Heal yourself with chinchillas


Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time watching teenage girls on YouTube lecture me about chinchilla ownership, and I have a learned a lot. I’ve learned chinchillas eat hay, specifically Timothy hay, as though they are tiny misshapen horses. I’ve learned chinchilla well-being requires vertical play space. I’ve learned chinchillas need a supply of wooden toys and pumice stones to wear down their constantly growing, freakish teeth.

I have a lot of time to watch chinchilla advisory videos because, since I’ve been sick, I’ve had to stop doing most things. I had to quit stand-up comedy, because I was going to bed at 7pm. I had to quit drinking, because it makes me much sicker. I had to quit exercising, because it also somehow makes me much sicker. I had to quit the speaking club I’d been part of for five years. I had to quit going to all non-essential places, because going places is the worst.

I didn’t have to quit my job, but I work so few hours now that when my pay comes into my account, a bank employee calls to laugh at me.

My life has become an abhorrent vacuum, which I’ve been trying to fill by watching all 426 episodes of Law & Order SVU. But eventually even that will run out. Since the fatigue specialists told me I could incorporate pet-patting into my recovery program, I’ve been angling for a pet.

My husband and I have both wanted a dog for years. But we’re renters. We approached our landlordess about getting a dog, but we forgot that where we live isn’t a home, it’s an investment property. And even though we’ve lived here six years and proved ourselves to be mature, conscientious adults who could reasonably be expected to take good care of a dog in an apartment, no.

A friend suggested I get a cat, because they’re easier to care for than dogs. But I doubt any cat will permit the strict patting routine my recovery program requires. So I began to research the pros and cons of getting several chinchillas.


  • A single chinchilla can achieve the cuteness of level of approximately eight kittens, scientifically speaking.
  • Possible names: Mustard, Popcorn, Pretzel, Son of Coco.
  • We’re not allowed pets in our apartment, but as chinchillas are closer to animated stuffed toys, this doesn’t apply.
  • Instagram celebrity potential = high, especially if Pretzel acquires a wardrobe of Batman-themed costumes.


  • Like gremlins, chinchillas shouldn’t get wet. They don’t turn into mauradering monsters named Stripe, but they do go mouldy. Even the oil from your hands can muck up your chinchilla’s delicate fur. To keep dry and clean, your chinchilla needs to roll around in a special plastic container filled with special chinchilla dust, such as the actual product All Living Things Blue Cloud Dust. In the words of Autumn Windish, my favourite YouTube chinchilla expert, “No one wants a mouldy chin.”
  • According to Autumn Windish (I will be very disappointed if that’s not her real name), chinchillas need much more than just a vertical cage, Timothy hay, blue cloud dust, wooden toys and pumice stones. They also need a hay dispenser, water bottles and a litter box. They need a product called a chin-chiller, a granite slab for preventing your thick-furred chinchilla from overheating, which you can purchase in packs of four. They need something called kebabs, which Autumn Windish describes as ‘self-explanatory’. But here I have to disagree with Autumn – it is not at all self-explanatory why chinchillas need kebabs.

The overriding con is that my husband has a strict anti-chinchilla policy. He claims that, contrary to my doctor’s advice, having a chinchilla is not essential to my recovery.

He is not the person home sick and alone all day, however. Nor do I think he is fully aware of just how easy it is these days to order pretty much anything online from a pet supply store and have it delivered straight to your door. Besides, once he sees Pretzel and Popcorn on their respective granite chin-chillers, he’s sure to change his mind.

The new torture

Developing post-infective fatigue, a condition that’s still largely a mystery to modern medicine, was a stroke of significantly bad luck. But I also had good luck, in that I had access to specialists at the nearby Fatigue Centre.

The Fatigue Centre specialists explained that while there is no cure for post-infective fatigue syndrome, there’s a lot I can do to manage myself and, in theory, aid my recovery. Their advice boils down to two main points.

1. Track everything
They mean everything: all activities, sleep, mood, breaks, naps, steps and dog sightings. Well, I added the last one, but the rest are legit.

For two weeks I kept hour-by-hour notes on what I did and how I felt. This let me see how much I’m able to do before I have so little energy left, I can no longer feed myself or even maintain a sitting position.

I also have to track my daily step count. When I was healthy, I averaged 18,000 steps a day. Being active and not owning a car made this easy. My favourite days were when I could go hiking and get up to 35,000 steps.

Now instead of trying to increase my steps, I have to keep them under my new threshold, which started at 6000 steps. Every day I scratch step-count math in notebooks, planning what I might be able to do based on the required steps. A sample of my step tallies:

Steps from the couch to the bathroom, one way: 16
Steps used per load of laundry: 675
Steps used getting to work, one way: 1532
Steps for an average grocery store trip: 2159
Steps from my door to platform 16 at Central Station: 1023

Managing chronic fatigue by resting excessively

2. Rest excessively
When I was healthy, I always tried to do as much as I could, usually two things at once. I’d wash the dishes while talking on Skype. I’d exercise while listening to an audiobook. I’d stretch my calves while brushing my teeth.

Thanks to my chronic fatigue, much of my day is now taken up doing zero things at once. I’m supposed to take a minimum of five breaks each day, which should be 15-20 minutes. Not in total, but 15-20 minutes each. During these breaks, I’m allowed to do any of the following:

  1. Lie down or sit and have a cup of tea. As a bonus, I can look at a tree! (Sometimes I cheat and look at several trees at once.)
  2. Pat a pet: this one sounds great, except I don’t have a pet (I am in the market to borrow your pets, if you don’t mind bringing them by five times a day, or just donating them for the duration of my illness).
  3. Meditation/mindfulness/breathing exercises: I feel like if I had any aptitude for this quantity of meditation, I would already be a monk. Yes, meditation is highly beneficial, but when given free time, my brain prefers to lists all the productive things I could be doing with those 15 minutes if I were well, and then berate me for being sick and useless.
  4. Colouring in: no.

On the breaks, I’m not allowed to eat, look at any kind of screen, chat, read, stretch or walk. I can listen to music, but only if it’s calming.

The breaks drive me insane.

I suspect most people nowadays can’t remember the last time they did nothing for 15 minutes. Nothing. Not a single thing, other than just sitting with their own rampaging thoughts. Oh, and looking at a tree.

Conclusion: 6000 steps a day isn’t enough, and in our driven, goal-oriented, information-saturated society, being forced to take medically advisable breaks is a unique form of torture.


Maybe you’re allergic to cockroaches

When I first began to suspect that my intermittent, worsening bouts of illness might be the individual heads of one sinister, hydra-like illness, I came to a horrifying realisation: I’d have to see a doctor. It was May 2017. By then I could trace a clear pattern of symptoms back at least six months. But because the mystery illness had crept up on me so vaguely, I had no accurate idea of when it really began. Perhaps mid-2016, or even earlier.

My previous experiences with doctors hadn’t inspired a lot of faith in the medical community. Luckily by this time I’d found a doctor who wore clean, moderately professional clothes and had not yet laughed at me.

My first visit to the doctor about my mystery condition was in June 2017. My main symptom was random days of extreme fatigue, the kind that prevents you from working or moving or even thinking much. I also had random headaches that may or may not have been related.

I acknowledged my symptoms didn’t give the doctor a lot to work with. Dutifully, she tested me for everything. She sent me for an MRI. She sent me for a full-body CT scan. She sent me for blood tests for every condition it’s possible to test blood for.

When I showed up at the lab with the doctor’s list of requested blood tests, the technician looked over the list and began collecting empty vials. When she had filled a bucket with vials, she held it up to me.

‘We’re going to take this much blood today. Is that okay?’

I blinked. ‘If you think I have that much spare blood, go for it.’

None of these blood tests turned up anything except the need for more blood tests. On paper I looked very healthy, but by that time, the fatigue had transitioned from part-time to full-time. I was struggling through even basic activities, such as chewing and breathing.

Testing for cockroach allergies

One of my referrals was to an immunologist. Suspecting allergies could be contributing to my symptoms, he suggested I spend several hundred dollars to allow a nurse to scratch a pattern of tiny wounds down my arm, and then dab allergic substances into those wounds. These substances were stored in brown bottles. I watched as the nurse unscrewed the cap on each bottle and dripped its contents onto my arm. One of the bottles was labelled cockroach.

‘People can be allergic to cockroaches?’

‘It’s actually pretty common.’

‘But what can you do if you’re allergic to cockroaches?’

She shrugged. ‘Don’t eat them.’

The immunologist visit was a solid reminder of why I do not trust doctors, especially when my scratch wounds revealed I was ‘mildly allergic’ to various grasses and pollens (thankfully I could eat all the cockroaches I wanted). The immunologist recommended I take an antihistamine.

‘What, just, forever?’ I asked.

‘Try it for a month and see if it helps.’

I went to my local chemist and asked the pharmacist on staff what antihistamine she recommended.

‘They’re all basically the same,’ she said in a harried, distant manner, as though asking her about the products in her pharmacy was an inconvenience she was struggling to tolerate. She pointed to a random box. ‘These ones are cheaper.’

I bought a box of antihistamines. Inside the box, the product information was folded into a tiny origami fan. The potential side effects of the antihistamines included fatigue and headaches. Still, who was I to question the advice of an experienced immunologist?

I took the antihistamines. My headaches got worse. I stopped taking the antihistamines.

After six months of tests and specialist appointments and weekly doctor visits, I eventually received a diagnosis by default.


From the Lighthouse: a writerly interview

From the Lighthouse writing and reading podcastDespite being unable to leave my house 87% of the time, I was invited for a guest interview on the reading and writing podcast From the Lighthouse with Stephanie Russo and Michelle Hamadache.

The interview was great fun, and I was able to share two key tips for writers, which I’m particularly keen on: setting rejection goals, and joining a public speaking club (like this particular one in Sydney’s Inner West). I also suggest rubbing salt in your wounds on an hourly basis because that is what it is to be a writer.



Why I do not trust doctors, part III

This time the doctor was a woman in her forties. She wore hot pink velour sweatpants. Her fingernails extended an inch past her fingertips, with electric yellow and green tiger-stripe polish and press-on diamond rhinestones. Her make-up was caked, her hair dyed pink. Of all that, it was the sweatpants that really threw me because what was this? Pyjama day at the walk-in clinic? I don’t remember what I went to see her for. I don’t remember what she advised me. In fact, I never heard what she advised me. I’m not a huge believer in the value of workplace dress codes, but I spent the entire time thinking is this woman actually a doctor?


Why I do not trust doctors, part II

Eyeball by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

The whites of my eyes turned noticeably yellow. Banana yellow. I did not want to see a doctor about this, because I otherwise felt fine.

My eyeball yellowness went on several days. I stared at my eyeballs in the bathroom mirror. Was this yellowness the start of something? Early onset jaundice?

I called the nurse’s advice hotline. The nurse would advise me what to do.

‘I don’t know what could be causing that,’ she said. ‘You need to see a doctor.’

‘ … What if I didn’t see a doctor?’

‘My advice is for you to see a doctor.’ You could tell she was stating this clearly so that if I died of yellow eye, my family couldn’t dig up a recording of this call and sue.

I went to a different walk-in clinic. This time, I saw a young woman who wore a white lab coat. There wasn’t even any dog hair on it.

‘What are you here about?’

‘The whites of my eyes have turned yellow.’

She shone a tiny flashlight in my eyes. Then she laughed. ‘Well, I don’t know how yellow the whites of your eyes normally are.’

‘They’re normally white.’

‘Uh-huh.’ She laughed again. ‘I’m not sure what you want me to say.’

I went home. A few days later, my eyeballs returned to their usual colour.


Why I do not trust doctors, part I

Canadian winter by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

I woke up one morning with my left eye swollen shut and a hard lump protruding from my eyebrow. The upper left region of my face had gone full puff. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and I couldn’t figure out any explanation for it. By lunchtime the swelling hadn’t gone down, so I went to the walk-in clinic.

The doctor was a stooped, wrinkled man with snow-white hair. If a police officer had later asked me to guess his age, I would have said 90. His navy blazer was three sizes too large, making him look like a kid playing dress-up. More disturbingly, the blazer was coated in white dog hair, as though at least three samoyeds had tried on the jacket earlier that day.  Overall, this man looked less like a medical professional and more like a homeless guy who’d wandered in from the alley.

I pointed to my eye. He reached a withered finger toward me and pressed on the lump, hard.

‘It’s an insect bite. Might even be a wasp sting.’

This was January in Winnipeg, Canada. Outside, the snow banks were up past my knees. I had not seen a wasp in months, probably because they were all dead or hibernating underground through the winter. Maybe he was recently arrived from Florida and hadn’t yet figured out which insects to randomly attribute his extremely professional diagnoses to.

Also, I feel like I would have known if a wasp had stung me on the face.

I went home. The swelling went away on its own.

Congratulations, you’ve won post-infective fatigue syndrome

Congratulations, you've got post-infective fatigue syndromeThank you for playing Why Am I So Sick All The Time? It’s been an exciting several months, but we’re finally ready to announce the outcome. Remember, all of these conditions and more were in the mix:
Ross river fever
An allergy to cockroaches
Maybe some kind of cancer?
Multiple sclerosis

After much consideration and approximately 8500 blood tests, we’re delighted to announce that you have chronic fatigue syndrome! But wait, there’s more! Medically unexplained fatigue comes in a variety of colours and styles:
Standard chronic fatigue
Post-cancer fatigue
Post-concussion fatigue
Post-infective fatigue

Since you’re lucky enough to have post-infective fatigue syndrome (or PIFS, for fun), you’re probably wondering what ‘infection’ you had that kicked this all off, right? Well, it could have been anything. A cold, a flu, that one time you sneezed so loud your husband dropped his iPhone in the sink. In fact, the infection could have been subclinical, meaning you never had any symptoms! Imagine that!

Curious how post-infective fatigue differs from standard chronic fatigue? No-one will adequately explain that to you, ever.

With PIFS, you can enjoy a wide range of new and unpredictable symptoms, including but not limited to the following:

Fatigue, obviously
You’re so tired, it feels like you’ve been awake for a week straight. It feels like you just ran an ultra marathon. You’re so tired, the physical act of holding yourself upright in a chair is unbearable.

Combing nicely with your overwhelming tiredness is a complete inability to fall asleep or even catch a short nap. Ideally, you should be awake as much as possible to contemplate all the things you could be doing if you weren’t so horrifically exhausted. This also gives you ample time to catch up on social media, so you can see how everyone else’s lives have gone on without you. Look at all your friends and family, achieving their goals and living life to the fullest!

Impaired concentration & short-term memory
You know that thing when someone introduces themselves and you forget their name within 8.29 seconds? Now imagine that for every third thing said to you. And you know how sometimes, you walk in a room and you can’t remember what you wanted there? Well, replace sometimes with always. And replace walk in a room with open a cupboard or click on a desktop file. Then you’ll get it. Except you won’t, because by the time you’ve reached the end of a sentence, you’ve forgotten how it started. Something about mangoes?

Are you nauseous? Or are you just so tired you’re starting to mistake that for nausea? It’s hard to tell!

‘Unrefreshing sleep’
This is the technical term specialists use to describe how even when you do get a decent night’s sleep, you’ll wake up feeling like you’ve been run over by a lawn aerator.

Shortness of breath
Sometimes your lungs feel constricted and you can’t get a full breath. Maybe you’ve got asthma. You never had asthma before, but maybe you’ve coincidentally developed asthma at the exact same time as this other mystery condition. No, seriously, pay $25 to blow into this tube. Blow! Blow! Blow! Well, there’s definitely something wrong with your lungs, and it’s definitely not asthma. That’s all we know.

Thank you for playing Why Am I So Sick All The Time? We hope you enjoy your new life with PIFS!