We’re leaning more and more toward giving Robert’s character an undiagnosed disease — a barrage of symptoms without any known cure.
The other night, I was flipping through channels and, in passing, heard one character say to another: “He’s really sick, but nobody knows what it is.” And that got me thinking.
Nobody knows. Not even the sick person. A strange sort of Limbo. Is it deferred grace, or deferred judgment? Nobody knows.
But I do know this. There’s a profound social stigma that comes with having an undiagnosed illness. An almost crippling sense of inadequacy. Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, writes about the social stigma associated with big, life-changing diseases such as cancer. With an undiagnosed disease, especially one that has neurological symptoms, the shame and embarrassment multiply exponentially. You get told to buck up. To quit faking it. To stop being so needy — stop seeking attention. To grow up. All in the name of medicine.
This isn’t a new phenomenon — or a phenomenon associated only with Lyme disease. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy brilliantly satirizes the social effects of having an undiagnosed disease. How the doctors treat you. How your friends and work colleagues treat you. How your family treats you. Mostly, they get really mad at you.
But these days, a lack of diagnosis (sometimes lasting years), social stigma, and doubt seem to be common when it comes to Lyme disease. (Just today, I read this story in the Huffington Post, for example)
My dad was sick for a little over ten years. Or, to be more accurate, he was probably sick since childhood — only it got missed. But for seven of those years, we had no diagnosis. For seven years. That means that, when I think of my dad’s illness, when I think of my dad as having Lyme disease, I’m thinking retroactively. I’m doing revisionist history. Because for seven years, my dad didn’t have anything. At least, not according to the experts. He was tested for everything — AIDS, cancer, Parkinson’s, MS, MD — but he had nothing.
And, during those seven years, starting when I was about 17 or 18, we were told that my dad was insane. Or just a misunderstood genius. Or stressed. Or really, really selfish. You see, right before the symptoms started manifesting themselves, my dad had suffered a couple of devastating business losses. So lots of people, including work colleagues, friends, church leaders, family members, believed (and said) that he was just depressed. Just acting out. In a profound pout. By which I think they meant something like just being a child. Just being an asshole.
And, during those seven years, while my dad was shuffling and putzing and labeling stuff in the kitchen so he wouldn’t forget words like cup and cereal and ice, I wondered and I doubted. Who was right? Was my dad sick, or was he selfish? Was this all real, or was it fake? Did my dad love me?
And, during those seven years, I didn’t tell any of my friends, which means I really didn’t have any friends. And I was embarrassed for my dad and I was embarrassed of my dad. Simply because there was no name for what he had.
So. This is what we want to do to Robert’s character. And, more importantly, to Traysie’s character. We want to instill doubt. Disorientation. Deep embarrassment. Social stigma.
(For the record, Robert’s illness is late stage Lyme disease. Only, Robert and Traysie don’t know it yet.)