extremely deep emotions just by reading about them or hearing about them, but through all the things battling with fatigue taught
It feels strange to personify the fatigue now, because it’s not an emeny or an agent, it’s just a thing. But at its worst, I’m grateful for