Health Editor Barry Nelson talks to a teenager who would love to be living it up with her friends this Christmas, but whose debilitating illness means the celebrations we all take for granted are merely exhausting.

IN the hectic last few days before Christmas, the streets are crowded with shoppers looking for that perfect gift. But 18-year-old Jayne Fawcett bought and wrapped her last present weeks ago.

While other 18-year-olds are rushing around socialising, studying, working and generally having a good time, Jayne is virtually housebound. The bright, sociable teenager has been battling against the debilitating, painful and depressing symptoms of Myalgic Encephalopathy (ME) since she was suddenly struck down six years ago.

No-one knows why people get ME, but in young people it often follows persistent viral infections. At present, there is no cure.

Jayne gets so exhausted after even a short walk that any shopping trip has to be done with her wheelchair in the back of the car. It doesn't help matters that Jayne's home is at the end of a rutted, unsurfaced track on one of the highest sheep farms in the Yorkshire Dales, in upper Arkengarthdale.

"We have to do all the shopping early before the shops get crowded," says Jayne, who is one of an estimated 25,000 young people out of a total of 150,000 adults and children who are believed to have ME in the UK.

"Being in a wheelchair, it is difficult when it is busy. All the aisles are so full of things. We do have to get the Christmas shopping out of the way early."

Although Jayne sounds fine on the telephone and her emails are very professional, meeting her is quite a shock. She was not having a good day and when I was shown into the snug, coal-heated front parlour at the remote farmhouse where she lives she looked tired and pale.

When we shook hands, her hand felt cool and limp and during the 40-minute interview Jayne was rarely able to manage more than a few sentences without her mother, Gill, taking over the talking.

Jayne says the internet has been a godsend for her. Without it, she would feel even more isolated. As a keen member of AYME, The Association of Young People with ME, she keeps in touch with other ME sufferers all over the UK, including many in the North-East.

"I have got friends with ME in Darlington, Newton Aycliffe, West Auckland, Chester-le-Street and Spennymoor. We send emails and letters to each other. I have also met a few of them," she says.

On good days, Jayne feels up to a trip to town or a drive out with her mum. But her recent attempt to learn how to drive - to give her more independence - ended in disappointment because she found the sheer physical effort too much for her.

"It didn't go very well, I'm afraid," says Jayne. "I started at the end of October but I had to give it up."

Ironically, it was a poem about her desire for more independence which earned Jayne one of three national prizes in the Shirley Conran Writing Competition, created by the Young ME Sufferers Trust.

"I had never entered anything before. I was quite surprised to do so well," says Jayne, who passed three A levels at Richmond School last year, earning B grades in English and Maths and C in Art.

Her poem is called What I Would Like To Do This Autumn:

I would like to start to learn

how to drive and earn

some independence

Instead of watching from over a fence

I would like to be in the driving seat

Which would be a great feat.

Despite Jayne's modesty, this is not the first time that her writing skills have earned recognition. In April last year the Daily Telegraph published the then 17-year-old school-girl's account of her battle with ME.

Jayne was asked to do the article after she wrote to the paper's editor asking for an opportunity to highlight the plight of young ME sufferers.

In recognition of that achievement, a framed certificate hangs on the wall, awarded after her former careers teacher at Richmond School put her name forward for an award. The Fred Evans Memorial Award 2004 was awarded by the Guidance careers charity to Jayne for her "exceptional determination to succeed, for achieving the highest standards for herself and for being an inspiration to others".

Jayne puts on a brave face about her situation but it is obviously a matter of great concern for her mother.

"She is 18 now. She should be able to work, go to college, go out on a night with her friends. She should be having the time of her life but because of ME she can't," says Gill, stoking the roaring coal fire which Jayne needs to keep warm.

"Before she got this she went to Scouts, swimming and football. She was into everything, hardly had night in. She was even a member of Reeth Junior Band.

"A lot of that first year she had ear infections. It all came to a head when they rang me to pick her up from school in Richmond. It was like picking up somebody else. She had changed so much."

Despite Jayne's problems, she did well at school and because of her mobility problems she has decided to enrol on an Open University humanities degree course, which she will be able to do at home.

Jayne doesn't like to talk about her symptoms - which are common to many people with ME - but apart from the constant tiredness, which does not improve with sleep, she has had to put up with other horrors. "Her legs, arms and shoulders often ache with a pain that she says is even worse than toothache," her mother says.

"Sensitivity to light, sound and smells is something else I get," adds Jayne.

Ironically, for a condition which makes sufferers chronically tired - another name for ME is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome - Jayne often finds it difficult to sleep, another common symptom.

Currently little can be done for people with ME, although some medication can ease symptoms. Jayne and her mother just hope that she will wake up one day and find that her illness is in retreat.

Mary-Jane Wallace, chief executive of AYME, says: "While there is currently no cure for ME, we do know that some of our members do improve and get back to a normal life. All we can do is to help our members cope and press for more research to be carried out into the causes of ME."

At the end of the interview, I ask Jayne if she feels OK. She smiles and nods a weak 'yes', but admits she may have to rest for a few hours.

* For more information about ME visit the AYME website