"The Actively Sick," an editorial printed in The Wall Street Journal 26 August 1997, p. A16"

The Actively Sick

"Myalgic Encephalomyelitis." Sounds pretty serious doesn't it? Serious as in: put your papers in order, the Grim Reaper's coming.

"Chronic Fatigue Syndrome" just doesn't have the same polysyllabically scary sound, does it? Say Chronic fatigue Syndrome to most sensible people and they think it's something they might like to sign up for if they just had time to take a long break. Then they go about their day, getting out of bed, putting bread on the table, dealing with the often very tedious minutiae of daily life.

But then there are those like the ex-stock broker at Smith Barney who discover that staying home with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or CFS, can be just as enriching as years of toiling in the trenches--thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The constantly tired and unfocused are yet another of the many groups that can sue if companies fail to "accomodate" their condition. Smith Barney just found this out in a big way. An arbitration panel of the National Association of Securities dealers ordered the brokerage to pay 1.325 million for not being sufficiently accommodating to
the Florida broker who claimed to have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

In fact, Smith Barney had already allowed him to work at home, thus reassuringly complying with the ADA, if scaring the bejeebers out of the rest of us. With the markets already quaking, it's wild to think your broker may be absently-mindedly shorting Intel. Or perhaps just putting his or her head down on the desk when the market drops 150 points, whispering, "Yikes. I'm just way too tired to stare at that screen any longer. Maybe I should take a nap now."

Smith Barney said it ended up dismissing the fellow not because he was too weak to come into the office, but because he seemed not to be demonstrating financial probity with his own finances. The firm has yet to decide whether to appeal or let the ex-broker have servants do the heavy lifting for the rest of his life. We wonder at the ruling's effect on normally stressed, federally unprotected brokers who would have to go through boatloads of Pepto-Bismal before accumulating
that kind of nest egg.

The broker is just one of thousands who drop out of the daily grind for reasons that remain mysterious and causes that remain unprovable. After all, how do you prove someone is not feeling achy and tired? Rather than relocate to less stressful jobs and quieter corners of the country, they stay home. When they are up to it, which seems often, they call up their website on the Internet, recently agitating to change the mild-sounding name Chronic Fatigue Syndrome into Myalgic
Encephalomyelitis, though Myalgic Encephalopathy also had its supporters (who seem oblivious to the abbreviation).

As it happens, disagreeing with the MEs about their views on this non-fatal affliction can get them really riled up. That's what Professor Elaine Showalter learned after the appearance of "Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern media," a book from Columbia University Press. In stressful times, she suggests, some people devise different coping mechanisms and methods of escape. Sometimes they take comfort in the interest of nosy aliens who come from so far away to visit
them or find excuses for their problems in recovered memories of childhood trauma long suppressed and of course hard to document.

Chronic Fatigue is second on her list of six modern psychological epidemics, along with alien abduction, ritual satanic abuse, recovered memory, Gulf War Syndrome, and Multiple Personality Syndrome. She doesn't deny MEs are feeling poorly, but thinks they are suffering from what Freud called neurasthenia and what many therapists and doctors today would call depression in any of its many varieties. But psychologically grounded ailments still carry a prevalent stigma outside the therapeutic paradises of say, New York. So to explain their symptoms, people look, even yearn, for some physical problem, an exotic virus or maybe a little brain lesion.

The alien chasers and satanists weren't too upset about Professor Showalter's book but it proved just the right therapy for forcing the ME people right out of their sick beds. They energetically menaced her during her book tour earlier this summer. Like so many people in America these days, they felt wounded and personally insulted and they wanted her to apologize. One group surrounded her and threatened to deface her book. Others have demanded she assign her royalties to their relief. Perhaps in turn they will give these pennies to Smith Barney's ex-broker to invest for them.

Few would deny the existence or frustration of debilitating conditions. Narcolepsy is an example. Sympathy wanes, however, when such matters transform so easily into plaintiffs' claims or into harassing raids against dissenting thinkers.
Such actions depart the realms of science to become mainly politics, where even chronic fatigue sufferers have to expect active opposition.