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The Movies That Made Me Feel Seen for the First Time as a Sick Teenager

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The typical teen romance goes something like this:

A book-smart brunette and her overly outgoing and super charismatic best friend prepare to have a senior year no one will forget. Between busy jobs, lacrosse/cheer/volleyball (or some other clique sport) practice, trying to get a great SAT score, enough volunteer work to look good on a college application, getting into a good college and just trying to survive, life is thrown completely upside down when the “book-smart brunette” meets the perfect boy.

These movies are typically cheesy, hilarious, heartwarming and downright adorable…

But if you’re living with a chronic illness, completely and utterly unrelatable.

My senior year, I was in the hospital every three days for dextrose IVs that were honestly my main form of nutrition. I was dying from an unknown autoimmune condition doctors just couldn’t seem to figure out (which turned out to be autoimmune induced gastroparesis).

While people my age were contemplating high school flings, senior trips and college applications, I was contemplating my own mortality, spending endless hours on Google trying to find anything that could help my condition, writing in my journal plans for my funeral and praying each and every day that I could just survive.

No one makes movies about that…

Until recently.

When I first read and then watched the movie, “The Fault In Our Stars,” I was the exact same age as Hazel Grace. I didn’t have cancer, but I was dying. For the first time, I saw someone my age who worried about things I worried about. Whose life was so much more than, “Will the cute boy like me?” (Which was a part of the story, but not the main conflict.)

Instead, it was, “How will my family handle it when I die?” “How much longer can this crappy body of mine hold on?”

It showed hospitals, ER trips and breaking down in tears from literally life or death situations that are way too much for anyone, let alone kids in high school. All things that were “normal” in my far from normal life.

For the first time I saw myself in a character.

Days I felt alone in my illnesses, like no one could understand what I was going through, the story of “The Fault In Our Stars” was my anchor. I’d watch the movie or read the book, and it would remind me there were others thinking and feeling the same way I was.

I didn’t find a story that captured that same feeling until “Five Feet Apart.” I do not have cystic fibrosis, but holy cow, between the book and the movie it was the most relatable media representation of chronic illness I have ever seen.

It showed what it’s like to be born sick… the hospital stays, treatments, scans and procedures that are necessary just to stay alive. It showed what it was like to have things that are so abnormal become a normal part of your life. It even showed the relationships you build with the staff at the hospital. (Barb was one of my favorite characters because I literally have a “Barb” at my hospital who I absolutely adore!)

It also showed how different people handle chronic illness differently. There are people who are “anal” like Stella, who do everything right, follow every plan, every treatment, everything to a T in an attempt to have what little control you can in a body that’s trying to kill you. (I’ve found that being chronically ill can give you control issues, because so much is out of your control.)

Then there are people like Will, who, when to comes to treatments, tests, procedures and all the “work” that comes with being sick, basically say, “Screw it, I’m going to die anyway,” and do the absolute bear minimum just to stay alive. (I have admittedly been both of those people.)

And then there are people like Poe, who do what they can to make the best of what they’ve been given, and fear what the future, not only medically, but financially, has in store for them.

At one point Poe says, “What does someone get for loving me? They get to pay for my hospital bills, watch me suffer and then watch me die.” He stated something I fear often. Health issuance is a matter of life or death, and poor coverage and the mountains of hospital bills that come from a chronic and or life-threatening condition often means financial death for someone who is sick and the ones they love.

The guilt of knowing your disease could financially kill the one you love is one of my greatest fears.

“Five Feet Apart” also showed that when you’re sick, you can have different priorities than people your age.

For example, when Stella’s friends were upset that she couldn’t go to Cabo, and packing for that senior trip was the center of their world, Stella knew the harsh reality — even though it sucked, she could die if she didn’t do these treatments and health always had to come first.

And honestly, sometimes it’s hard to relate to people your age because the serious matters in your life are so serious. We constantly have to make life or death decisions when our peers are stressing over finals and dates.

The movie also showed that hospitals aren’t just this “sad place” and that even though they are filled with hard situations, you can still find laughter, fun, love and beauty behind those sterile walls.

I loved that they showed people who are sick aren’t these saints who do nothing wrong, who always have a positive attitude no matter what, and who are always an inspiration to us all. (Insert wiped tear and hand over heart here.)

“Five Feet Apart” showed the truth. Sick people get angry, laugh loudly, cry, scream, say the wrong thing, do silly things and most are far from achieving sainthood. But there is a beauty in our struggle because we have to work 10 times harder to do the things “healthy people “ take for granted. And without a doubt that gives us an incredible perspective on life that some people will never have. I think it perfectly showed that sick people aren’t these objects to pity, but pillars of strength. Because we don’t let the impossible stop us. And I have to say, the part of the movie that brought tears to my eyes was when they’re by the pool and (no spoilers) it showed their scars. Not in a shocking or gruesome way, but in a way that showed so much beauty and strength.

When I was 17, I had a nurse tell me I would never be a model because of the giant six-inch scar I had on my stomach from liver surgery… and it gave me such a complex. I still sometimes struggle with feeling beautiful with my scars to this day. I wish 17-year-old me had something like that beautiful moment to watch.

In a sea of “healthy people” love stories full of “healthy people” problems with maybe a sick character here or there (who always dies), “Five Feet Apart, like “The Fault In Our Stars,”  was a rare story I could completely and utterly relate to. It showed people like me being strong, raw, funny, vulnerable and brave. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me have movies like “Five Feet Apart” and “The Fault In Our Star” show a struggle similar to mine on the big screen.

Images via “The Fault In Our Stars” and “Five Feet Apart” Facebook pages

Originally published: May 23, 2019
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