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'The Real Housewives of Atlanta' Just Revealed a Frustrating Reality of Chronic Illness

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The popular Bravo network television series “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” aired its latest episode, called “Say Yes to Distress,” on Sunday night and I was so offended. I watched as grown women bullied and degraded another women, their friend, for having an illness they “never heard of” and justifying their actions with the rationale “she didn’t look sick.”

As the show’s stars took turns bashing chronic illness and housewife Porsha Williams, a vasovagal syncope fighter on the other end of their cruel and vicious words, I began to wonder if they watched Lady Gaga’s documentary on living with fibromyalgia on Netflix. How are people still not aware that illnesses invisible to the naked eye exist? Further, how could adults treat their own friend so harshly during such a vulnerable moment?

The show centered around housewife Shamea’s pending destination wedding in Kenya, Africa and inadvertently broadcasted abelism and a disregard for invisible illness (or disability) for all of the world to see.

If you’re not familiar with the term ableism, it is discrimination or social prejudice for anyone with a disability. A disability can be both visible and invisible. This distinction is something currently lost on the world, but at what point is ignorance an excuse for bullying and disability-shaming?

During a portion of the show, housewife Porsha Williams explains she is unable to attend the African engagement because she has vasovagal syncope, a chronic illness characterized by low blood pressure, diminishing heart rate, and fainting. As many in the chronic illness community know, each illness effects everyone uniquely. Due to Porsha’s illness, she is unable to fly the 17+ hours to Kenya in coach accommodations and cannot afford the $10,000 ticket for first class.

Porsha’s co-stars Sheree, Kandi (along with her assistant) and Shamea mock her explanation with jokes about her inability to sit for long periods of time being caused by her sexual proclivity rather than her illness, they question the actual existence of her illness, and even suggest she “just go see a doctor” along with other disturbing comments about having an invisible illness and their effects on someone’s everyday life, like flying or being present at social engagements.

I wish I could say this was a freak occurrence, but all too often in today’s society the realities of chronic illness are often ignored or met with ridicule and unjust cynicism. I am not sure if I am more outraged by the “unscripted and unfiltered” reactions by the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” stars or the lack of social responsibility for any of the stars to come forward and apologize via social media to either Porsha or members of the invisible illness, invisible disability, or chronic illness community members.

I am especially disappointed by these women’s example for the millions of people who follow them. Not only are they practicing this unacceptable behavior, they add further insult to injury by being unaware of it. Ignorance of an illness and “fake fighting” for TV ratings are not excuses to glorify bullying and hate speech of any kind. Frankly, it’s ableist. I don’t watch the show regularly, I don’t know much about it, but the behavior of its stars is discouraging. These women reach millions of viewers, and each and every one of these viewers witnessed firsthand what it is like living with a chronic illness and how people in the world actually respond.

Was I the only one who saw how the show’s stars, Porsha’s friends, didn’t believe her? I know I heard how they interrogated her. I paid very close attention when no one took out their phone and just Googled vasovagal syncope right then and there! I reached for my pearls when I realized Porsha sent educational materials to Shamea, her best friend, about her illness and her bestie didn’t even read them because “she was mad!” Did you catch how Sheree, her friend, forgot Porsha even has an illness? And most importantly, notice how not one of them asked how Porsha was managing it all or how she was feeling. Not one.

That’s the exact same thing that many of us who live our lives with chronic illness experience. Often instead of empathy and understanding we are met with judgment and humiliation. Can you imagine how it must feel to first have the courage to be vulnerable enough to share that you have an illness (with a global audience), then share that in order to accommodate your illness and promote your optimal health you need to purchase a $10,000 ticket you cannot afford at the moment, and everyone bashes you for it?

In this particular situation, if Shamea would have read the materials Porsha sent her, she would understand why she cannot sit confined for 17+ hours in a small space. But that’s not the point — the point here is that we need to do better, people. I don’t know what it feels like to not be able to fly to your best friend’s wedding because you cannot afford the accommodations you need for your illness, which I am certain must be a painful thing to accept and not blame yourself for. I do know what it feels like to be shamed and accused of lying about an illness I fight daily that no one will ever see. It hurts.

My sisters of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” as respectfully as possible, please do better. Just because you have not heard of something and you do not immediately understand it, you do not have license to bash the realities millions of people, myself included, face. Everyone has a part of their life that isn’t a part of public consumption and whether we can see it or not, like it or not, accept it or not, understand it or not, you should at the very minimum respect it.

I do not hate these women, I do not hate the show, but I hate that not one of them had enough self-awareness and empathy to recognize that whether or not they believe Porsha, she and millions of other Americans have an invisible illness. You cannot always see it with your naked eye when you’re on the outside looking in, but you can always feel it with your heart if you try.

As one woman to another, please be a better example to other women on supporting one another as friends, by building each other up, not tearing each other down. As a person fighting an illness the world will never see every single day, please respect that you likely will never see a physical manifestation of my illness and you may never fully understand the gravity of my fight. But do not shame me or the illness I, nor anyone else, did not ask for, simply because you didn’t Google and won’t comprehend anything outside of yourself. When I was first diagnosed, I was like you — I never heard of my illnesses, either.

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Originally published: November 13, 2017
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