I’m always a bit apprehensive about watching portrayals of people with MS in film and TV. In doing so there is of course a chance you could be reassured and inspired but equally you could be left feeling angry and frustrated at outrageous mis-representations or, worse still, be plunged into deepest darkest depression at the uselessness of it all. But whatever the effect I can never resist watching something that features MS; even if it means going to the extreme lengths of watching a weeks’ worth of Hollyoaks to see how a woman copes with her fictional diagnosis, which I have done.
Here are a few Media MSers who have made an impression on me (good or bad) :
The Susan Kennedy brand of MS – This is the kind of non-existent MS we all wish we had. Every 18 months or so the producers of ‘Neighbours’ will suddenly remember that Susan is meant to have MS and we get treated to shaky camera work and blurred slow-mo to simulate what it is like to suffer with MS. Like a lot of long-running serials I feel that Neighbours has fallen into the trap of dramatically diagnosing a character with a chronic illness (and believe me, her diagnosis really was heart-wrenchingly traumatic when it was aired in 2007) and then failing to follow through with it as the years have passed. It’s not really surprising – after the initial shock & drama of the diagnosis it is, let’s face it, pretty boring and must be a nuisance to weave into other more exciting storylines. Now, I’m a lifelong fan of ‘Neighbours’, I flippin love it – so it pains me to admit that they can do any wrong (and when I say I’m a fan I mean FAN)… Anyway, I do have to give them a bit of credit for not over-dramatising MS; they’ve at least resisted putting Susan in a wheelchair. I’m afraid, however, they’ve gone to the other extreme whereby Susan is seen running up and down stairs in heels, trekking through the outback in full-blown Australian heat, working full-time as Erinsborough High’s Principal not to mention the fact that her life is jam-packed full of the kind of stress and drama that can only (thank goodness, fingers crossed and touch wood) be found in a soap opera. Susan’s MS aside, if you don’t watch ‘Neighbours’ I highly recommend it to add a fluffy bit of happiness into your life; everybody needs good Neighbours.
The Go-Getting Jack Osbourne brand of MS – Unlike Susan Kennedy, Jack may not have the kind of MS we all wish we had but he sure does have the attitude we all wish we had. In his vlog, You Don’t Know Jack About MS, he is happy, vibrant and life-loving while never shying away from the realities of living with MS and, crucially for people like me, he is a parent with MS. Of course, we don’t know how he is off-camera but the impression he gives is highly positive; he is a great advocate for MS and one whose celebrity gives him a voice. His mother on the other hand… When news broke that her son had been diagnosed in 2012 Sharon Osbourne fell apart live on American television; it was as if he had been handed a death sentence. The overly sympathetic hugs and words of condolence that she received from her fellow onscreen panellists was painful to witness. I wouldn’t want to dismiss the genuine distress she must have been in, but watching this as someone new to MS must have been pretty scary.
Speaking of ‘scary’…
The tragic Jackie Du Pre brand of MS, as portrayed by Emily Watson in the 1998 film, ‘Hilary and Jackie’ – This film should come with a warning attached: DO NOT WATCH THIS FILM. I did watch it, but thank goodness only once I’d come to terms with my own diagnosis and was therefore MS-savvy enough for it not to affect me too much. Put simply this film is misery personified and gives the FALSE impression that MS is something you will die from in a terrifyingly slow and painful way and at a young age. No good can come from watching this film. If you are ignorant about MS you will come away thinking it’s a death sentence (perhaps this is what Sharon Osbourne was basing her knowledge of MS on…). If you have MS there’s a good chance this film will undo any work you and your health professionals have done to keep you positive about life. If you’re prone to depression or suicidal thoughts DO NOT WATCH THIS FILM. I’m being serious. For once.
The Mother of a Literary Genius brand of MS – on 31 August 2010 The Telegraph published a seemingly innocuous article about J K Rowling’s £10 million donation to help set up the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic in Edinburgh. I attempted to read this article (stupidly) just hours after my diagnosis, which happened to be 9 days after it was published. I didn’t get further than the opening sentence, “The author of the Harry Potter series, whose mother Anne died from complications related to MS at the age of 45…”. A wave of cold washed over me and I felt nauseous. I can read it now (nearly 8 years on) and be totally unaffected by it but on that day when I was as new as I could get to finding out my life had changed forever I was frightened. That sentence stayed with me for months. I was convinced I was going to die because of MS, and when you believe that, life seems pretty darn hopeless. On a side note, bravo J K, who remains my number 1 all time heroine.
In summary, there needs to be much greater care taken when dealing with MS (or any medical condition) in the media, on television and in films. An MS diagnosis does not mean you will die young, it does not mean you will completely degenerate at a fast or slow rate; it does not even guarantee disability. People who are newly diagnosed and their families are subjected to a lot of bogus info, which ill-informs them and causes unnecessary anxiety.
Please accept that these are MY opinions – I certainly don’t expect everyone to feel the same. In fact, one of the difficulties in representing MS is that everyone is affected by the condition in such different ways that there can never be a truly accurate way of portraying a life with MS.