I had only been in a relationship with my boyfriend, Dave, for a matter of months when I contracted a severe form of glandular fever. I was diagnosed on New Year’s Eve, 2007. I had been at law school when I caught it, about to start my training contract, and I’d never been ill in that way before: it was sudden and unrelenting. It felt like weights were dragging me down whenever I tried to sit up or walk. I was unable to get out of bed for weeks, which slowly became months, even though I tried not to notice how much time was passing and how little I was improving. After five months, I was eventually diagnosed with M.E. I went back, to my bed on the sofa at my father’s house where I was living, and cried for hours. One morning, my father’s burglar alarm went off unexpectedly, and I did not have the strength to reach up and turn it off. A neighbour had to do it for me, who my father called.
Still reeling from a diagnosis of a chronic and largely untreatable illness (although lots of people get better over time), one of the things that troubled me was my relationship - I had met such a lovely man, but what if our new relationship couldn’t survive the strain of me being ill and unable to function?
Dave attended lots of things without me, standing awkwardly by himself at our mutual friends’ weddings and many family events, texting me. It was hard seeing everyone else continue on as before when my life was so very strange.
It was hard to be always cooped up inside, especially as my illness bled into the spring and then the summer. I sometimes privately wondered if Dave would have liked to be with somebody healthy. I became very unsympathetic at times and very involved with my own problems, but he didn’t seem to mind. I wasn't able to put my best side forward, either: some days I was simply too tired to put make-up on (even though I taught myself to do so one-handed on the sofa, the other holding a small mirror) or a stoic face, or a smile. We skipped the first ten steps of a relationship, the easier ones, and went straight to the middle.
Gradually, we figured out how to make it work. Dave would come over a few nights a week and I would nap in the day so that I could be more alert for him. We couldn’t go out like normal couples, and so we would have movie nights where he’d join me on the sofa and we’d turn the lights out like we were in the cinema.
One day, he turned up with a Wii he had bought for us. I could play the games lying down and so we spent many a happy Saturday playing Wii golf – him standing up, me on my back on the sofa. Once, I was laughing so much at how bad I was at putting that he turned to me and said “some decorum on the golf course, please,” which made me laugh even more.
He bought me all sorts of things for me to entertain myself with; a card-making kit, endless books and DVD box sets. We used to play on a website called Sporcle which had quizzes on. I mastered naming every African country, which amazed him (I can still list them now, years on). Eventually, I got a second-hand laptop, and that’s when I started to write my novel. I think you can see some of my illness in my novel, Everything But The Truth. Although it is about a woman who discovers her boyfriend has a terrible secret, it is also a love story. It wasn’t difficult to write about a relationship that is worth fighting for, even during hard times. My characters also often seem to have a period of incarceration which changes them: I like to think you can see the positive effect the illness had on my life in my books.
In the very early days of my illness, Dave would take me outside and I’d lie on a sun-lounger, exhausted, but we’d chat. We would play tennis with me lying down (Dave has excellent aim, so could always hit the ball straight to me to return). One summer’s evening we took a blanket and candles outside and I lay down; still one of the happiest memories of my life, our garden date, despite the illness surrounding it. As I got better we’d take short walks around the flowers before bed; we'd do one circuit, then two. Other couples fall in love at the cinema and out to dinner; we fell in love in my father’s garden. At the end of the summer, when I was stronger, we went to Starbucks. I could only manage ten minutes there, but it was our first date since I got ill. I still remember it so well; the sweet, steamy smell of the latte and the background noise of conversations around us that I hadn’t heard for months and months while I had been inside.
Before I got sick, I used to really enjoy baking. Dave helped me continue. He would bring in all of the ingredients and I would weigh them on the table I had which went across my bed on the sofa (like a hospital table). He would do the mixing with me in the living room, then nip off to put them in the oven. We made all sorts; blondies, brownies, an entire cake. As I started to recover, I could do gradually more and more, eventually managing the few steps to the kitchen to put them in myself. At the end of that year, I made an apple pie from scratch, standing up in the kitchen, and that was when I knew I was better.
We came out of it much stronger. We had faced something even established couples would struggle with, and as I improved and we moved out and into a flat together, I knew he would be with me, making me laugh, no matter what.
Everything but the Truth by Gillian McAllister is published by Michael Joseph, 9th March, £7.99