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.
Degrassi: Next Class
This Canadian teen drama made its debut on Netflix in January 2016 and is comprised of four seasons. This was the show that took the most time to watch because all four seasons were available on Netflix and I couldn’t stop once I’d started.
This was another show I wasn’t sure I’d find very relatable because it is a teen drama and therefore focuses on teenage issues, but I was blown away by the range of issues this drama tackled. I genuinely wish teen shows had been this refreshingly honest back in my own teenage days. The show tackles issues such as abuse, drug use, sex, friendship, relationships, homophobia, racism, mental illness, sexuality, and religion.
It also follows the life of character Grace as she comes to terms with a diagnosis of Cystic Fibrosis. Grace hides her diagnosis from her friends in the first season because she doesn’t want pity or to see them struggle to deal with it. In the second episode of season one we see one friend find out the truth and the show does an excellent job of accurately representing how others can struggle to cope with a serious diagnosis. It shows her friend Zoe refusing to believe the illness will eventually kill Grace; Zoe looks for crazy ‘cures’ rather than simply listening to Grace and being there for her. I found this very relatable, and I am sure many people with a chronic illness will too. It is often other people who struggle to come to terms with our diagnosis more than us, and this can hinder our own acceptance of it and the grieving process which is part of all chronic illnesses.
The show does not shy away from the issues of death, life expectancy with the disease, and everything that comes with that. It shows Grace as she moves between acceptance, grief, anger, and hopelessness before finally realising she deserves to live a full life, no matter how short. It also tackles the issue of transplants and the various therapies she must do, as well as how she deals with wearing medical equipment at school once her disease progresses.
The show also follows the character Maya as she struggles with her mental health and suicidal thoughts. It shows how depression and anxiety impact every aspect of her life, the challenges of reaching out for help, the stereotypes and stigma still attached to mental health and ultimately how she tackles those.
Trigger warnings: There are scenes of death and suicide attempts, so please bear this in mind as it may be triggering for some. There are also scenes of a severe car accident, which again may be triggering for some.
Overall, I found the show enjoyable, hard-hitting and unafraid to tackle difficult topics. I pretty much binge-watched this because I got so sucked into the storylines!
Gaga: Five Foot Two
In this 2017 documentary, we are introduced to the world of Lady Gaga. I’ve always enjoyed her music and I was interested to learn more about her, particularly her experience living with Fibromyalgia.
The documentary follows Gaga as she makes her fifth album, Joanne, and the lead up to her half-time performance at the 2017 Super Bowl. It is not solely focused on her battle with Fibromyalgia, but it does feature numerous times in the documentary.
When I first sat down to watch this, I was unsure if I would be able to relate to Lady Gaga in any way. Despite liking her music, we lead completely different lives and I cannot imagine having anything in common with an international superstar. When I started watching the documentary, it seemed to confirm this; I didn’t find Gaga very relatable and if anything found her difficult to watch. However, as the documentary unfolded it was refreshing to see Gaga on a human level: relaxed, no façade and discussing issues which are incredibly difficult to open up about, including mental health, loneliness and chronic pain.
At one point, we see Gaga crying in agony in her apartment due to a flare of her fibro. It is heart-wrenching to watch such a strong woman be crippled by pain, and this is extremely relatable. In that moment, living lives that are different in a million ways becomes insignificant and you can relate to Gaga on such a personal level. You can see the pain written all over her face and body and anyone who suffers with chronic pain knows how she is feeling in that moment. Lady Gaga shows an admirable level of compassion when she acknowledges her privilege to be able to afford a team of people to help her manage her condition and treat her pain.
This documentary highlights that someone can appear totally okay and be functioning as normal, but still be in an incredible amount of pain. Hopefully this documentary is educational for people who do not suffer with chronic pain, as Gaga uses her platform to effectively raise awareness of a still very misunderstood health condition.
My Beautiful Broken Brain
My Beautiful Broken Brain shares the story of Lotje Sodderland, a 34-year-old woman living in London who suffered a Haemorrhagic Stroke as a result of Congenital Vascular Malformation. The documentary follows her journey as she rebuilds her life after her acquired brain injury. As part of her brain injury, she loses her ability to speak, read, and write, among other things, and must learn all those skills again. We witness her journey from the point of her stroke, through inpatient rehabilitation and beyond.
The documentary focuses on her trials and triumphs, the unconditional support of her family and friends, and her fierce determination to recover. It highlights that everything can change in a moment, and accurately chronicles the challenges which surround invisible conditions. It is a raw, emotional, honest account of the every day frustrations of living with a complex health condition. The documentary doesn’t shy away from the realities of Lotje’s life post-stroke and she bravely shares the heartbreaking sense of loss anyone with a chronic illness can relate to.
The documentary was aired on Netflix in March 2016 and shows Lotje going through experimental treatment and the post-stroke complications which follow. It is the story of a woman who must rediscover her identity and learn to live with her ‘new’ brain. It is at times heartbreaking, but it is ultimately an inspiring and hope filled journey which is very relatable to anyone who has had to overcome health challenges and rediscover who they are after a chronic illness diagnosis.
Atypical is an American coming-of-age comedy-drama which premiered on Netflix in August 2017. The show focuses on the life of Sam, an 18-year-old with autism, and explores topics such as relationships, sex, friendship and the challenges Sam experiences as he attempts to get a girlfriend and navigate high school.
I can’t speak from experience as to whether this series accurately depicts life with autism. However, I found it insightful and a chance to view the world through different eyes. At the same time, I am aware that the show divided opinion when it premiered and I can understand both sides. It has been said that the show is very stereotypical which was largely unnecessary. I can understand the frustration of this because autism is a spectrum disorder and does not present the same way in everyone. Personal experience with family and friends has introduced me to people at various points on the spectrum and I would be frustrated if someone stereotyped them based on a narrow view of what autism is. However, I felt this show should be included on the list as it is refreshing to see Autism portrayed in the mainstream media and I believe it could help start important conversations about the condition. The other point made by some is that it would be impossible to accurately represent everyone on the spectrum in one character because by its very nature, autism presents differently in every individual it effects.
One of the things I thought was particularly positive about Atypical was it showed Sam in steady employment. I am passionate about ending disability discrimination in the workplace and know it is common place, so it was refreshing to see someone with a disability being positively represented in the work environment. The show also shows how a family unit learns to navigate the ever-changing challenges presented by disability, and how despite the difficulties they often face, Sam and his family have a close, supportive, loving relationship.
On the flip side there were some scenes which troubled me, including some showing how Sam coped with different situations and the behaviour of his mother’s character. I think it is important to remember when watching this show that it represents one person and their experience in a dramatized way.
Overall though I found the show humorous, informative and really exciting because it is fairly unique in that its main character has autism and the whole show is focused around how he views and navigates the world.
Be Here Now
This documentary follows actor Andy Whitfield on his journey to live life to the full with Non-Hodgkin‘s Lymphoma. It made its Netflix debut in 2015 and is a story of unwavering love between Andy, his wife, and their children as they fight to beat his cancer.
The documentary looks at both western medicine and alternative medicine and covers both in some depth. It reminds us that treatment is a personal choice and we must advocate for ourselves. It also explores the psychological impact of cancer and the allows a glimpse into some of the most personal, private moments of their grief.
Andy and his wife are beautiful to watch; their dynamic is remarkable. The documentary highlights the strength of their love, the resilience of their marriage, and their never-ending hope of a happy ending. We see them cling to each other through the storms life brings and navigate each challenge, setback, and triumph in a wholly united way.
It was an emotional watch; you cannot help but be pulled into their world and cry with them. What was truly beautiful about this documentary was how they turned the worst situation imaginable, losing a loved one, into a positive, learning journey. They remind viewers to count every blessing in life, no matter how small, and to always be present in every moment.
About the Author:
Rachel is a 29-year-old Chronic Illness blogger at whatapain.co.uk, living in the North of England. She was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in 2015. Passionate about challenging stereotypes and disability discrimination, she is married to an awesome bearded bloke and owner of a super weird rescue dog called Blue.