We have a new TV game in our house – spot the character with MS. The rules are simple; guess whether the person introduced into an episode carries the subplot of a multiple sclerosis diagnosis.
It’s easier than you think. Spot a young person (usually an attractive girl) with a stick – bingo! Because of course every young lady with MS uses a stick (not!). A young person (still attractive, of course) presenting with a complex array of symptoms, some seemingly life threatening and of great concern? Or young relative of a main character with a long term disabling condition that’s suddenly going to kill them? It seems MS does all sorts of things! Dramatic, but rarely factually correct.
It’s not always so easy. And sometimes it upsets me. It’s not a game anymore, there’s no points to win. Just a slap of harsh reality and an air of tension in the room. The return of the elephant that no-one wants to mention, especially if one of my teens is watching.
Take an episode of Elementary we recently watched. Love that show, the twists and turns, the nuances and relationships. Plus Jonny Lee Miller! The episode in question introduced a love interest for Captain Gregson. Drawn into the story line, we wanted them to be happy, but suddenly she was holding back, trying to put him off. But why? She was middle aged, looked perfectly healthy (and of course attractive!) so it couldn’t be anything health wise. Wrong! She’d just received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and didn’t think it was fair to start a new relationship, trap the good old captain into caring for her as her body started failing her, forcing her into a world of paralysis and pain.
The way it was portrayed hit me hard. The reality of a middle aged woman receiving a diagnosis is different to a younger person, some good, other not so. Statistically being categorised as ‘old’ when diagnosed (i.e.: over 40) does not go in your favour. Mine came aged 47. Suddenly this story line was relevant to me, and I didn’t like what was being said. I could feel my husband sitting next to me shift uncomfortably; it’s not a reality he wants to be faced with either!
Of course what’s on TV has to be dramatic, otherwise people don’t want to watch. But it’s hard to watch, these reminder of the potential outcomes. And it is only potential – not everyone with MS will end up in a never-ending decline so dramatically portrayed on the screen. Not everyone with MS uses a stick (mobility problems are the least common but most obvious symptom). But then again, having a character who is permanently tired, occasionally can’t see clearly and is oversensitive to loud noises doesn’t really create much dramatic tension! And what these story lines create is the start of a conversation, particularly those difficult ones about what the future might hold.
In reality, no-one knows what the future holds, MS diagnosis or otherwise. The real drama is in our everyday life, and how we choose to live, right now. I write my own script. That is what I choose to remember when fiction tries to be fact.
I didn’t want to watch Elementary for a while after that, but the show is too good, so we’re back downloading episodes to enjoy. And I’m wondering what did happen to good Captain Gregson and his new lady friend…..? I’ll be prepared for when we find out.