Hey all, today marks the beginning of Invisible Illness Awareness Week, and I wanted to draw attention to invisible, chronic illness in pop culture media, if indeed there was any representation. Since I am someone living with a chronic illness, this is very important to me. As you may know by now, Teen Wolf is a show that is near and dear to my heart (i.e. an obsession) and Season 2 introduced the character of Erica Reyes, an epileptic high school student who becomes a werewolf. Despite the fact that lycanthropy acted as a cure for her illness, she still helps paint a picture of some of the issues surrounding those with chronic illness. But how accurate was her portrayal? What was problematic and what was done well?
A word before we delve in deeper. The term “invisible illness” just means you cannot, at first glance, tell that a person has an illness; the problems originate in some organ or organ system not visible from the outside, like the nervous system, endocrine system or digestive system. This is not to say there are never visible manifestations—an asthmatic who is having trouble breathing, a flare-up of MS that necessitates a person’s use of a mobility aid, the grimace of pain of a fibromyalgia patient, most (though not all) types of epileptic seizures—these are all certainly visible. Since I will be talking about Erica, a character with epilepsy, I also want to clarify that I do not have epilepsy, nor am I an expert on epilepsy. What I am intimately familiar with is my own disease, ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis (UC), along with its slightly better-known cousin, Crohn’s disease, are sub-types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD—doesn’t just stand for “In Brightest Day”!) I do not and cannot speak for everyone with a chronic illness, since we do not all have the same ailments or the same perspectives. With these points in mind, let us proceed.
My first critique may seem a little superficial—Erica’s appearance. But in a visual medium like television, nothing about appearance is coincidental, and there is information coded into pretty much every wardrobe and makeup choice by the creative team. When Erica is first presented to us in the third episode of Season 2, she is the awkward girl in ill-fitting gym clothes, with bad skin and unkempt hair. This is a visual cue to the viewer that something must be wrong with her, because “normal” high school girls all look like models. After Derek so graciously gives her the “gift” of lycanthropy, she shows up back at school a changed woman. She has undergone a rom-com, drab-to-fab makeover that would make Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That jealous. While there are an extremely large variety of chronic illnesses that affect any number of organs, there are none that I know of that specifically affect one’s ability to buy makeup or have one’s hair styled if that’s what you want to do. Not only does this push tired societal standards of beauty that girls and women are expected to uphold, it also does a disservice by suggesting that you can always pick chronically ill people out of a crowd because we look “wrong”. Inside secret: sometimes we look just like people without chronic illnesses. The whole point of Invisible Illness Awareness Week is to make you think twice before you tell someone, “But you don’t look sick!”
To be my own devil’s advocate, a rebuttal! Because of the physical limitations and debilitations someone’s disease involves, getting dolled up may just not be very high on a person’s priorities, understandably. This is explained very eloquently in the “Spoon Theory” by writer and lupus patient advocate Christine Miserandino; she provides a powerful extended metaphor that has been embraced by many with chronic illness to help describe their experience. I know that for me personally, I’ve more than once found myself in stretches of days that I don’t have the energy to shave or maybe even shower; luckily for me, scruffy facial hair on men is pretty popular and common now, so I don’t get much judgment for looking like a slob. I’m sure a chronically ill woman who doesn’t have the energy to shave her legs would not be afforded the same leeway. In addition, the psychological wear and tear of chronic illness takes its toll and may influence one’s choices. Erica mentions how once she was having a seizure, which included loss of bladder control in this instance, and people pulled out their camera phones and filmed her, even uploading it online, instead of helping her. When people treat you like that and make you feel awful about yourself, you may think, “What’s the point? Putting some makeup on is not gonna stop people from being insensitive pricks.”
The next issue I bring up is the one that resonates the most with me, and was illustrated pretty well, though rather briefly, with Erica. When she ends up in the hospital after a seizure at school in her first episode, even our saintly Mama McCall tells her, “You were being so good about taking your medication.” This is a very short scene—that I may very well be reading too much into because of my own experiences—and even though Mrs. McCall was overall more sympathetic than critical, I think many chronically ill viewers can recognize how loaded that sentence is. There is nothing the medical establishment hates more than a patient trying to exercise some bodily autonomy. Unfortunately, in most standard Western medicine, there is an implicit understanding that as a patient you relinquish all decision-making about your body to the physician. Doctors dictate, patients obey; you are “good” if you comply, and “bad” if you don’t. True story: I haven’t been to a specialist in over a year because I disagreed with the medication options being pushed at me, and I do not feel comfortable going back, knowing they do not respect me making choices about my own body.
I am not encouraging everyone with a chronic illness to ignore all medical advice and discontinue all medication. What I am saying is that medical “non-compliance” of various degrees is a reality in the lives of some people with chronic illnesses, a reality in my life, and it was nice to see this reality acknowledged on screen. Patients stop medicines for a variety of reasons, not least of all because of powerful side effects. Derek lists the side effects of Erica’s medication as “anxiety, weight gain, acne, ulcerative colitis”. (Oh look, my disease gets mentioned on TV, and it’s not even accurate! Ulcerative colitis is a specific disorder confirmed by colonoscopy results, and similar symptoms caused by medicines would more accurately be called “iatrogenic colitis” or something to that effect. But I digress…)
As for my last consideration, I look to the idea of “cure”. Notions of “cure” are always problematic in discourses about chronic illness. It’s certainly not a word doctors are wont to throw around with their patients, and reasonably so. False hope is not helpful, and in the case of most chronic illnesses, time is generally better spent on learning to re-navigate life than on chasing after cures. That being said, it is no one’s place, ill or healthy, to tell a person they should never search for or desire a cure. This is taken to a whole new level when, in a fantasy world, diseases can in fact be cured through supernatural means. Though Scott implies Erica would have been better off if she had never gotten the bite, it is mostly due to his concern over the danger of werewolf hunters, and thankfully no one really shames Erica for “giving up” her chronically ill status. To shame someone like Erica for choosing a cure is saying that chronically ill people are most valuable because they function as inspirations for healthy people in regards to coping with hardships in life.
Is Erica the perfect example of a chronically ill character in pop culture? Not really. Her illness was cured by halfway through her first episode. Better representation would be characters who more accurately reflect the experience of viewers with chronic illnesses, in which their illness presents on-going struggles and challenges. Of course, we would also want to make sure that these characters aren’t defined by their illnesses, and don’t just act as gurus dispensing enlightened insights from their sick beds. Nevertheless, I do think Erica offered reflection on important key points that the chronically ill face, and showcased remarkable agency. Agency is not about making the “right” or “wrong” choice; it’s about reclaiming your ability to freely make choices at all. She made the choice to discontinue her medication despite the fact that she would be shamed by the medical community, and even though Derek was extremely inappropriately, creepily seductive about how he would make it all go away, I firmly believe the choice to become a werewolf was ultimately hers. Whether or not you agree with these choices, I found it compelling to watch a character with a chronic illness making difficult decisions about her own health that reflect some realities of my own life.
For more information about Invisible Illness Awareness Week, click here; there are numerous articles, resources, and links to explore, both for those with chronic illness and those who are friends and loved ones of the chronically ill. Also be sure to keep your eyes open on social media and the blogosphere for people who may be posting things for this week!