FATHER-of-five Conor Cahill is a man who always puts his best foot forward, even though he suffers from two debilitating illnesses — myalgic encephalomyelitis, known as M.E, and fibromyalgia.
“I was diagnosed four years ago,” says Conor, 47, of Cloyne. “I was dealing with a lot of issues at the time. The origins of M.E can be viral, environmental, hormonal, genetic, neurological and immunological, or a combination of one or more. Stress may have triggered my M.E.”
However, he ignored the aches and fatigue, the burning joints and weakness and wooziness, when he walked more than 350 km of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in the summer.
He was a man on a mission, as he did it to mark the 30th anniversary of Deaf Enterprises.
Conor joined Deaf Enterprises two years ago and is manager of a local social enterprise which has been providing training and employment to Cork’s deaf community for 28 years.
“The funds I raised will go towards the working environment within the furniture workshop,” says Conor.
“And also help raise awareness for the non-profit upholstery and furniture repair business.”
He was highly motivated for the epic Camino challenge and knew he had to pace himself.
The diagnosis of the debilitating disease changed his life.
“I worked as a transport manager for Greenstar and we had a busy household,” says Conor. “I was always tired, but I didn’t give in. I didn’t have a healthy lifestyle either, drinking a lot. You could say I was a typical male.”
The fatigue didn’t sit well with him. “I was at a stag party with a bunch of pals,” recalls Conor. “Most of them were older than me, in their sixties. I couldn’t keep up with them.
“One Friday, I took time out from work. My body just seemed to stop. I downed tools and I went to Pearce Hennessy, an acupuncturist in Midelton. I almost crawled in his front door. What I felt was a different kind of tiredness.
“I was months out sick, attending various GP’s and investigating what could be the matter. I tried anti-depressants, but they didn’t solve anything. I still wanted to be myself, not another person. Acupuncture seemed to be the best route. Even though I weaned myself off all meds, there was no significant improvement.”
Conor tried a different approach.
“I made some lifestyle changes. I lost five stone. I gave up drink and started a healthy diet in a bid for self-improvement. Acupuncture treated the symptoms, but not the cause. Checking in twice a week to talk about the different stages of my condition did help a lot.”
Conor tapped into his willpower.
“I took some steps to improve my mental state. Counselling and regular sessions with a life coach were of huge benefit. It helped to talk, especially with issues around pain management.”
Does the pain get bad?
“When I am in constant pain, my head drops,” says Conor. “The fibromyalgia affects my vital organs and causes bladder problems. It affects my movement above the waist. I can’t lift my arms over my head. I lift them to shoulder level, then inch by inch, to get my arms over my head. If I touch my chest, which seems to be a pressure point, it is sore. My jaw is affected. Even yawning is painful.”
When Conor received his diagnosis, he recalled that his dad, who died in his late forties, had similar symptoms.
“And my grandmother, my father’s mother, died of dementia, an uncle suffered from brain cancer and another uncle had auto-immune issues. So, you would wonder if genetics play a part in chronic fatigue syndrome.”
Conor adds of his condition: “I know it won’t kill me. I’ve learned to mask the pain and to live with it. I’ve fought a lot of battles, even through the fog of fatigue and exhaustion.”
One of the battles he faced was to be able to work again.
“My employability was a big issue,” says Conor. “I was asked to go back to Greenstar, but that was a non-runner. I’m allowed to work 21 hours and avail of the disability allowance as well. There were a lot of hurdles to get over.”
Conor put his heart and soul into bringing Deaf Enterprises into the 21st century.
“I came to it with my general background to try and create more work for the future of the 22 employees. Looking at different aspects and opportunities for sustained employment was the aim.”
Conor and Chairperson, Mike McGrath, were hugely motivated. When Conor returned from his triumphant trek in the Camino, Mike set off to Barcelona to take on the Ironman triathlon in September.
“I’m a voluntary board member,” says Mike. “Deaf Enterprise recently started a development committee. The aim is to source donations to improve the working environment within the furniture workshops. Funds raised continue to provide direct and indirect employment for at least 30 more years.
“We are at the transition stage with opportunities to develop a local training centre with CETB assistance for the deaf.”
Mike admires his colleague’s stamina and determination.
“What a great achievement for Conor,” says Mike of his trek. “The man who works 21 hours a week, who walked 10km each day before taking on the Camino.”
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome wasn’t going to stop Conor in his tracks.
“Getting the right body balance, food and energy-wise can be tricky,” he admits. “I check my body parts every half hour. I feel my nose to see if it’s hot or cold. Temperature plays a big part in how I’m feeling. Cold doesn’t bother me. If I get a headache I go for food. I have to avoid pushing myself too far, otherwise I’ll crash. It can be stressful.”
“Sleep is no good to me,” adds Conor. “My sleep is non-restorative, so I’m never refreshed. Often, when I get up, I am more tired than when I went to bed. I have to push myself to keep the circulation going.”
His training for the Camino helped keep his body movement flowing. “I knew it would require constant energy,” he says. “I walked 5km a day and 5km a night for eight months before I left for the pilgrimage. I checked in twice a week for acupuncture which helped me a lot.”
And he found a new direction.
“I became more aware spiritually,” says Conor. “In the last couple of years, I felt more of a connection, spiritually. I wanted to be with ‘me’ and understand ‘me’.
“I did 22 miles a day along the Camino. If I was flagging, company along the way kept me going. It distracted me from the pain. I paced myself and knew when I had to stop.”
Conor says a positive attitude towards his condition helps.
“Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia don’t define me,” says Conor. “Yes, they robbed me of things I could do and would still like to do. But learning how to tweak certain things lifestyle-wise helps makes it easier.”
Conor and his 12-year-old daughter Kacey like to swim.
“Yes, I can do the breast-stroke because my arms are out in front of me. Kacey and I enjoy going to the pool together.”
Kacey is her daddy’s little helper.
“I help make the dinner,” she says. “And I do jobs around the house on Saturday morning.”
Conor has a big interest in the GAA.
“I’ve been to most All Irelands,” he says. “But I can’t remember any of them!”
He does have one good memory though.
“My family and I climbed Carrantuohill during the summer. It was great day. I’m in a better position than most others.”
ABOUT Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 9CFS) is a complicated disorder characterised by extreme fatigue that can’t be explained by underlying medical conditions. The symptoms of CFS can’t be alleviated by rest.
Fibromyalgia affects the muscles and soft tissue, causing chronic muscle pain and fatigue. Sleep problems and painful tender pressure points are part of the condition that can be alleviated by lifestyle changes and lower stress levels.
Deaf enterprise was established in 1988.
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