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Overthinking It

In August, Netflix released the show Afflicted, which follows a handful of people with chronic illness through their daily struggles and, for some, triumphs. I started watching it because I care about those with chronic illnesses, yes, but also because I recognized the woman whose face was used to advertise the show when it was first made available. When I saw her on my Netflix watch list, my blood went cold.

Bekah is someone I know peripherally, but my connection to her feels intense, and very close to home. I have donated to her healthcare efforts on several occasions, and have watched countless videos of her and her guitar, her voice haunting. Her face is like no other, and there is simply no mistaking it for anyone else’s. This is likely part of why they chose her from among the droves of the chronically ill: they assumed she would be a certain kind of personality, offer them a certain quirk that might draw people in. I am certain that it worked.

Bekah and I shared a friend in common for many years. That friend, Heather, killed herself four years ago in a small Wisconsin town, where she had been convalescing while trying desperately to raise the funds to visit a renowned physician who specializes in treating Lyme.

A few years before that, Heather and I had Ethiopian food in Seattle on a clear night, held pet rats and played the piano. A few years before that, we went berry picking, and she sat on my floor in South Philadelphia sorting the dozens of pills she took religiously each day in the hopes that something — anything — might alleviate her symptoms.

Chronic Lyme is not recognized by most traditional doctors, and even Afflicted does not offer full acknowledgment of the illness, as the series hints, at times, that patients’ symptoms may be psychosomatic. As a result, Heather’s struggle to find help was arduous and degrading. After years of deteriorating health, she was eventually bedridden. Even speaking became an effort from which she had to recover each time. I have watched those videos, available on the internet, of Heather pleading for financial assistance, over and over again, and am shocked each time to see the state she was in toward the end of her life. That was not the Heather I knew, who was a violin virtuoso and a talented poet. It was like she was a missing person the cops weren’t looking for.

Few outside of the chronic Lyme community believed her about her symptoms or their progression, and although she was loved and supported by friends, she was very much alone, and hopeless. So one day in the thick of summer, she walked in front of a train, and truly disappeared. She isn’t hurting anymore, but those of us who loved her are.

In New York last month, standing on the subway platform, I asked my friend how many deaths occur on those tracks, and, having dated a train conductor at one point, she answered with certainty: about one a week, but it depends on the season. I was quiet for a long time, until I started to think about how terrible it must be to be driving a train when someone throws themselves in front of it. Nothing could ever be the same.

That was the first time I thought of the person driving the train that killed Heather. I had spent so much time focusing on my grief over her loss — the Facebook reminders of our time together, the e-mails that unexpectedly populate when I search for unrelated information, my obsessive screening of Netflix’s new show — that I had not considered how many lives were affected. Even those of strangers.

Things have changed enough in four years that people are beginning to pay attention to and, in some cases, even believe the pain of those with invisible, chronic illnesses. Heather just missed that shift in perspective. While this series is less a documentary than sensation, rife with inaccuracies and problematic editing, it is at least giving exposure to the dire healthcare needs of many people whose stories have long been dismissed, and offering help — take it or leave it — to those involved.

Hopefully, the new series sheds light on these experiences and introduces people to issues of which they were not previously aware. Hopefully, exposure to stories like Bekah’s will breed a better understanding, and more compassion, towards those who suffer from real conditions long perceived as hypochondriacal hysteria. This is contingent upon whether the show even crosses their Netflix algorithm, of course, and what part of the narrative people choose to focus upon. But if it is effective in any way, it may well affect future treatment options, and research conducted. For someone else’s loved one, it could mean the difference between choosing to live and choosing to die.

I want to say I wish that Heather had hung on just a little longer, but I understand that waiting for years in that state is untenable; what’s more, she had already waited years. I have never blamed her for her decision, but have been so wholly disappointed in society and Western medicine, which, in failing her, led to her death. I want better for Bekah, who was unfortunately represented in Afflicted as very two-dimensional, far from the truth of her magnetic presence. As a result of the show, problematic or not, I hope that her life improves in ways Heather’s never did. I hate to be That Guy, but: Heather would have wanted it that way.