Listen: Clare Chate interviews Leigh Hatcher
When the iconic Australian broadcast journalist Leigh Hatcher lay down one afternoon in 1998 for what was meant to be a 10 minute nap, little did he know his life was about to turn upside down.
Two hours after drifting off to sleep, he woke up feeling – in his own words – “as if he’d been run over by a truck”.
It was the start of a devastating, two-year journey through the mysterious and painful condition known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
In 2005 Leigh chronicled his experience in a book, I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just A Little Unwell, named appropriately after the lyrics of a Matchbox 20 song.
Now, with the book still selling and the feedback from readers still rolling in, Leigh spoke to Hope Media to reflect on its 10 year anniversary.
CFS: Hard To Endure, Hard To Explain
According to Leigh’s informational website, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is also known as Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis , and is characterised by severe, disabling fatigue and post-exertional exhaustion for more than 6 months.
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Symptoms can include muscle aches and pains, troubled sleep, poor concentration and memory, irritable bowel, low blood pressure and unusual headaches.
Leigh says he used to describe the condition as a ‘multi-headed beast’, because it comprised so many kinds of suffering.
“I think because I’m a journo, I worked hard on finding a form of words that described what it was like,” he said.
“People used to say, “what does it feel like, is it just that you’re tired?” And I’d say no. I’d lived 25 years of deadlines and airline schedules and impossible shift work. I knew what it was like to be tired.
“If you imagine that you’re suffering a dose of the flu, the real flu with all the aches and pains, that’s what it feels like, every day.
“And if you weave into that, for me, wave after wave of blood sugar crashes. It’s as if you’ve had nothing to eat all day, and you’re at work and then your boss says “I’ve got to get another six hours out of you before I let you eat again”. And you’re just kind of spiralling.
“So I used to say it was like my body – but also my brain – was running on empty. That’s as accurate and simple as I could describe it.
“There were a handful of days, and it might sound melodramatic, where I lay in bed in such pain and fatigue, that I thought “this must be what it feels like to die”.”
The Pain Of Being Misunderstood
CFS put Leigh out of work and out of action for more than two years, much of which was spent just getting a diagnosis.
“It took me a year to get a formal diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, so my wife and my family spent the most frustrating year going through a range of medical tests,” he said.
“It was a process of elimination and all the tests would come back normal, which was such a frustration for me because the last thing I felt like was “normal”.
“I had lost my high profile job at the Seven Network as one of their main Sydney reporters, their chief Olympic correspondent, a sometime newsreader; I lost it all. And I still had nothing to tag it with.”
Because his illness was for a long time un-named, friends and colleagues began to actually doubt his sickness and question what was really going on. Some wondered if he’d had a mental breakdown.
“There was a very, very consistent suspicion in the minds of many people that I was depressed,” he said.
“And yet every time I’d go to my GP and my specialist and they’d ask me questions about how my spirit was, how I was coping and what I was doing with my limited capacity, they’d say, “you’re not depressed”.”
His book describes the difficulty of dealing with these misconceptions.
Starting On The Path To Recovery
For Leigh, the breakthrough in his health came when he talked to a doctor in Adelaide, who was helping CFS sufferers by testing and addressing metabolic system.
“I heard about this and I thought, “I want those tests”,” he said. “So I went through this five hour test, looking at blood glucose test and insulin. The results came back abnormal.”
Based on those results, a dietitian put Leigh onto a regime of diet and activity that began to make a real difference.
“I went back to the dietitian two weeks later and I said “you’ve begun to give me a life, I can’t believe the difference,” he recalls.
Leigh emphasises that every case of CFS is different, and there is no magic bullet.
“That was my solution, it’s worked for me and it’s worked for others,” he said, “but I’d never want to indicate that this is the answer for everyone.”
Living A Healthier Lifestyle
After recovering from CFS Leigh was able to return to journalism which he stayed in for a number of years, working as a news anchor for Sky News, and a radio announcer for Hope Media’s Open House.
He now works part time in a public affairs role, and spends the rest of his week being a husband, father and very proud grandfather, which he calls “the biggest job that God’s ever given me”.
While his life is now what he would consider a normal, energetic one, he is still careful to manage his health.
“There are ways in which today, I still manage my body,” he said. “I still live with [the condition] to a certain extent, but no-one would ever know.
“I work hard exercising, I walk every day, I swim a kilometre in the pool three or four days a week at least. And I eat like a diabetic. I eat often, even if it’s just an apple, and I eat at the lower end of the glycemic index.
“So I eat a range of foods that release energy slowly, rather than the high sugar, high-processed foods which give you a spike in your blood sugar and then a crash.”
Surviving The Dark Valley Of Suffering
When reflecting on how he survived the dark days of his illness, Leigh says he is reluctant to sound trite but that it was absolutely his faith in God that kept him going.
“I’m careful about explaining it, because not everybody has a spiritual faith, but for me it was my Christian faith that got me through,” he said, “and a confidence that God is real, God is true, God is involved in our lives, and there is a bigger picture that He has for our good, no matter how bad things get.
“I’ve always said I’ve regarded the way I coped and was able to cope, as a gift of faith. It’s not a universal story; some people hit a real crisis of faith and become terribly depressed. But for me, while there were things to be depressed about, I was not depressed.
“And I regard that as a gift of faith that’s got nothing to do with me. I never lost a sense that there was a bigger picture being played out. And many subsequent events have all the more confirmed that to me.”
A Surprising Reaction: “I Was Utterly Astounded”
After Leigh Hatcher released his memoir, for the first time in his life he, a seasoned journalist, found himself on the “other side of the microphone”.
“I remember on the morning that I was lined up for all these media interviews, feeling really scared about it,” he said.
“I wrote it with the very simple intent of putting a story out there for the benefit of those without a voice in the CFS suffering community. But it was very unusual for me to be on the other side of the microphone.”
He says he was astounded with the response to his book. Thousands of people suffering not only CFS but trials of other kinds too, bought the book, read it, and emailed thanking him for writing it.
“I was utterly astounded at the response,” he said. “The first edition sold out in two weeks. The second edition sold out in a month. The third edition sold out after three months.
“I was getting hundreds of emails. I was utterly amazed at how many people connected with the story in the context of chronic fatigue syndrome, but also, surprisingly to me, in the context of many other very, very different life upheavals. People were really able to connect with that.
“To my utter amazement it’s become a best seller.”
Still Encouraging Other Sufferers
Not Crazy is still selling after 10 years in print and has been a great encouragement to many of the 150,000 Australians suffering CFS, and their families.
Leigh says he still gets emotional to think of the impact his experience is still having.
“Many people have written to me responding to the book and have said “this has literally been a life saver for me”,” he said.
“It’s an amazing example of how God does paint a bigger picture, no matter how tough it gets.
“I’m honoured and I’m humbled to be whatever voice I can be for the people who don’t have the voice and the physical capacity to get out there with their own story.”
– Copies of Leigh Hatcher’s book can be ordered through his website.
– Learn more or connect with Leigh at notcrazy.net.