Chronic Illness In Entertainment: The Accuracy of the Shield
Recently, I binged through an FX channel series from a few years back called The Shield. Starring Michael Chiklis, CCH Pounder, and Walter Goggins, it follows the police unit of a fictional district of Los Angeles. The show was ahead of its time in a number of ways. Many point to it as one of the first shows that really showcased the saga of an anti-hero (Chiklis’ dirty cop Vic Mackey), starting a trend that would become popular with such series as Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, House of Cards, etc. If you’re a TV buff, the effect this had on shows that came after it is pretty fascinating, but that’s not why I’m writing about it here. I’m writing about this here because this show was ahead of its time in another way, how it portrayed chronic illness.
Chronic illness portrayed on television
One of the show’s detectives (eventually turned captain), Claudette Wyms (portrayed by CCH Pounder), suffered from Lupus. Like MS, Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can be relapsing/remitting, is often misdiagnosed, and even tends to affect the same demographics. While MS makes the immune system attack the myelin sheath insulating our nerves, Lupus makes the immune system attack various organs. While some symptoms are different, both diseases can cause pain, cognitive issues, and fatigue. I felt that the portrayal of those symptoms in particular were very well executed in The Shield.
Symptoms on display
As it so often is in real life, the person who noticed that something wasn’t right with Wyms was the person closest to her, her detective partner, Dutch. As with many of us, Wyms did her best to hide her illness, despite her ever-concerned partner constantly inquiring if she was OK. She began struggling mightily with fatigue, and she began making mistakes due to her brain being foggy. It isn’t until he finds a bottle of prednisone in her desk that she finally confesses her chronic illness to him.
The effect of her symptoms on her work
Her symptoms become more and more of a hindrance as the series goes on, but she works extremely hard to not let them get in the way. Like real life, they eventually do get in the way, at one point leading to a bad fall in front of a suspect and her coworkers (a scenario that really hit home for me). The way our symptoms can impede our ability to work is something I wish was highlighted more in entertainment, simply so that others could see what it’s like for people to struggle with both a disease and trying to work. It’s a struggle that leaves time or ability for little else in life.
Daily struggles and accepting help
There comes a point where Wyms’ partner Dutch goes to check on her at her house, and she isn’t home. However, he looks in her window and sees her house is a disaster. Dishes in the sink, trash overfilled and not taken out, tables covered with this, that, and the other. A sight that would make any self-professed neat freak scream in terror. When Dutch sees her house like that, it really hit home for me. Cleaning, dealing with clutter, handling household tasks, all of that becomes incredibly challenging with a chronic illness.
The little life tasks that become obstacles
Wyms is obviously upset when Dutch confesses that he’s seen the mess and seen how she’s been living (as I am, if a friend stops by my house). She breaks down and talks about how difficult it is to try to fight the disease, try to work, and do anything else. Seeing even a fictional character admit that difficulty, as I gazed around at my messy living room, meant a lot to me. It really demonstrated that those little life tasks that most people take for granted can become massive obstacles for people with a chronic illness.
Putting pride aside to accept help
Dutch confronting Wyms leads to another important moment in Pounder’s portrayal of this character: when she finally accepts the help of a friend. Like many of us fighting a disease, she is a proud person who does not want to show or admit weakness, to herself or to a friend. It’s a huge breakthrough when she finally accepts some help from Dutch (who gets her someone to regularly help clean her house). Accepting help, particularly from a friend, is extremely difficult for me. As I watched the expressions on Wyms’ face, I knew exactly how she felt, how hard it was for her. It’s so important to be able to put our pride aside in some cases. Learning to accept help is something I still struggle with, but am constantly working on. As hard as it was for Wyms (and often is for me), she accepts help because she knows it allows her to keep fighting, to keep going. It doesn’t lessen her, it makes her stronger. That’s an important lesson many of us need to learn, myself included.
Chronic illness in entertainment
I could probably fill a lot of pages talking about the portrayal of chronic illness in The Shield (it’s seven seasons long), but I figured I’d try to limit it to an overview and some key moments. It may seem like a weird thing to even talk about. “It’s just a TV show”, but diversity is important in TV, movies, video games, etc. Like it or not, the way chronic illness is portrayed in entertainment has a huge impact on how people see and interact with us. When I see a portrayal that is especially accurate or negative, I feel it’s important to call it out.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. We want to check in. How are you feeling?