The Drama of Stress

If multiple sclerosis took on the guise of an actor, it could deliver speeches that start like this:

How do I stress thee? Let me count the ways. I stress thee to the depth and breadth and height your tolerance can reach… (Sonnet 43, How Do I Love Thee? E. B. Browning)

To stress you out or not to stress you out? That is the question… (Hamlet, Hamlet, W. Shakespeare)

Metaphors for stress

Classic dramas are metaphors for all kinds of suffering, stress included. The hunch-backed king in Shakespeare’s Richard III was written as cynical, conniving, sardonic, his bitterness the outcome, in part, of living in a body under constant physical stress from his disability. On the other side, the film version of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame depicts Quasimodo as a disabled fool who is ultimately the hero, rescuing Esmeralda using acrobatic skills and the element of surprise. Everyone underestimated his physical ability to move, his mental ability to plan, and his resolve to leave a safe place and risk his life to save the only person who ever showed him compassion.

What looks evil must be evil?

Katherine Schaap Williams, an interpreter of drama, reminds us that physical deformities, strange behaviors, and sickness, in general, were once seen as moral shortcomings. Congenital deformities such as those in Richard III and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are easily seen and reacted to. Quasimodo was also deaf, but that is an invisible disability and, therefore, not as dramatic a device to provide the conflict necessary to that particular story. And while we’re at it, we could add Igor, the hunchback in the film version of Frankenstein (1931). These three characters had twisted torsos that suggested a twisted soul. What looks evil must be evil. Physically flawed characters are often at the center of revenge stories. If they’re convinced I’m bad, then I might as well act like it. And while I’m at it, I’ll take down those SOBs that hurt me and I’ll do it in the most evil ways possible. What have I got to lose? Other examples might be Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Batman movie The Dark Knight (2008), and the tortured, medical experiment victim-turned-terrorist V in the film V for Vendetta (2005).

Physical disabilities onscreen

The treachery of King Richard might not have played out as strongly if he’d had a less visible disease than what an examination of the real-life Richard’s skeletal remains revealed as being a severe case of idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis, which likely made his right shoulder noticeably higher than his left. And had Quasimodo only been deaf, people would not have found him repugnant enough to abuse and shun him. Both stories were set in the late Middle Ages/Renaissance period when people were still being burned at the stake for their devilish otherness. What’s more, as a dramatic device, multiple sclerosis just doesn’t measure up to the misshapen, pitiable John Merrick in the Victorian period film Elephant Man (1980) either, whose extreme deformities were first chalked up to neurofibromatosis, then revised to Proteus syndrome, rarer still than the former. (Multiple sclerosis isn’t the only disease that’s been misdiagnosed as something else first!) Unlike Richard, Merrick’s gentle, fragile, meek demeanor pulled at our outrage and empathy as he was subjected to relentless bullying and mercilessly used as a freak show attraction to line the pockets of whoever possessed him. Ultimately, both characters had in common the suffering endured in a pre-science world, before Germ Theory, genetics and molecular biology were discovered that could offer them some relief.


What multiple sclerosis symptoms and such physical deformities have in common is the stress they cause. The dramatic conflict can be mostly internal for those of us with more invisible symptoms than outward clues such as a limp or the presence of a mobility aid. Honestly, though, do you need one more word of advice about how to deal with stress? There are scores of articles out there with useful tips such as those you can find here. Instead, I’ll briefly offer two categories of de-stressing methods and leave it at that.


A method that takes our focus off the source of the stress and redirects it, not unlike a dog enduring an outdoor grooming session that suddenly breaks away to chase a squirrel. If the source is internal in the form of negative thinking, one can conjure a more pleasant thought or put on some music.


While some sources of stress are unavoidable, others can be sidestepped. Caring for children and other loved ones is an unavoidable source of stress, while toxic friendships can be eliminated from one’s life.

While dramatizing stress has brought us literary masterpieces, living with it is doing little to help me tackle my own literary pursuits. Stress would be a weak, inadequate turn of events as the occasion for the telling in a work of fiction. Arthur Miller would have bombed if he had named his award-winning play Stress of a Salesman.

The main problem with stress

Although I’ve been good at pushing out toxic people this year and curing my ongoing insomnia and edema problems, the pressure I put on myself to start laying out a road map for my own next piece of long fiction is not helping me gain any ground.

The main problem with stress is that it is so stressful, to live with and to think up ways to get rid of it.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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