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SAS: who dares illness?

I recently started watching the series SAS: Who Dares Wins, right from the first series. I’ve found it quite addictive, possibly in part because each episode is only 45 minutes long, and it’s so easy to ‘just watch another one’. So I’ve made it to the fifth series, having first drafted this blog during the first series when only men were involved. By the fourth series, the producers had decided to allow women in too, and to my – and I think also some of the DSs’ – surprise, the women did just as well as the men. Of course, everyone had had to go through a physical test to get onto the show in the first place, so perhaps it is to be expected that if a woman can meet the requirements of a severe physical test then, well, she can fulfil the tasks involved.

In SAS: Who Dares Wins, 25 men, and now women too, volunteer to go through a reduced form of the SAS selection process, to see how far they can get. Watching these men, and the four elite soldiers who put them through their paces, makes me wonder: how far could I get?

Of course, I know the answer. I wouldn’t get anywhere at all. I couldn’t even consider training to the level required just to apply to be on it! I have chronic illness and it takes me half an hour to walk half a mile, and that’s me for the day. I’m not visibly shaking, like the men sometimes do when they’re lifting bergens above their heads after running 5 miles in 30o heat up a hill, or like the men and women shivering in the cold of Scotland, but I’m trembling inside. I’m at the limit of what I can do that day without making my illness worse.

I’ve learnt my boundaries and how bad it is if I push beyond them. The SAS, though, learn their boundaries and then push through to find they’re actually still in a clear space with room for more. It’s like Terry Pratchett’s account of time slicing[1]: you push through, and break a boundary where suddenly things become easier. Actually things for the SAS don’t become easier, but you break a mental boundary and discover your physical boundary is still a long way off.

It’s something I remember from childhood, before I became ill, when I used to go for long walks with my dad. The first hour, maybe, would be a push to keep up, but then a point would come where it would be like I’d made it through a barrier and now I was in a rhythm. It was still hard, but somehow also it was easier.

It’s something I also recall from physiology lectures at university. Our brains seek to protect us from damage, and so they give us feedback about our physical exertion to warn us when we are reaching our limits. Except, they actually tell us that we’re nearing our limit quite a bit before we are, in fact, reaching our limit. You can put a person on a treadmill until they’re exhausted and say their muscles can’t contract at full strength anymore – and then when you put an electric shock through, their muscles contract just fine. The physical ability is there, whatever the physiological and psychological experience. It’s also why, in extreme circumstances, people discover physical abilities beyond what they can normally achieve: the brain will allow the full use of muscle fibres that it normally seeks to protect.

Whereas for me, if I’m even approaching my mental boundary, it’s because I went past my physical boundary a long time ago. And that’s deeply frustrating.

I do find myself wondering how far I could have gone physically if I didn’t have my underlying genetic illness. I am in two minds about that. On the one hand, I used to push myself really hard mentally. I didn’t know at the time that I was over-reaching my body’s physical limits, even just its physical ability to remain at a desk and do cognitive work, but I was. The result was a depression of unspecified cause, though I realised later it was caused by the over-work. And I still pushed myself. I worked 60-hour weeks at university, with the blessing that I had been brought up to observe a Sunday rest and therefore took it for granted that I didn’t work 70-hour weeks.

During my PhD, whilst on fieldwork in the spring and summer of my first year, I would be sobbing my heart out for over an hour and still carry on working, measuring and recording data. It was, I think, a form of panic attack, again driven by the over-work that I didn’t know was beyond my body’s physical limits. Eventually, when I was waking up not just feeling tremulous throughout my body but also throwing up, I stopped and took two weeks’ holiday. I expected to return to the fieldwork; I barely even managed to finish my first year. I had to take leave from the PhD, but instead of getting better with rest my health continued to go downhill, noticeably, month by month. I had to withdraw from the PhD and accept that, for the foreseeable future, my life was dependent upon the support of my parents.

But even then, after I knew I was ill and had withdrawn from the PhD, I still ‘worked’ – this time on unpaid research, alongside other people with chronic illness, into the major problems the Tories were creating with the benefits system – beyond what I should have done. I drove myself so hard I became suicidal and took an overdose. I remember how the depression felt: it was like walking yourself onto a stake; pressing it deep into your chest; inch by inch each day. It was like being your own slave-driver. Just living through each day was a monumental effort. I’d already broken myself once, on fieldwork. I did it again four years later, trying to hold down a 1-day/week job. So clearly, I have past form in pushing myself in terms of cognitive work.

What I don’t know is whether, if I didn’t have my underlying condition, I’d have been able to push myself physically. On those long walks with my dad, I remember all the false summits and the repeated disappointment that what you thought was the top was not, in fact, anywhere near the top at all. As a horse rider, I was never a fair-weather rider and even quite enjoyed the bad weather and battling with it, and taking pride in getting the horse dry and bedded down comfortably after a wet ride before getting myself fed and warmed again.

On the other hand, I can also remember going climbing and the pain in the fore-arms of trying to grip onto the smallest of finger-holds; but even looking back now, I can remember the dizziness that came with the grip, and wonder if it was the dizziness rather than the pain that put me off. And an emotional decision that the glory of reaching the top of the climbing wall was just not worth the dizziness. Or, for that matter, what felt like the very real possibility of tearing right through my forearm muscles.

This perhaps was foresighted: it may have been a climbing injury to my knee, incurred a few weeks before starting fieldwork but still causing pain and a slight limp several weeks into it, that triggered the fibromyalgia that I still have now, twelve years later. The fibromyalgia started from the damaged tendon, and became a burning pain under the skin that spread up and down my leg. As the weeks went by and I continued to push myself to complete the fieldwork (I was outdoors eight hours a day, walking over lowland heath and recording vegetation cover), the burning pain spread to my other leg and the back of my hands. It is now a constant pain in hands, feet, arms and legs which, apart from a brief remission in 2014 and a single occasion on which the use of a flotation chamber left me pain free for a magical week, has been an unceasing presence.

The SAS guys talk about how, in the selection process, they push people to their limits. How every person has a breaking point, but you don’t know where it is until you try to find it. The successful ones are the people who, for whatever reason, have a breaking point that goes beyond the demands of the selection process. They manage to dig deep and find that mental resource from somewhere to push through the mental barrier and discover that their physical limit is still a while away (except, of course, those who incur an injury and are forced to withdraw).

Living with chronic illness is very different. Living with chronic illness is about learning not to push through those barriers. This can be really hard, especially if the chronic illness was present for some time before you realised it. In this situation, just keeping up with normal people is a challenge, but if you don’t know that it’s harder for you than for them then you don’t cut yourself the slack that you need. You learn to keep pushing through your boundaries, with all the emotional self-sabotage that that requires, until you’re so fundamentally physically broken that you’re forced to stop. You learn to be the kind of person who takes pride in being a hard worker and in not giving up.

Then comes the reckoning process; of realising that not only were your limits below that of a normal person, they’re now even lower still because you broke yourself. That’s when you learn that all the depression, despair, anxiety and panic attacks were your body and brain desperately trying to tell you that you’d gone too far, again, and needed to pull back. That’s when you learn that pushing through that mental barrier is the worst possible thing you can do, because instead of finding a new realm of physical capacity that you didn’t know was there, you’ll discover that you’re actually way beyond your physical boundary, out in the wilderness where anything could happen and you have no resources left, not even physical strength, to deal with it. That’s when you learn to stop valorising ‘hard work’ and ‘pushing through’, and have to change your sense of identity and what you pride yourself in.

The SAS push people to find their breaking point. The thing with chronic illness is that you live on that breaking point every day. And you don’t get the adrenaline rush that comes with being an active soldier, putting your brain and body into a hyper-functional state where you perform at your very best. Chronic illness comes with living in a constant sub-functional state; of always being sleep-deprived and in a cloud of brainfog; of both brain and body feeling like they’re dragging themselves through treacle just to think and walk.

Nor do you get the comradeship and the knowledge that you are not alone and that the people with you have your back, just as you have theirs; and that they are at the peak of their fitness and have proved that they can be relied on, just as you can be relied on. Instead the only people who really understand what you’re going through are people with chronic illness themselves, and they don’t have the capacity to help. If you’re lucky, you have family around, but for many people a chronic illness can put such strain on relationships that they break down. Rather than the certainty that if you’re in a difficult situation, your fellow SAS have your back, you instead live with the knowledge that people wear out and leave.

Not only that, but you live with the knowledge that the people who are paid to help you – doctors – quite possibly believe you’re a cheat and a malingerer. Even if they do believe your illness is real, they’ll give you bad advice about not ‘giving in’ to the ‘sick role’, even though everyone with chronic illness knows just how important it is to live within your boundaries. Meanwhile the politicians proudly declare that they’re not for the benefit recipient but only for ‘hard workers’; and benefit assessors are actively taught to assume that you’re a lying, work-shy, feckless layabout.

And you live with the knowledge that it does not end. There is no reprieve from chronic illness. You don’t get to go on holiday and leave it behind. You don’t have any downtime. You don’t get to rest and recuperate and return to full strength. Whilst an SAS member may not know how long a particular situation will remain – how long the ‘Sickener’ exam will continue; when the battle will end; when the war will end – what they do know is that most of them will end. Training comes to an end. The selection processes come to an end. The battlefield engagement comes to an end. When the demands on your body are so high, still you know that the choice is life or death; and if you make it through with life, then a rest point comes. And you can, at that point, choose to leave the SAS and not go back into any more battles. But you can never opt-out of chronic illness.

Nor can you, or anyone else, see your enemies. People can’t see your pain or fatigue or the fever running through your body. They can’t see the fire burning under your skin or the leaden weights pulling down your limbs of the sheer ache of your joints. They can’t see just how much it’s costing you to stay upright in a chair. They can’t see the tremor that you feel in your muscles; or the nausea and dizziness and brainfog. No-one can see your enemies, so even the best of people sometimes forget that they’re, and the worst will insist they don’t exist for you at all. What’s worse, is that they make you doubt that they exist either, even as you live with them.

In the SAS, you’re at the peak of your physical and mental abilities, at least when you enter the battlefield. And chances are that your enemies are not as good as you, and you will be taking them unawares, giving you crucial moments to utilise your training and abilities to get to them before they get to you. But with chronic illness, you’re at the very bottom of your physical and mental abilities. You’re sub-par before you’ve even started. And your enemies never give up; can never be taken by surprise; always have you surrounded; and will regularly creep up on you whilst your focus is on one of the others.

You didn’t choose to be chronically ill and there are no natural break points where you can choose to exit your illness. And when push comes to shove, putting every last effort into the task at hand – the equivalent of the make or break of escaping the battlefield alive rather than dead – is actually what will break you so completely you’ll lose even what limited capacity you’ve currently got. There is no ‘coming out alive’ from these engagements. The only option is to run; to desert; to husband your resources for another day. Because unlike the soldier who puts everything into it to come out alive the other side, if you put everything into it you will destroy rather than save your life.

[1] Elite time monks ‘slice’ time into ever smaller slices, so that they can move through space faster. Terry Pratchett writes “There is a way of playing certain musical instruments that is called ‘circular breathing’, devised to allow people to play the didgeridoo or the bagpipes without actually imploding or being sucked down the tube. ‘Slicing time’ was very much the same, except time was substituted for air and it was a lot quieter. A trained monk could stretch a second further than an hour…” The Thief of Time.

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