Seeing Invisible Illness in Modern Storytelling

Illness is portrayed in many modern stories, and most often, the illness is invisible. This allows for the hero or heroine to remain beautiful – something our society values above all else. The one thing these ten stories have in common is that somewhere in the plot, there is sickness. Illness often appears as an antagonist inside the hero, and only rarely as something the hero must come to live with. Sometimes, the illness is not the hero’s, but it belongs to someone the hero loves. In this case, illness is the catalyst that drives the action. Sometimes it is the villain who is sick, and the illness drives the acts of evil in the story. In any case, the story is somehow about illness, life with illness, or overcoming illness. No matter how illness is used, there are positive and negative social implications.

The Pros

There are many pros to the ways illness is used in modern storytelling. Having illness figure prominently in the plots of films and TV shows has one over-arching positive impact, and that, of course, is awareness. The fact that people hear about these invisible conditions is a huge contribution to the world of someone with an illness. It is much easier to find support and acceptance when people can say “Oh, I’ve heard of that.” Storytelling shows us the trials and tribulations of living with illness. Some may rise to the occasion, like the heroes, and some may become corrupted by it, like the villains. Either way, storytelling offers insight into the world of someone struggling with illness.

The Cons

As great as awareness is, there is also a lot of bad coming from the way illness is currently portrayed in modern storytelling. Obviously, the fact that many villains are driven by some kind of illness does not really paint a pretty picture of those of us who carry the burden of illness. Generally, ill villains become evil by stopping at nothing to get their “cure.” But even the ill heroes and heroines have some cons to them. In these stories, is illness too glamorous? Too melodramatic? Usually it is, at best, unrealistic. At worst, it beautifies being sick until it ranks with hubris or some other trite trait. You know the saying “Some are born heroes. Others have heroism thrust upon them.” This is the way that heroic illness is often presented. What are the implications of equating fighting illness with heroism? Is this a realistic view? What are the problems here?

How To Be Sick

By including illness in the plot of these stories, the author does seem to imply some kind of advice on how one should be sick. In some cases, the author is sick, and in some cases not. Generally, though, an image is painted of how a sick person “should” be. The archetypes are not realistic, and perhaps even harmful to real people who are sick. There are basically three types of sick people in stories:

  • –  The Hospitalized Angel – usually a beautiful and innocent female character who is totally helpless.
  • –  The Tragically Ill Hero – the one who stands up to fight their illness, usually alone, and usually triumphant. Generally finds a cure.
  • –  The Desperate Villain – usually sympathetic and male. Will do anything to find a cure to his illness.

How to Be Well

Inversely, as these stories offer advice, both good and bad, on how to be sick, they also offer advice on how to be well. There is really only one person in a sick person’s life in movies, right? Their hero. Their champion. The person who rides out into the sunset, vowing to find a cure. Sure, when a Western hero does that for his little sister, we all cheer. But there is one thing about this that is very destructive. Say you are a healthy young man, and you have started dating this pretty girl. You like her a lot, and as the relationship gets more and more serious, you find out that she has an incurable, lifelong disease. Suddenly, you realize that the world will expect you to be her hero. Can you devote your life to that? Do you want to? How terrible must it feel to know that anyone you get involved with will have to take that place – the sick person’s champion? Wouldn’t you rather be a Tragically Ill Hero, and go off by yourself to find a cure?

What’s the main problem here? This entire scenario revolves around finding a cure. Rarely, if ever, does a couple in a story learn to live with illness.

Change It

I want people to look at these stories and, after weighing the pros and cons, and examining the stereotypes, decide what parts of the story are valuable, and think about what would need to change. Stories about illness should convey illness realistically, and offer help or comfort to those dealing with it. Some of these stories may not need changes. Others may only need a small tweak. Others still may need to be rewritten completely or altogether thrown out. I want to get people talking, get people writing, and get more stories out there about illness. I want stories that raise awareness and bring light and hope back into the lives of those who suffer.

The Stories

Repo! The Genetic Rock Opera

Synopsis: In a dystopian future, the human race almost died out from an epidemic of organ failure. After GeneCo., a company run by Rotti Largo and his three children, begins financing organ transplants, mankind is saved…but when the repossession of organs is legalized, Repo Men begin hunting their patrons down and brutally murdering them to re-attain the organs.

Nathan Wallace works for Rotti Largo as a Repo Man after the death of his wife, Marni. Rotti, who also loved her, has convinced Nathan that her death was his fault, and uses this to blackmail him into being a Repo Man. Nathan and Marni’s daughter, Shiloh, has the same grave illness her mother had, and has never left her own house. She lives a very sheltered life. She has no outward signs of illness except hair loss, which she hides by wearing a wig.

When Rotti finds out that he has a fatal disease, he decides it is time to collect and exact his ultimate revenge on Nathan for winning Marni. He lures Shiloh away from her home, promising a cure. Shiloh meets him at the Opera, where it is revealed to her that her father is a Repo Man and a murderer.

SPOILERS (skip to next title if you want to keep the ending a surprise)

Not only that, but he has also kept her sick when he could have cured her – he wanted to keep her locked away at home, sick, to protect her. Rotti hands Shiloh a gun and tells her to kill her treacherous father. She refuses, and Rotti kills him himself. As she holds her dying father in her arms, she assures him that all is forgiven, and leaves the theater with her head held high, vowing to find a cure and be the master of her own fate.

How To Train Your Dragon

In a Viking world where dragons fly, a village lives in constant fear of the onslaught of attacks from wild dragons. Children are raised to hunt and kill dragons to protect the village. As a rite of passage, each child must fight and kill a dragon to be considered an adult.

One outcast boy, Hiccup, finds a rare type of dragon sleeping in the woods. Seeing this as his only chance to kill a dragon, he attempts to kill it. He finds, however, that he does not want to. He observes the dragon from afar, and realizes after a few days that the reason it is stuck in the forest is that it’s tail is injured and it cannot properly fly.

Hiccup begins to befriend the dragon, gaining its trust. He starts trying to train him, and at the same time, he works on designing a kind of fan to attach to his tail so that he may fly again. When the Village decides to send a crew to the Dragon’s island, Hiccup shows the youth of the village how to train dragons, and together they help save the dragons’ home.

SPOILERS

In the climactic battle, Hiccup is grievously injured. He ends up losing part of his leg and must build himself a mechanism to walk again. He and his dragon are rehabilitated together, both of them learning to live with prosthetic help.

The Amazing Spider Man

Peter Parker begins snooping for clues about his parents’ mysterious disappearance when he was a child. His hunt leads him to a scientist who his parents worked with – Dr. Connors. Dr. Connors has only one arm, and is working on a serum to help humans heal themselves the way lizards do. He tests the formula on himself, and mutates into a giant lizard-man who terrorizes the city.

Meanwhile, Peter is experiencing new mutations of his own, as he develops spider powers from a spider bite he got at the lab. He rises to fight off the deranged lizard doctor, and bring peace to the city.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

Cloud Strife, an ex-mercenary, has been living in isolation after he came down with the geostigma disease. The geostigma is an epidemic that has been raging all over the world. When all the children with geostigma in town start disappearing, he reconnects with his old friends and comes out of self-imposed isolation to try and find them.

SPOILERS

Three mysterious men have kidnapped them and begun to brainwash them. In a clash of swords, magic, and muscle, Cloud and his friends fight them off and save the children. A cure is found, and Cloud and the children bath in a magical pool and are cured.

“Peggy’s Turtle Song” (King of the Hill)

Bobby Hill is diagnosed with ADD and put on Ritalin. (you can read my detailed analysis here)

“Junkie Business” (King of the Hill)

Hank Hill hires a new part time employee at Strickland Propane. When he finds out the man is addicted to drugs, he tries to fire him. The man finds a loophole in the law and enrolls in a rehab. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Hank can no longer fire him and, in fact, must actually make ridiculous accommodations for him. In response, the other employees self-diagnose their own disabilities and demand accommodation.

“Hank’s Unmentionable Problem” (King of the Hill)

Hank Hill begins having problems with constipation, and is extremely embarrassed about it. Out of concern, his wife Peggy talks about it with everyone. Hank and his family must bond together to overcome the medical problem, no matter how embarrassing it might be. (check out my video review of this here)

The Secret Garden

After loosing her parents in a tragic epidemic in India, Mary Lennox comes to live with her uncle. She discovers a house full of secrets, a very sick cousin of hers, and a garden that’s been locked up forever. Through curiosity and bravery, Mary opens the garden, frees her Uncle from his depression, and helps her sick cousin Colin to get well and walk again.

The Secret of NIMH

When her son falls sick, Mrs. Brisby must venture forth from their small home and unlock the secrets of her husband’s life and death to save her son’s life.

The Directive

When Lynne, an introverted college student who loves books and reading, is diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, her whole life is turned upside down. As she navigates the turbulent new world of hospitals and doctors, she realizes that she must come out of her shell and change herself and her life if she is to now live with Crohn’s. (check out my review of this amazing book here and read my interview with the author here)

Summary

It was actually quite challenging to find illness portrayed in modern stories, and as you may have noticed, I did end up including one story that is not exactly modern – the Secret Garden. I felt, however, that its inclusion was valid, as this book is considered by most to be a “classic” and is still widely read today.

I had a really great time putting all this together. I keep a running list of movies and books I come across that pertain to life with illness, though I was only able to used a few from that list for this particular project. Many of the stories were allegories for illness, and those would simply not work in this setting. Perhaps one day it would be fun to put together a sister collection to this one that is mainly allegories. But for now, I focused on stories that actually featured illness as a big factor in the plot.

I would have liked it if illness was the main driving factor in each plot, but I feel that a collection like that would feature only one type of story – the Tragically Ill Hero story – and it was very important to me to show a variety of ways that illness can be used. Some of the examples are wonderful and realistic, and others are stereotyped and beautified. I am glad I was able to find a good mix, because I think that people in general have mixed up feelings about illness.

(NOTE: I wrote this as a part of my final for my storytelling class back in 2012. What are some good newer stories dealing with illness? Leave your ideas in the comments below!)

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Linus Without His Blanket is All Of Us

Few things in this world capture the struggle of life with chronic illness as well as the dynamic of Linus Van Pelt and his blanket. Most days, Linus is just like the rest of the gang – he just happens to need a blanket at all times.

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And when he has to be without his blanket, he kind of falls apart. Occasionally he can go without it (“Look! I don’t need my blanket anymore! I’ve gone four whole minutes without it!”) but for the most part Linus without his blanket is a much different boy.

And Linus without his blanket so captures me without medication, or me in a flare, or me without access to a doctor. Sometimes I calmly mope by the dryer like Linus up there, but more often I’m like Linus in the special “A Boy Called Charlie Brown.” See, Charlie Brown is going to represent his school in the regional spelling bee, and Linus gives him his blanket to take as a “good luck” charm.

Of course, Charlie Brown hasn’t been gone long before Linus needs to go and get his blanket back. CLICK HERE to watch starting at 53:47, or check out the embedded video if you want to watch the entire special.

Linus is in a state similar to one I am in when I’m in a flare. Let’s see how his sister, Lucy, reacts.

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Linus explains his predicament and ends with “now I keep passing out!” Been there, buddy. And Lucy, after much eye-rolling, suggests he step outside for some fresh air. Points for listening and even suggesting something that could be moderately helpful, but it’s pretty obvious she’s more annoyed than concerned. Frankly, I’ve had swirls and dots around my head and had my family act as though I was a child without a security blanket – in other words, someone who is overreacting to a stupid problem.

But still, Linus does try going outside. But it isn’t enough. So he enlists help from Snoopy. He says he needs to find Charlie Brown and get his blanket back! And Snoopy agrees to accompany him. With much eye-rolling but at least he’s kinder than Lucy was. Good on ya, Snoopy. Way to help a friend in need!

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Also, this is the most accurate representation of my face on the way to doctor or medicine when panic has set in. Doesn’t matter if I’m in physical pain or having a mental anxiety attack. This is me:

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And my healthy friend is just lookin out the window like “Is that a pokestop?” (YES I’M ON POKEMON GO- we can gush about how amazing it is later).

Meanwhile, Charlie Brown isn’t feeling so great either. He’s been studying spelling all night! He even exclaims that this is too much! He needs to put his health first and take a break! Which of course he doesn’t, because the spelling bee is too important (as an apparition of an angry Lucy reminds him). Surely he will be able to relate to Linus and sympathize…

Except no! Because just like every healthy person who thinks they “get” chronic illness, he might think that feeling sick or stressed from overworking himself gives him insight. But it doesn’t. Do you know what the main difference is between chronic illness and acute illness? Watch this– CHARLIE BROWN JUMPS RIGHT UP WHEN HE SEES THEM. When he sees his friends he’s suddenly lit with sprightly enthusiasm! Huzzah for you and all your spoons Charlie Brown!

Meanwhile poor Linus passes out waiting while Charlie Brown and Snoopy exchange pleasantries.

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This scene is actually comedic genius. Snoopy runs to the bathroom to get a glass of water – which he comes back to drink himself while he watches Linus come to and explain that he needs his blanket back. Damnit Snoopy.

And after all this, Charlie Brown really doesn’t know what happened to the blanket. He’s been so busy with his own problems you see. The language here is great. Charlie Brown calmly says “Gee I’m sorry Linus” with almost no emotion while Linus is panting and yelling “FORGOT?!?!??! FORGOT ABOUT MY BLANKET?!?!?” Because it’s his entire freaking world.

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Screw you, Charlie Brown. Maybe it’s in the lobby? If not, it’s between here and the library?! I’M LITERALLY DYING. I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR YOUR MAYBES.

Now Linus is getting mad. Because everyone around him is horrible so he has every right to be. “He THINKS it’s at the Library!” yup, he even gets a little Gollumy. Nasty hobbitses… they lost the precious…

Then he snaps. He turns around and yells “CHARLIE BROWN I OUGHTTA KICK YOU.” But then he passes out because flares tend to keep you from fulfilling promises of violence.

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DAMNIT SNOOPY.

Then Charlie Brown makes him leave, noting aging how IMPORTANT it is that he keep studying. Yeah no problem buddy, it’s just MY LIFE. But it’s no SPELLING BEE so I understand! Asshat.

So now Linus has to go walk all over town looking for the light of his life that his “best friend” just “forgot about.” And Snoopy tags along, which probably makes him feel good about himself even though he’s not actually helping AT ALL.

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And WTF is this Snoopy? You’re going to wander off and have an ENTIRE FREAKING ICE SKATING MONTAGE while I SLOWLY DIE ALONE? It’s not even just ice skating, it turns into an entire imaginary hockey game. DAMNIT SNOOPY THIS IS IMPORTANT.

And then the blanket isn’t even at the library. All that for nothing! Linus snaps. All hope is lost and Snoopy’s down there making faces at statues, that’s IT. YOU’VE BEEN NO HELP AT ALL, SNOOPY!

But it doesn’t make him feel any better. Snapping at people when you’re suffering rarely does. But it made me, the audience, feel better.

Damnit Snoopy.

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“THE WORLD IS ENDING AND HE CAN’T EVEN HELP FIND A BLANKET.”

I feel you Linus. I feel you.

And after vowing to never forgive Charlie Brown for being a self-absorbed idiot who looses blankets, he returns to find IT WAS IN CHARLIE BROWN’S STUPID ROOM THE WHOLE TIME. AND HE’S USING IT TO SHINE HIS SHOES FOR HIS F%#!$)*@ SPELLING BEE.

DAMNIT CHARLIE BROWN.

YOU’RE THE LITERAL WORST.

But, much like when the cold find warmth or the hangry get fed, once Linus is reunited with his blanket and stabilized, all is forgiven. He even goes on to support Charlie Brown as he faces the spelling bee.

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You da real MVP Linus.

The first video in a miniseries of reviews of episodes of King of the Hill! This is “Hank’s Unmentionable Problem,” an episode about digestive/bowel disorders and sharing your medical “story” with friends and family.

To learn more about the Spoonie Experiment, click here.

Episode 1: REPO! The Genetic Rock Opera

Episode 2: Spirited Away

Episode 3: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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Invisible / A New Documentary on Chronic Illness

Have you heard about this new film, Invisible? You guys have got to check it out.

It sounds AMAZING. You can buy their awesome t-shirt here to help support the film and spread the word. I can’t wait to see where this film goes. It’s a combination of my two greatest loves – film and health activism. I’ve been in contact with them and I’m hoping to contribute to the project as an interviewee. I’ll keep y’all posted on whether that happens or not.

In the mean time, check out the trailer, tell your friends about it, and get pumped!

You can follow the film’s progress on their Twitter and Facebook.