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What 'The Middle' Got Wrong About Daily Life With Chronic Illness

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I know, I know. It’s a comedy. I need to “lighten up.”

I love “The Middle.” I really do. I think it’s one of the most genuine sitcoms on television today, reminiscent of the warm ’90s shows I grew up watching. And I can take a joke.

But something bothered me about one episode this season.

In Season 7, Episode 21, “The Lanai,” which aired on April 27, 2016, middle child Sue Heck and her roommate Lexie anxiously await their new dorm assignment for the following school year. Sue’s university assigns dorm rooms based on a randomized “dorm lottery.” If you are lucky enough to be granted a low number, you’ll get first dibs on your choice of living arrangements.

Expecting the worse, Sue and Lexie are pleasantly surprised when they discover they’ve been assigned number four. Getting such a low number means they’ll get first grabs on almost any room they like, after the three ahead of them have had their pick. Sue and Lexie select one of the most spacious rooms on campus, a swanky setup featuring six outlets, updated renovations, and an ideal location close to mostly everything on campus. Excited to check out where they’ll be living, the two girls rush to their new dorm to take measurements and plan out where all their stuff will go.

When they arrive, Sue and Lexie meet the current inhabitants of their coveted room, one of whom they learn has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and can hardly muster up the energy to brush her teeth. Of course, once they learn the room has granted the CFS sufferer many advantages, including easy access to where she needs to go and a private bathroom, their guilt overwhelms them and they graciously offer to allow the current residents to keep their dorm room for another year. So far, the show has actually done a pretty good job at depicting how much the everyday activities we all take for granted can be affected by an illness like CFS. That isn’t where the show’s writers go wrong. The problem comes later when the viewer is shown not what the girl with CFS can’t do but rather what she might, in fact, be able to do.

Sue and Lexie are blissfully strolling across campus when they suddenly spot the girl with CFS playing a lively game of volleyball, all while energetically jumping up and down. They are shocked: how can someone be so sick, but also enjoy life out in the sunshine while actively participating in something as fun as volleyball? The scene leads Lexie to question, “Maybe she only has it sometimes?” Sue and Lexie storm into the girl’s dorm room, berating her for what they witnessed earlier that day at the volleyball net and demanding answers from her and declaring, “We know you’re faking it. Get up.”They also mock her: “Are you all sleepy from your chronic fatigue? Maybe I have chronic fatigue, too?” and “Oh, this tissue is so heavy, oh, I can’t even hold it.”

Finally, Sue tells the girl, “It’s called chronic fatigue syndrome, not intermittent fatigue syndrome.”

Actually, Sue, that’s exactly what it is: a condition, like many others, that can come and go unexpectedly.

Sue gets her comeuppance when she learns that the girl we saw playing volleyball was not, in fact, the girl with CFS but rather her twin sister, who enters the room to ask Sue, “Why are you yelling at my sister?” But what if that had been the girl with CFS playing volleyball? What if she hadn’t had a twin at all? The implication is that it would have been OK for Sue to interrogate the girl because, well, how dare she feel good enough to engage in a physical sport when just the previous day she had been too fatigued to walk across her own dorm room?

But as chronic pain and illness patients know, many conditions cause sufferers to have good days and bad days that are vastly different from one to the next. My own conditions, thoracic outlet syndrome and chronic migraine, are highly affected by the weather and humidity levels: One day I can’t function and the next I’m almost totally normal. I don’t have CFS, but I know that CFS can involve flareups and that symptoms can wax and wane — and suffers are also plagued by more than just fatigue.

“The Middle” is just a TV show, and a comedy at that, but what we see on TV can affect our perceptions of real life. Unfortunately, the chronic illness community just cannot afford any more misperceptions. Just look at what happened to Justine Van Der Borne when a nasty note was placed on her vehicle during one of her “good” days because she parked in a handicap spot. When you live with an invisible disease, it can already be difficult to convince others how bad you feel. And when you feel good, you shouldn’t have to feel guilty or prove to others that you feel bad on your bad days.

So, yes, Sue, chronic illness can be “intermittent,” and we don’t owe you any explanation for our good days.

Follow this journey on Mothering With Chronic Pain.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a scene or line from a movie, show, or song that’s stuck with you through your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Opening photo: Screenshot courtesy of ABC

Originally published: June 1, 2016
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