The award-winning documentary Unrest by Jennifer Brea was released on Netflix this week, introducing chronic illness to the larger public. Brea is described as a modern-day Odysseus as the movie documents very real and metaphorical journey to discover who and what she is as a disabled woman in her 20s with an invisible disability.
The condition documented in this movie is known as ED or simply chronic fatigue syndrome. Conveniently, I also have chronic fatigue so I won’t second-guess my own feedback. I was born disabled with a neuromuscular disease but in my early 20s I developed IBS and my chronic fatigue became serious. My neuromuscular disease is a terminal illness and I’ve used a wheelchair my entire life but if I had to choose either my terminal illness or my invisible disabilities I would choose my terminal illness which ABs (able-bodied people) can’t understand. Living with this can be so horrible that you don’t mind dying in the hardest parts aren’t physical symptoms, it’s the isolation, rejection, and discrimination.
The movie impressed me with not only its accuracy but it’s inclusion of a variety of disabled people telling their own stories for once. That being said, I don’t believe that ABs will understand this movie from an intellectual point of view; at least not until they watch it enough times to put away their emotional point of view. Visually, though, the emotional impact is impossible not to empathize with. I believe that healthy people will see and comprehend how quickly someone with a chronic illness can be sick (have a flareup) one minute but then suddenly suddenly appear normal in the next; I believe they can comprehend that other times you haven’t been normal in a long long time and may well never again.
As simple as this concept sounds it’s one of the biggest and most reoccurring issues in the chronic illness community. Not even doctors get this simple concept.
“One has to be careful. If you say too little, they can help you. If you say too much they think you’re a mental patient.” – Edgar, Brea’s husband
The movie begins with a routine trip to the ER.
When you go to a hospital you know that no one there will understand what is happening to your body or how you feel. The type of pain that comes with chronic illness, that comes from literal exhaustion from loss of spoons, is not something they’ve ever experienced. Trying to explain it is ironically like that old saying “you can’t teach a fish what it’s like to live on land.” #Mermaidanalogy
This disconnect means that our tests won’t be accurate. 1 on the pain scale of chronic illness is a 10 for ABs. Symptoms you have are often symptoms general medical staff has never heard of in a proper context. You have to be careful about everything you say and do, constantly assessing every pro and con. If you can’t bridge the language barrier going to the ER will only make it far worse. It wouldn’t be so hard if medical professionals knew about it or were even interested in learning.
When people can’t see that you’re sick so you have to be the healthiest sick person you possibly can because at times it feels like no one even knows what species you are which is why a lot of times YD (young disabled people) will opt not to go to the hospital at all; one meme in the community is comparing what has to happen before we will go versus ABs. ABs go to the ER because of gas pains.
This isn’t to say that people in the medical field don’t know that we are outliers to some extent. When my CT (caretaker) got high and turned on the stove resulting in my getting carbon monoxide poisoning although I insisted that no one call an ambulance an AB friend was too afraid to respect my wishes. It may have resulted in a good learning experience because when the paramedics came and I explained that I’m so disabled that it might be better just not to do anything and they agreed. She was shocked at their apathy.
This was like watching an out of body experience. It’s a place I’ve been before, thank God not often, but I know it well. Having never seen it from the outside watching this horrified me, but it struck me as odd that I wasn’t horrified at her safety like I do when I see ABs in severe pain and unrest. It felt horrifying because I was remembering my own horror from flareups.
I really want to know what it looks like from an AB’s perspective. I really want to understand where my mom was coming from when she told me to just shut the fuck up or when the nurses refused to stop even for a second when they are causing this.
In this respect there is a lot in this movie that I can learn from.
“but I just feel like, I’m like robbing you and I’m hurting you and I…” – Brea to her husband
Brea’s relationship with her husband is not familiar and it certainly isn’t common. The situation was obviously incredibly hard for him and after certain amount of time people reach their limit. For friends it’s a month to a year, for family it’s at day one or a few years. When your family runs out of patients you get sent to a home, they murder you, which is ruled as a mercy killing, or they stop doing anything at all, and you become a ghost in your own home. In the rare occasion that your family doesn’t demonize you or objectify you as a fallen angel there is still abuse, albeit good intentioned.
I don’t think Omar is more empathetic or has more love than the average man but he’s not an average man. Besides being intelligent and his accounting for his own ignorance he is a minority and, anecdotally, the more marginalized person, the more likely they are to understand the extremes of bigotry.
Still, what the hell? Even my AB friends thought he was Prince Charming.
But he was a part of Brea’s life back before she got sick. This makes a huge difference because loyalty is real. People that have the ability to stay in a disabled love one’s life may not know it’s possible and most don’t have the loyalty to try. You still have an expiration date, but in the worst times you may only have to deal with good intentioned ableism.
“You know, and honestly, there are a lot of days when I just feel like I’m doing a good job just by just holding it together and not killing myself.” – Brea
This is also something just comes with a disability. It’s what has helped to alienate disabled people even within their own activist communities. You’re not supposed want to die. People get upset or angry with you when you don’t respond to their alarm by anything other than gratefulness. You can’t tell people your suicidal thoughts are not a cry for help and you most certainly cannot support someone else when they make the decision to commit suicide.
Almost a decade ago, when Cripple Punk was forming, I had a tumblr about disability. When I abruptly closed it people thought it was from the constant hate mail and death threats but those never bothered me; I just couldn’t find a way to explain to my followers why my peers were suddenly disappearing or why I would have ever told any of them that I supported their decision.
It’s hard to explain to someone what it’s like to be told by a friend that they want to kill themselves, or at least not what it’s like to know that they are being rational about it. It’s not a teen drama type of suicidal tendencies, they don’t have an eb and flow after certain point. Whether you’re happy or you’re sad suicide is always in the back of your mind and most of the time you pull it out as your last coping mechanism: you can stop this at any time. It’s empowering to know that in a world where your body is literally made to be inaccessible from buildings to healthcare you have the kill switch, you are still in control.
If you are alive, it’s not because of anyone but you. Only you can take the credit. Everyone else doesn’t know that this is currency to you so they won’t try to take it from you.
It’s hard to hear your friend tell you they’ve decided to kill themselves and you’re thousands of miles away from them, but even if you were sitting right next to each other there is nothing you can do to help. You want to give your friends the honor you treasure yourself so you tell them that it’s their decision and you will support them no matter what they decide. And you do.
It’s hard to admit how proud you are of them for making a decision even after they’ve killed themselves. How relieved you are that they’ve gotten away from the abuse. How envious you are that they found their breaking point and you still have no idea where yours is.
“Sickness doesn’t terrify me and death doesn’t terrify me. What terrifies me is that you can disappear because someone’s telling the wrong story about you. I feel like that’s what’s happened to all of us for living this. And I remember thinking, there’s no one coming to look for me because no one even knows I went missing.” – Brea
This lack of visibility and lack of ability to protest in ways people acknowledge is the worst part of any disability. That, in and of itself, is disability. Disabled from society; literally.
This is what draws most people to suicide, not physical or mental symptoms. Again, it is the isolation, rejection, and discrimination.
“Doctors want to know what to do, but it’s not in textbooks of medicine… So they have to go the same places you will go in Google it.” – Dr. Nancy Kilmas
If there’s any part of this movie I especially hope ABs watching will listen to and not just watch as sympathy porn it’s this quote. If they can understand how literal this is and how unconcerned doctors are with their own behavior we could move toward gaining civil rights instead of arguing our right to have them at all. Maybe ABs can empathize with the normalcy of this. It’s not even web MD, it’s a broad search to find anything anywhere. The nature of people’s existence is as common knowledge as any pop culture trivia they’ve googled out of boredom.
You know you’re fucked when your doctor is excited to find your condition on Wikipedia.
I’m incredibly grateful for this movie because now that it’s available to the greater public we can stop needing to go through disability 101 before every conversation. This doesn’t hardly cover all of the issues involved in disability but it will save a lot of time, which is nice when you’re dying.