Loss of a sense of self: Kirsty Young talks about illness in Desert Island Tablets

Kirsty Young recalled how having to be away from broadcasting for a few years due to her chronic pain condition caused her to question her identity, saying “you lose your sense of self”.

Appearing on a special edition of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, which she has presented for 12 years, Young told current host Lorraine Laverne she was now feeling “much better” – and reflected on the experience of returning to broadcasting.

The 54-year-old broadcaster hosted nearly 500 editions of the show between 2006 and 2018, before he had to leave to undergo treatment for fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.

In the broadcast, broadcast on Christmas Day, Young explains that she originally spent a year seeing various specialists, trying to figure out the nature of her condition until she found a “brilliant” professor of rheumatology who diagnosed her.

She said he also warned her that she had to take her condition “very seriously” and reduce stress in her life along with medical treatment in order to get better.

“It was said very nicely but it was just a moment of sheer reality and clarity and I remember pulling up my car and I had a good old, to use a good old Scots word, good old salutation and I thought ‘Right, well those are the facts and you really have to think about this,’” she said.

“I’m very aware when talking about this, people sit across from doctors and get diagnoses that are more serious than the one I had, but it’s so painful and I’ve been in pain, and this chronic, long-term pain condition is an absolute pain, both literally and figuratively, to deal with.

“It grinds you down, you lose your personality, you lose your sense of humor, you lose your sense of self. There are all kinds of things that go along with it. Awful. So I had to take it seriously if I was going to get better. So I did.”

Young admitted that she felt “very shaken” that she had to quit her broadcasting job, which she “absolutely loved”.

She added: “I thought if I wasn’t, then what am I? What is Kirsty? I just felt it.”

That was silly, obviously, because using that well-worn phrase, ‘cracks are where the light enters,’ and all sorts of other things happened that were good things.

“In that moment, you kind of lose yourself. And when you’re in chronic pain, you kind of lose yourself anyway, so there’s a lot going on.”

Fibromyalgia, also known as fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), is a long-term condition that causes pain throughout the body, according to the NHS.

Rheumatoid arthritis is described as a long-term condition that causes pain, swelling, and joint stiffness.

After taking several years off, Young was able to return to present some of the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations earlier this year, as well as the closing moments of the late monarch’s funeral at St George’s Chapel in Windsor.

The presenter said she wanted to find the right words to end the program and sum up the magnitude of the historic day, but admitted: “I really spent some time. It was emotional.”

The Christmas episode also marks the end of the 80th year of the Desert Island Discs. Young interviewed 496 castaways during her time on the show.

Reflecting on the programme’s appeal, she said: “I once described it as… [having] Kind of a hammock-like quality, just to fit the person in there.

“So, if it’s…a Premier League footballer or if it’s an astrophysicist, their music and the amount of time you spend talking to them, and also the ways out of a museum, are kind of beautifully soft and comforting.”

The full interview with Kirsty Young will be broadcast on Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds on Christmas Day at 11.15am.

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