This article was written by me for The Unchargeables.
Chronic illness isn’t a topic that seems to heavily feature in television shows and movies. At least, that was what I thought before I started research for this article. It turns out there are shows, movies and documentaries out there featuring chronic illness, and I was keen to see how accurately it was represented in a world of fairy tale endings and happily-ever-afters. I was reassured to find that there are some shows that don’t shy away from the hard-hitting reality of life with chronic illness. This article specifically focuses on Netflix shows and these are my thoughts on the ones I watched, including:
- Alexa and Katie
- Brain on Fire
- The Fundamentals of Caring
- Kiss and Cry
- Degrassi: Next Class
- Gaga: Five Foot Two
- My Beautiful Broken Brain
- Be Here Now
Caution: CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
Alexa and Katie
Alexa and Katie is an American teen series following the lives of Alexa, who has been diagnosed with cancer, and her best friend Katie. Season one premiered on Netflix in March 2018 and the show has been renewed for a second season. Given that this was a teen show, set in an American high school, I was dubious about what the show could offer someone in their late twenties like myself. However, I did find myself enjoying it.
The humour is questionable at times, but it did have some laugh-out-loud moments and the underlying message was beautiful. It focuses on the struggles of living with illness as a young person and how the support of a friend can be life-changing in that situation. Alexa hides her illness for fear of being treated differently, something which I think all of us can relate to on some level. The show follows her struggle to live a ‘normal’ life whilst also taking care of her health. This is something else I think is very relatable to everyone with a chronic illness.
The show is a clichéd American teen show, but the underlying message is fantastic, and the positivity shown by Alexa is commendable. There are some hard-hitting moments when your heart breaks to watch Alexa miss out on life because of her illness; however, the show is mostly humorous, so it doesn’t dig too deep into the more difficult side of chronic illness. I will be interested to see what happens in season two and much to my own surprise, I will be keeping an eye out for its premiere. If you want something easy to watch which keeps things light hearted, whilst not shying away from some of the difficulties presented by living with a chronic illness as a young person, then give this a go.
Brain on Fire
Of all the shows recommended by Chargies and the Unchargeables team to watch for this article, I was dreading this one the most. I watched the trailer for this film when it first came onto Netflix in June 2018 and decided it would be too close to home, too hard to watch. My husband watched the film while away on holiday earlier in the year and he said it hit very close to home for him and it wouldn’t be easy for me to watch. It was therefore added to my ‘do not watch’ list because I didn’t think I could face it. However, I am so glad I had to watch this as part of my research for this article.
Brain on Fire is based on the true story of Susannah Cahalan, who released her memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness in 2012. The film follows Susannah, an up and coming journalist working in her dream job, living her ‘best life’ in New York. Seemingly from nowhere, Susannah develops an array of symptoms such as voices in her head, seizure, and hypersensitivity to sound. The film follows her story as she desperately tries to find a cause for her symptoms.
The struggle to have doctors take her seriously, let alone obtain an accurate diagnosis, is heartbreakingly relatable for so many of us with chronic illness. Susannah is misdiagnosed, told her symptoms are all in her head, and is written off by almost every medical professional she meets. Her symptoms deteriorate, and her family and boyfriend keep desperately fighting for answers. This film was difficult to watch because it is a reminder that medicine still has a long way to go and too many medical professionals still fail to investigate symptoms when there is no obvious cause for them. It was incredibly emotional to watch Susannah be told it was ‘all in her head’ and become a shell of her former happy, healthy self.
The film also tackles issues such as how difficult chronic illness can be for loved ones and how the support of loved ones can shine a light even in total despair. It also looks at how employers deal with chronic illness, although Susannah was fortunate to have an understanding employer who supported her.
This true story shows that all it takes is one doctor to change a life, even if all others doubt you. This is an issue which I am sure will strike close to home for many people with chronic illness and I advise you have tissues on hand to watch this film. Susannah eventually does find answers when she is diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis. Finally, she goes on to rebuild her life. She has since been involved in raising awareness of the condition, which was previously misdiagnosed in 90% of cases, according to information shared at the end of the film.
The film highlights the importance of sharing your story, no matter what that story may be. It is also a reminder that even after the diagnosis of a chronic illness, you are still you, just a stronger version of you. The film is hard-hitting. At points I genuinely sobbed, but it is also a story of hope, love and strength which I think anyone with a chronic illness will strongly relate to.
Unrest is a documentary following PhD student Jennifer Brea as she battles Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E). Jennifer started documenting her life to cope with her diagnosis and the debilitating symptoms of her illness.
Jennifer fell very ill shortly after getting married and the documentary accurately depicts the struggle of a newly married couple coming to terms with a life-altering diagnosis and all that comes with that. It is extremely relatable to those of us with a chronic illness and tackles the grief, loss and heart break that come with losing your health. It is a stark reminder that life, and health, are extremely fragile and should not be taken for granted.
The documentary discusses the harm of misdiagnosis and the controversial opinion of many medical professionals that M.E/CFS is psychological rather than physical. Jennifer campaigns to bring more awareness to the illness and in doing so speaks with people from all over the globe who are also battling the condition. She does this via Skype and video interviews as she is bed bound for a large portion of time during filming.
The documentary does not shy away from sensitive topics such as suicidal thoughts, whether to have children, and the loss of her quality of life and the future she had hoped for. It also tackles the issue of females being less likely to be believed by medical professionals or not taken seriously due to the hysteria phenomenon. It accurately reflects chronic fatigue and the impact chronic illness has on a marriage or relationship. The documentary also shows the terrifying attitude some countries have towards illnesses that cannot be seen, such as M.E. It features the story of Karina, a young woman removed from her home by authorities in Denmark and effectively held captive for over three years in a psychiatric facility. It also features people living all over the world, which makes it extremely relatable to everyone, regardless of where you live. The documentary is honest, emotional and inspiring, featuring people from all walks of life as they fight to shine a light on an illness seemingly forgotten by medicine.
The Fundamentals of Caring
I had seen this film before and loved it, but I watched it again to refresh before writing this article. I would highly recommend this film. It is emotional, real, quirky and extremely funny.
This American comedy-drama is based on a novel written by Jonathon Evision and premiered on Netflix in June 2016. It features Paul Rudd as a retired writer who is struggling with personal tragedy. He becomes a caregiver and his first job is providing care to a teenage boy who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The film follows their journey as a friendship blossoms and they both encourage each other to start living life again, rather than watching it pass them by. The teen boy is played by Craig Roberts, who brings a fantastic element of truly British humour into the mix. The film highlights issues such as feeling entitled to good health, wanting to live a normal life, and the feelings of fear and grief chronic illness can evoke. The film reminds us all to not let disability define who you are and never give up on your dreams. It is laugh-out-loud funny, motivational, hard-hitting at times and wonderfully uplifting at others.
Kiss and Cry
This film is based on the true story of Carley Allison, a 17-year-old figure skater and singer, who is diagnosed with an extremely rare type of Sarcoma. It shows how life can change dramatically in a short space of time. According to her own family, who supported the making of the film, it depicts what cancer actually looks like, and not some Hollywood version of cancer.
The style of the film, where at points the actress playing Carley speaks directly to the camera, makes it very personal. It follows Carley’s journey as she comes to terms with her diagnosis and finds the positive even in such a horrific situation. The story also shows how her family, friends and boyfriend supported her, and tackles delicate issues such as friends who struggle to cope and therefore stop contact, pushing people away and wondering why a partner chooses to stay when you are very ill. It also shows Carley trying to protect others from the reality of her illness and faking a smile at times. Furthermore, it examines how relationships with health care professionals can be difficult and reminds us that behind every doctor and nurse is a human being with their own lives, issues and emotions.
Ultimately, Carley’s motto was to ‘always smile’ and the message within the film is beautiful, heartfelt, and very relatable. Carley leaves her mark on the world and reminds us all to do the same, even when life doesn’t go how you planned. The film is very real, down-to-earth and inspiring.
To view the remaining five Netflix Shows about Chronic Illness please click here.