I had glandular fever 30 years ago. The fallout still affects me today

I was 17 and studying for my Higher School Certificate exams for the end of Year 12. I was pretty stressed. HSC stress is a thing in Australia, and well-talked about by students, teachers and parents. But I was a little bit more stressed; in the eighteen months leading up to that point, I’d moved schools, houses, towns, and countries. I’d also studied hard for, and sat over 60 exam papers (long story, involving three different educational systems.)

It was STUVAC. I was putting in hours of study as usual, because I was a very determined study-head kind of person back in the day, but I didn’t feel so well. I felt tired and run down, which I put down to working hard, but also, my throat was sore. Like, really sore.

It stayed sore all weekend, and didn’t seem to get better, so at church on the Sunday night, I talked to a guy who was a nurse. “What should I do for my sore throat?” I asked him.

“Take tea tree oil,” he said. And then he may have said something like, “A teaspoonful.”

Cool, I thought. We have some of that. Tea tree oil, when I was 17 was the newest ‘cure-all’ on the block, and my nanna, who was into all the newest cure-alls had bought us some. I headed home and pulled out the bottlel. It smelt gross, but I put a teaspoonful into a glass of orange juice and forced it down. The taste was horrendous, but I persisted. “He said I could take it, so I will.”

I was quite good at schoolwork, but I must have been a bit of a dunderhead in general life, because on the back of the bottle of tea tree oil it said, DO NOT SWALLOW. I only discovered this after I was found half-unconscious in my own vomit in the hallway the next morning by my younger brother, and then put back to bed by my parents. I threw up for about two days straight and had the smell of tea tree oil coming out of my pores for a week.

(Side tip from this story: don’t ‘take’ tea tree oil. For a start, it tastes like engine oil. Plus you have to confess to your parents that you drank something that had DO NOT SWALLOW on the bottle (“I just didn’t see it” doesn’t really cut it.) And you feel bad for your poor nurse friend who assures you he had only meant for you to gargle it, for heavens sake.)

Anyway. The point of all of this long digression is this: after I got better from the tea tree oil poisoning, the sore throat came back. This time I didn’t faff around with random advice about oils and whatnot. Instead, I went to the doctor did the blood tests, and was diagnosed with glandular fever, or mononucleosis as it’s sometimes known.

Like everyone else, for about a month I had the sore throat, the swollen glands, the aches and pains, and the fatigue. Oh, the fatigue. I’d get up and study, and then I’d have to lie down. I could hardly hold my head up, I felt so tired.

I did the exams; I’d done enough prep during the year to be well and truly able to get through them, and I got pretty good marks. So getting glandular fever at exam time didn’t really have a terrible effect on my academic career, which was a big ‘whew’.

Where I came undone, though, was with the recurring bouts of fatigue. At first, I would feel well for two weeks, and then incredibly tired for a week. Soon it became three weeks of being well, and then four, and five. I managed to hold down some casual jobs (I was taking a gap year), but there were days when I’d come home and fall straight into bed. When I took three months to travel with a friend, seven months after the initial onset of glandular fever, I had at least three to four bouts of fatigue, where I’d have to lie down for a few days, while we were in different places.

The fatigue made me feel slightly hot and cold; not quite feverish, but as if it wasn’t far off. My head felt very heavy, and my neck became sore, as if it was too much to hold up my head. I had no mental energy for anything, and my brain was fuzzy. But after lying down for two or three days, — even up to a week sometimes — I would feel mostly okay and ready for life again.

At the end of the gap year I went off to uni, where the fatigue continued to rear its head. Some people spend their uni years partying hard, but I never ever stayed up past 11.30pm. I knew I needed to sleep, and if I didn’t, I’d pay the price. There was simply not enough candle for me to be able to burn it any longer than necessary, let alone at both ends. Once when I felt pretty bad, I took myself to see the uni doctor. She gazed at me unsympathetically. “Take some Berocca,” she said. Maybe she thought I was complaining about a hangover. I actually went to get some Berocca and I took it every day, but it was pretty pricey stuff on a student budget, and it didn’t seem to make any difference anyway.

One semester, I was unwell every Tuesday. I remember it specifically because I’d signed up for a dance class with my boyfriend-now-husband, and was so disappointed to only get to two of the sessions. Take it from me: it’s a lot more fun to dance Ceroc with the redhead you love than to lie flat on your bed wondering if you’re ever really going to get better.

Because, as time went on, I thought, “I’m not really going to get better.”

Things were cementing into a regular kind of pattern when I left uni: for six to ten weeks, I’d be fine. I could do exercise, concentrate, be creative and work hard. Then, without any apparent trigger, I’d suddenly feel terribly fatigued and need to go to bed for one to three days.

Nearly thirty years later, it’s still happening. I’m fine for eight weeks, down for two days. Up for ten weeks, down for three days. “I’m having my crash,” I tell my friends when they want to know what’s going on with me. I used to get worried when I had it, but now I’ve learned to wait and get through it. I will feel better, I know, just the same as I know that it will come back and I will crash again.

Is it glandular fever? I don’t know. According to the information about glandular fever you find on the net, it can’t be. “It doesn’t last for thirty years,” and “it doesn’t recur like that.” All I know is, it always feels the same — hot and cold body, no energy, fuzzy brain, crushing fatigue and the need to dissolve into sleep. It’s the same feeling I had thirty years ago, when I first had glandular fever. I had never felt anything like it before. I can only assume it has to be connected.

As a freelancer, I work my own hours from home, so I don’t have to take official sick days for my crashes, but I wonder what would happen if I went back into the 9-5 workforce. Would I have enough energy to hold down a job and keep things afloat at home? I’m not sure. I’m careful about getting enough sleep and making sure I eat well. I now exercise regularly (although I didn’t for years.) I journal, and I pray, and I do all the things you’re supposed to do to live a ‘balanced’ life. But I still crash.

The crashes take days out of my life. After each one, I take a week to regather my energy and get back to what I was doing. So I do lose hours and hours of productive time in which I’d like to be writing or working, or just hanging out with my family.

Although I have no test results and no official medical diagnosis to say, ‘hey, this is fallout from glandular fever’, I have no other explanation for what happens to me multiple times a year. Whatever it is, it still affects me years and years on.

What’s your story with glandular fever? Do you get fatigue crashes too? Are there are ‘crash-buddies’ out there?