Shirley Conran article Tymes Magazine

Why I wrote Superwoman

Best selling author Shirley Conran has had ME for over 30 years. Here she talks frankly to Jane Colby in her first public interview about her illness.

Jane: Shirley, you were Woman's Editor at the Daily Mail, you had just developed and launched Femail, which was a huge success. What happened?

Shirley: I was very energetic and I loved my job. I didn't have to be taught how to be a newspaper journalist. The second I started (by accident - I was Design Consultant at the Daily Mail) I knew that this was what I was meant to do. It was 1970. We had just launched Femail when I had viral pneumonia, was unconscious in hospital for five days and came out with ME. The doctors kept saying 'There's nothing wrong with you' and I was sent to two very unhelpful psychiatrists. Basically they were saying two things, which also apply to children with ME. They said, 'You don't really want to work.' In other words, I was accused of being a malingerer, when I was having this marvellous time. For me, being Woman's Editor at the Daily Mail was like having the childhood I'd always wanted. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to work.

The other thing they said was that it was a bid for attention. To which I said, 'I can get all the attention I want if I can get out of bed and stand on my feet!' My experience now goes back over 32 years, and I have found the medical profession to be obdurate, until my new GP, Dr Sherwell, said he recognised the condition and asked for any information I had. So many of the medical profession have proved unhelpful. They refuse to listen to their patients, and refuse to observe what's in front of them, which is, as I've always understood, one of the teachings of a doctor.

Jane: Absolutely.

Shirley: And I am angry that the British Medical Journal stubbornly stick to their old attitude from before the Government Report.* The BMJ is the one periodical that doctors can find time to read. It is the one disseminator of information that actually reaches doctors, and yet they are being stubborn, old-fashioned and arrogant. The arrogance is what I regret most. I'm not angry that they were wrong, I'm angry that they persist. As recently as 1994, when I spent six weeks in hospital, the chief psychiatrist there decided to call my illness 'what we are agreed to describe as your ME'. He wouldn't admit it was ME. So I then decided that I couldn't afford to know anyone who thought I was a malingerer. My address book was pared quite considerably! I had Cognitive Behaviour Therapy but although it helped me with anxiety, it's palliative and doesn't get to the root cause of illnesses. In the case of ME it can be severely damaging. All doctors, without exception, have said to me Take a little exercise,' when experience has taught me that it's the one thing I shouldn't do. I'm a very sporty person - or used to be - I was in the school athletics team, did long-distance swimming, yoga and skiing so of course I would take exercise if I could.

I think it's important for me to say that I was a success before I was ill, I had to change jobs and I've been successful again.

Jane: So that's very encouraging for young people who might be anxious for their future.

Shirley: Yes. You see, I couldn't rely on my doctors - I had to trust myself, and that's what led to Superwoman and my second career. I wrote notes on doing housework with minimal effort and a journalist who'd been on The Observer with me phoned and said, 'Shirley, I've sold your book.' I said, 'What book?' He said, Tour book on housework.' I said, 'I'm just writing notes, I'm not writing a book.' He replied, 'I've got an advance cheque.' I said, 'I'm writing a book.'

So although I didn't mention ME in Superwoman, that was how it came to be written and that started me on a new career as an author.

Jane: And nobody knows that, do they?

Shirley: No, but if you look through it, you'll see - I started it when I couldn't walk properly. This is the message I'd like to give to the children - that quite a lot of the good things in my life have come out of ME. One of them is strength of character. When you know you are right, but all the doctors and authorities are telling you you're wrong, you'll survive if you believe in yourself. It was very difficult for me to tour with Superwoman. I got a reputation for being a prima donna. One of the reasons was that I had to lie down flat on my back on the floor between one and two o'clock every day. And I couldn't have grand lunches, or tour in the grand car that had been provided for me by the publisher because I needed a van with a mattress in the back.

I also got a reputation on live television and radio for refusing to answer questions that I didn't want to consider. Actually, I often couldn't remember the question I'd just been asked. So I'd say something different. [Laughter]

Shirley: So I had to keep my wits about me. Jackie, the tourer for the Superwoman paperback, turned my disability into an
advantage. Instead of toting me round in a small van, she hired a pop-star caravan with an eight-foot wide bed in the back. That's how I toured for Penguin. I learnt from that, and now I always try and improve the situation, not just alter it. If you think, 'Is there a way I could turn the situation to my advantage?' then it gives you strength. Of course, we all spend a fortune trying out cures and we're ever hopeful. But to my knowledge the government is conducting no such research and the Minister of Health has not challenged the BMJ's attitude. Until this is done, doctors will be getting negative conditioning about ME.

The Government Report gave me huge relief. Over the last 32 years the medical profession has managed to shake my confidence in my sanity and I only realised that because of the huge relief I felt after the Report was published. It was easily one of the most important things in my life. The attitude of the medical profession has been in direct contrast to the secretaries who've worked for me. My best time is from five in the morning till nine in the morning and it's rather difficult to get a secretary for that time! At first they look horrified when I have a collapse. But they can always tell before I can because they say my face goes grey. I see their looks of horror and ask, 'Has my face turned grey? Ah, yes - well, I'd better go and lie down.7 They learn to be polite but firm, rather like a nurse. They say, 'No more phone calls - go to bed now,7 no matter what I'm doing or what time of day it is.

So I'm very grateful to those considerate and kind young women. I personally think that the reason why the BMJ can't admit that it was wrong about ME is a masculine thing - it's the same reason that men won't stop and ask the way when they're driving the car and are lost.

We've all been raised to trust authority, and so have all the doctors. And who is the authority? The BMJ. They don't like having their omnipotence threatened. In fact -and this has only just occurred to me - I would say that the BMJ has a psychological problem in not accepting the truth that is under their nose. I once went to the Queen's medical adviser, who told me that I couldn't have ME because I wasn't in a wheelchair.

I'm now in the middle of my worst relapse since 1970, but it was after a great deal of exertion in the Work-Life Balance Trust, of which I'm President. I thought I was pacing myself - I firmly believe in pacing because it's the only thing that works - but I over-stretched myself for four years because I felt so passionately about the problem of working mothers and carers. Now, happily, the Government is taking over much of the work of the Trust. I always try and look on the bright side. At least I now know what's wrong with me. That's why I have such sympathy with the children, forced into school, exhausted, bewildered and frightened. There they are, being told to exercise and that CBT will help, and it may well push them too far. What works for me is pacing and ignoring other people's negative or bullying attitudes.

Jane: What else has helped you?

Shirley: Things that have helped me considerably are the ME helpline, Dr Charles Shepherd's book, and your magazine - the Tymes Magazine. I really do read every issue from cover to cover. I thought that the Yvette Cooper interview was extremely good, the Lady Elizabeth Anson one is extremely good too and quite different. Like her, I get dyslexia. I had a terrible time in France this year - one of my cheques was returned - they must have thought I was drunk because I'd dated it 1947.

It's when the dyslexia stops that I know I'm on the mend. n

Shirley Conran Tymes Magazine, Tymes Trust Issue 41 Autumn 2002

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