When you play elite soccer, you have to be fast. At the youth state trials, the coach said, ‘You boys gotta believe in your potential. Anyone can be coached—anyone who isn’t slow, I mean.’ Did everyone look over at me? I probably imagined it. But my body remembers the shame, which came like goosebumps. I did not make the team.
Now, a decade on, I would give anything for what speed I had back then. It is not just that I’m older. For almost four years I’ve been seriously ill with an unspecified condition whose main symptoms include weakness and fatigue. I have had to give up sport, and going out, and full-time work. On bad days I inch down the street to the shops. On worse days I can’t leave the house—so I sleep, hang about like a ghost, watch the soccer on TV and daydream.
There is something unique about slowness. Of course all players have their weaknesses: clumsy athletes are anxious about their first touch; forwards who overly favour left or right lose their heads when a chance drops to the wrong foot. But the animal fear of the slowpoke—this has no equal in the wide world of sport.
It’s true at the highest level of soccer as well. In Steven Gerrard’s later years, the all-action midfielder slowed to become a deep-lying maestro. When the title was his team’s to win, and he slipped and couldn’t chase down Chelsea’s C-grade speedster Demba Ba, and when he watched on from behind as Ba raced clear to score the deciding goal, it was not just a world-famous win for the bad guys. It was the familiar triumph of speed over sense.
Yet professional teams resist the raw danger of pace. A well-organised defence works to avoid individual contests: you move as a unit to ensure the game can never turn on one person being quicker or taller than another. When Lionel Messi skips past a lumbering centre-back, most fans rail against the defender. An intelligent coach, meanwhile, asks why that player was left isolated.
If you’re caught one on one, in the lingo, you’re exposed. Every single slowpoke lives in terror of this: a sudden ball over the top, green grass behind, and the winger bearing down. In theory it’s everyone’s mistake, but all eyes are on you. And if it happens too often, if protecting you costs the collective too much, you’re at risk.
• • •
The last time I played soccer was one Saturday three years ago. At the time, I’d been properly ill for over a year, and it was getting worse. I’d been called in to hear test results that next Monday. I might find out if I was ill, or not ill, or making it up, or maybe dying. I was hopeful, afraid. And I decided to go and play the game that I love, in case it turned out to be my last chance. So I went down to Ultimo Park in Glebe, this open kick-around for amateurs. I had played there on and off for years since I finished university and gave up serious competition. Anyone who came could join in: an old German lawyer who arrived in a Mercedes; young migrants; tradies from the suburbs. The boss and chief nickname-giver was the professor, a balding old Turkish Australian who had lived nearby for decades before the cost of living moved him west. The professor became my mate. He always rigged the teams so we were playing together. Sometimes we would sit after the match, talking about family and Turkey and whatever else. I never asked him what he was a professor of, but I could sense he was a thinker.
Eventually I asked some of the regulars what he taught. They laughed madly. Mate, the professor sells olive oil soap. How come he’s called the professor then, I asked. Ahmed, grinning madly, held his hands up round his skull and then expanded them slowly, going phhooww with his lips, while the others chortled. Of course: the professor had an enormous head.
Although I hadn’t been down there for months—I had stopped everything in an effort to get better—the regulars treated me as normal. Only the professor asked where I’d been, while we were waiting for a corner. I’ve been sick, I said, yeah, real sick. He said, oh, and then the ball came in, was cleared, and off we ran. That night I met some friends down the pub. I had two beers and a kebab, got home by midnight. Then I spent most of the next week sick in bed.
When I was young, soccer was everything to me. I’d bring a ball to picnics and barbecues, and if I couldn’t convince anyone to kick with me, I’d play on my own. Throughout my teenage years I trained six times a week, plus two runs, plus two games. In the off-seasons I played barefoot on the cement of our back yard; by the end of each summer, my calloused feet were as thick as hide. I was good. I could turn on a dime and had a wide range of passing. I could whip in good corners, both flat and in-swinging; I knew all the main moves to get away from a man: double step-overs, Cruyff turns, Maradona spins, chops. I could read the game well, organise a defence. Plus I was fit—but I was slow. And no amount of coaching or stretching could fix it.
When you’re slow, you learn a special hatred for the quick, those who have done nothing to cultivate their abilities, who were simply born with long coltish legs and a cocky loping stride, or with fast-twitch thighs like loaded missiles. (The worst, of course, is the multi-sport athlete.) You pick up tricks. One coach, Tony—who didn’t want to have to drop me, his captain—pulled me aside and confessed that he, too, used to be slow. Tony was wild-eyed and handsome, with a round little belly that stretched the Olympiakos jersey he always wore. There are ways to get around it, Tony said. You can just use your brains, read the game a step quicker. Or you can be more direct. When you turn to race a striker, land your weight on the foot he’ll take off with—yeah, I know, mate, I know—that way you gain two or three strides before the ref’s even looking. (Tony’s last tip, which involved a hostile application of Deep Heat rub, is cosa nostra.)
That Ultimo Park game was long ago now. I am still shuttling from doctor to doctor, hoping some grand new approach might be revealed. My symptoms—headaches, light and sound phobia, indigestion, weakness, fatigue—line up with Myeloencephalitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), but the doctors weren’t sure, and I wasn’t convinced. They still aren’t sure: I cannot believe how much uncertainty there is. It seems some people just fall through the cracks.
This is not for lack of adventuring. One GP told me losing weight would probably solve things—I did, and it didn’t. Another said he believed me but had no idea how to help; he asked if I had read anything online that might be worth trying. One, a macho man with bulging forearms, tried to hurry me into $4000 worth of Vitamin C injections, then got cranky when I asked if there was science behind it. I was recently prescribed some bloody ginseng.
• • •
Excelling at sport does miracles for a young man, even one with scant athletic gifts. You’re lucky you’re good at soccer, said one cool friend, on discovering some embarrassing thing or other about me. At my all-male school, I gradually grew into a bloke who was at home around blokes. When I traded in state league for the school side, my best friend came into the team and played beside me—he was fast and tall, just the right traits to cover for my weaknesses. Ours was an urgent, Victorian friendship. We were both too sensitive for the soccer crowd, but you wouldn’t have guessed it, not on a big old night out with the boys, all of us singing and laughing and bursting like kids into footraces. I was the slow one, the fat one—comparatively. But all together we were, or felt, invincible.
This cis-male world of sports prepares us poorly for life’s challenges, especially when the body is at stake. Australian sports culture follows the logic of mateship, a frontiersman idea that insists on loyalty among the accepted—and the capable—at the expense of all the rest. The limitations of this logic follow us all into everyday life, including those groups (straight, white, male, healthy) that typically benefit from such a closing of ranks.
The shame of underperformance runs deep in today’s discipline culture—its hustling speed, its ethics of achievement. Here, perhaps, the chronically ill have a radical perspective of our own. In 1926 Virginia Woolf wrote about the loneliness of being sick, and how the healthy refuse to care because it represents an impediment to progress. ‘In modern times,’ she mused, ‘sympathy is a folly dispensed chiefly by the laggards and failures, women for the most part … who, having dropped out of the race, have time to spend upon fantastic and unprofitable excursions.’ Woolf called these ‘deserters’ from the world of the upright—she was being ironic. But I wonder, horizontal as I am, just how much would change if we all started to think, or even feel, like such deserters.
Being slow, being soft, or for some other reason, I have always felt this fear of exposure. Over the past few years so much of my life has changed, and nothing more clearly than my relationship to soccer. But in memory I’m drawn to this feeling of slowness. It feels like something deeply constant: a chance to trace continuity, not rupture.
Naturally I’ve lost touch with my old teammates. In general I’ve shrunk from the company of men, especially in groups. As if each pack of men was prepared at any instant to break into a competitive 400-metre race; as if saying ‘I can’t do this’ would break some unspoken spell of brotherhood. I’m unnerved when I see young men roaming about, taking up space and making noise. And I only tend to talk to female friends about my illness. Whatever the strengths of conventional male friendship, it is poor when it comes to confessionals. And I don’t know how you can work through illness, as a person or group, without confession.
These days I am all kinds of slow. I get honked by cars trying to turn at the lights: they see a fit young man dawdling, and they’ve got places to be. I pace myself from bench to bench, fearing truck noise and plane noise and wind and the sun. Sometimes, and I know it’s indefensible, I put on a weird sort of limp.
Learning to rest, to go slow—the doctors say pacing—I am bad at this. And as I slow down, I feel myself losing my bearings, especially in gender. Where are the strong male role models for the sick-but-not-dying? What does it mean to be brave, to work hard, when your body resists every effort to command it? I can’t try the Invictus thing, nor the triumphant recovery (he defeated cancer!). Being slow means being soft. And it’s been hard for me to accept this as a basis for togetherness—trained, as I have been, in the logic of the locker room.
I still have Tony on Facebook. The other day he shared a photo of super-coach Pep Guardiola with a quote: ‘I will forgive if the players cannot get it right, but not if they do not try hard.’ Underneath, it read: ‘Your hard work (strong arm emoji) / Attitude (100 emoji) / Application (soccer ball emoji) / Is your biggest controllable in your lifestyle, training and performance.’ Which is all well and good—until suddenly one day it no longer holds true.
• • •
In the late nineteenth century, as industrialisation boomed and populations flocked to the cities, there was considerable anxiety about the speed of modern life. Doctors and scientists theorised a fatigue epidemic—a widespread exhaustion that seemed to be infecting not just the many Madames Bovary but people at all levels of society. Productivity was soaring, but humans were slowing. A huge variety of cures were proposed, even a vaccine.
But many artists and thinkers dissented, defending the value of human fatigue against the rise of machine-like industrial man. While one Adrien Proust was investigating the causes of weariness, his son Marcel was exploring the possibilities of idleness and languor. Human beings, unlike robots, slow down. Then as now, we tire, we need help: we turn to those around us for a hand. Perhaps our fatigue is what saves us from our harsh modern selves. A society that represses fatigue—one that insists on sheer speed, on efficiency and algorithm—loses sight of our judgement, our precious irony, our humanity.
When I first went down to the regular pick-up game, I hadn’t played much for years. I had been slow as a youth player; among these amateurs, though, all these nerds and old fat guys, I passed for fast. I was the best player there. But over the months of getting sicker, I lost my speed and agility. By that last game, I was playing like a slow man once more—like all those old blokes, Mathias and the professor, sagging masters of nous and cunning.
• • •
On that day: a few Adonic backpackers came down to play. One of them kicked at the professor at a corner—there was a little snafu. This bloke was French, he had his shirt off, and his shorts said ‘St Tropez’. Ooh, attention, I said as I jogged past, knocking his shoulder with mine. C’est le Riviera tough guy! Nobody kicks my professor.
A few minutes later he was tight on my back. He wanted revenge as I gathered a pass. I felt his weight, dropped my shoulder to the left and took a touch the other way. Fucken idiot. It’s the oldest trick in the book. The ball bopped up thickly off the outside of my boot; it went into space and I’d earned my head start. But what’s this? It felt like I was running through molasses, while he stretched out and had me beaten, and suddenly he was tearing away with impossible speed. I raised my hand: Sorry, boys.
• • •
Today I’m watching from the car, hoping not to be recognised. I must have driven here from habit. There they all are: the professor, Mathias and Jiri; that chunky cop; a handful of students. They are rubbish, of course, but they each have their moments. Mathias cuts inside—he’s all left foot—and bangs it in far-post, wheeling away with childish joy. It’s been so long since I played that soccer feels like a virtual exercise: something watched on YouTube, played on FIFA, or rehearsed with karaoke irony when an ice cube falls on the kitchen floor.
Now I watch a muscle-bound athlete, the type I’d always hated, try a scissor kick—he misses, but the movement is beautiful. He jogs after the ball; his body’s mighty, and gorgeous. I luxuriate in the look of him, the thrill and the speed of his footwork. Maybe I can learn to take all of life in this way—as something I’m a fan of, not a star in. Like a scene that you see between cracks in a doorway, or a story you make out from overheard whispers.
The professor is walking, half-jogging around. He is slowing down with age. Sometimes I feel as though I’m getting old, too. Before I became ill I’d never felt more alive than after a visit to my elderly grandmother—keeping a close eye out for dribblebits while she ate her caramel slice, feigning interest and surprise throughout the same repeated stories. Once I said goodbye, I would run to the car and speed down to the beach. There I’d dig my toes deep into the sand; I would run, run and run till I felt all my leg muscles breaking, re-forming. Then I’d dive in the surf, throw my head in the waves, and bob up between sets to look out at the sea—to feel sun on wet skin, tasting salt, taking stock of my infinite life laid before me.
The true condition of youth, writes Adam Gopnik in a New Yorker feature on ageing, is the physical ability to forget ourselves. I suspect he means the healthy young—maybe the cis-male healthy young. It is a paradox that the more at ease you are in your body, the less attention you have to pay to it. Healthy young men wield their bodies unthinkingly. But for the sick and the marginalised, the body keeps getting in the way. Privileged as I am, it is only through illness—and its accompanying solitude—that I have come to understand what this means.
Perhaps rethinking the body means learning new ways to relate to one another—ways that don’t begin with sameness. How much we cis straight men have to learn, and how poorly prepared the majority of us are. In a way I am grateful for my experience in slowness: I see it, perversely, as a kind of head start.
I have set myself to learn new ways of engaging from non-male friends, and from communities that have been doing this for much longer—often due to the violence of people like me. I read illness writing, admiring its courage and wit, its peculiar togetherness. I find inspiration in Virginia Woolf, a brilliant laggard a century old. And I spend time on online support groups, where members share advice as well as memes—a text post that reads, ‘I am allowed to mourn the person I thought I’d become’, or a picture of Tilda Swinton wearing a mad pillows-and-bed-looking dress with the caption ‘When you have ME/CFS but you hit the party anyway’—but mostly complaints about doctors or family who don’t understand or don’t believe. It’s okay, the community says, we get it, we’re with you.
• • •
Patients who present with fatigue as a dominant symptom have fought long and hard to be believed about their bodies. ME/CFS was long known as Yuppie flu; a vigorous online community has grown up dedicated to ‘outing’ fake sufferers. Only recently has the tide turned against a gravely flawed ME/CFS study named the PACE trial, which claimed to prove conclusively that exercise and psychotherapy were the best treatment options. Sufferer groups have long complained that exercise makes them worse.
I have no idea who is right about the science. But I’m struck by how often we have erred on the side of not trusting people, of assuming that unusual patients are psychosomatic or indulgent. Is it too confronting to think that medicine is imperfect, that some conditions don’t fit? Or is our culture just too eager to believe that anything at all can be cured by a run and a shrink? (These are precisely what I, the student-athlete, tried when I started feeling ill.) And then there is society’s hatred of the weak—something that I still can’t quite shed, not even towards myself.
I am fortunate in the scheme of things. My case is relatively mild, and I am demographically the sort of person that people believe. How many others are there living in this hazy in-between space, most of whom have it worse, and have a harder time being heard? Invisible Disabilities Advocate estimates that the lives of some 30 million Americans are limited by invisible chronic illness; in Australia, between 94,000 and 242,000 people are estimated to have ME/CFS alone. Sufferers of autoimmune disorders wait an average of five years for a diagnosis, more like ten for endometriosis. And until you have a diagnosis, no-one—not the health system, not the public, sometimes not even loved ones—will believe that you are sick.
Patients with difficult chronic illness are referred to as heartsinks: we are not worth investing in, we will only get you down. The solitude Virginia Woolf describes is also moral: when we are ill, we realise just how limited are our bonds to each other, how deeply alone we all are in our bodies. ‘In health,’ she writes, ‘the pretence of all-togetherness must be maintained, and the effort renewed … to work by day together and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases.’ Being ill, then, means seeing the limits of what’s owed and what’s given. But in losing the pretence of equivalence, one registers kindness when it comes, as if by miracle. The other day my housemate made me soup, and I cried.
To be chronically ill is to give up on coolness. It means falling back on habits, on haunts. I have become a regular at one local café—I know it’s never too noisy, there’s always somewhere to sit, they don’t mind folks who linger. I was nestled up the back the other day when I saw the professor’s giant head as he walked in. He joked with the barista—he must be a regular too. When he looked up, I ducked my face behind a pillar. I didn’t look up until he was gone.
I still don’t know why. It was an animal response. When he left, I felt guilt—guilt that I hadn’t given him the chance to ask where I had been, or to be caring. Who else am I not giving a chance? Is it really men I’m on about, or is it me—what I’ve internalised?
I am working on myself. I am learning to lean, not to lift, and with grace. ‘What ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness,’ Woolf wrote, ‘and what undiscovered countries are then exposed.’
I have been getting to know my body, as well—its habits, its warnings, its pace. Almost daily I walk a certain distance. On bad days I drag myself out, sighing and grumbling like a horse. On good days I slow down, resisting the urge to make up for lost time. I feel myself becoming more attentive—I see patterns in bark on the street trees, notice floral designs on iron-lace balconies. Sometimes these details feel so vital, compared to my ghostliness, that I just reach out and touch them, like some bloody weirdo.
I am slowly crossing over to the side of the needful. My past already feels like a phantom limb, most days, like a hometown as seen from the windows of an airplane. But I am only half-transformed and half-redeemed. My legs are still chunked-up from long-ago strength. Sometimes I’ll be kicking a stone down the street, and the memory will come flooding in like a dream—and I’ll catch it, the whole guilty thrill of the thing, the thrill of using your shoulders to hold off your rival or a quick burst of pace then a dip and a turn, then a flurry of steps and you’re off and away, the defenders are slow and it’s you through on goal, one on one, and you still have the strength left to shoot—now there’s a bulge in the net, there’s a whoop from the stands, and your friends come to circle you, lifting you high, all these red faces full with the air of a goal. •
Alexander Wells is a writer from Sydney who lives in Berlin. He is working on a longer project about chronic illness and masculinity.