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Why This 'Black-ish' Episode Is a Must-Watch If You've Been Diagnosed With a Chronic Illness

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Paige Wyant, The Mighty’s Associate Chronic Illness Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. 

On Tuesday’s episode of the ABC comedy show “Black-ish,” main character Dre Johnson (played by Anthony Anderson) was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Inspired by Anderson’s own battle with the same condition, the episode centers around Dre coming to terms with his diagnosis and learning the importance of managing his health.

Over the course of the episode, we see Dre in denial about his diagnosis, desperately trying natural remedies he hopes will “cure” him, but finally reaching a place of acceptance and taking responsibility for his health. The show may take a comedic approach to a serious issue, but it is a must-watch for anyone who is currently struggling with a chronic diagnosis.

Here are five reasons you should check it out:

1. It’s educational and factually accurate.

It may seem like a given that a TV show is representing illness in an accurate way, but many shows and movies don’t exactly get the chronic experience right. It is both relieving and exciting to see a show disseminate health information responsibly to its viewers.

Furthermore, the episode strikes the perfect balance of being educational while also witty and humorous. It provides a well-rounded picture of what type 2 diabetes can look like by giving us both the facts and Dre’s experience with diagnosis, and does so without being preachy, and certainly without being boring. Attention, other TV shows: This is how you talk about chronic illness.

In an interview with Parade last month, Anderson explained what his hopes are for the episode:

“We have a platform that we can use to bring awareness to a lot of things affecting us. I hope people watch and learn from it. By speaking up publicly about my personal health, I hope I will inspire other people to get themselves checked out.”

2. It nails the grieving process.

After receiving a life-changing diagnosis, many people experience the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although this process is usually not linear and involves a lot of jumping around between stages, we see Dre move through several of them in the episode.

When the doctor delivers the diagnosis and asks Dre if he’s experienced the symptoms commonly associated with diabetes, Dre is quick to deny them – even though each “no” is followed by a brief scene in which he’s doing exactly what he denied doing. Later, he’s hesitant to let his wife prick his finger to test his blood sugar, is quick to jump on the alternative “cures” he sees in a documentary instead (more on this in #3!), and refuses to believe he needs his medication.

Though most of us are probably well aware of the symptoms we experience, coming to terms with your diagnosis as well as the impact it will have on your life can be tough. It is normal to feel angry, to feel depressed, to grieve for the life you had before you became sick. Accepting that you need certain medications or treatments to keep your condition in check may take some time – and that’s OK.

By the end of the episode, Dre seems to reach “acceptance” as he finally allows his wife to prick his finger and realizes it’s not as big a deal as he thought. In reality, learning to accept your chronic condition will probably take longer than an episode of TV, but “Black-ish” still gives an insightful glimpse into how complex the process can be.

3. It pokes fun at the snake oil salesmen who promise to “cure” your illness.

Whether you’ve lived with chronic illness for a week or a decade, chances are you’ve had at least several people suggest alternative treatments they promise will cure your disease. While many illnesses can be treated and managed – often with a combination of Western and alternative methods – most don’t have a cure.

Dre encounters this type of false advertising shortly after being diagnosed. His father shows him a documentary in which a beaming man stands outdoors and proclaims, “Once I kicked prescription drugs to the curb and embraced natural healing, my body cured itself!” while another woman says, “Last week, I couldn’t even walk. Now, I am dancing the cha-cha!”

Enticed by the possibility of doing the cha-cha, Dre follows the advice of the documentary and decides to fast, hoping the lack of food will “renew his immune system.” Of course, diabetes causes his blood sugar to plummet, and he passes out in the middle of a party.

These alternative “cures” can certainly be tempting. No one wants to live with a disease, and if some product promises to rid you of all your pain and symptoms, it sparks in us the hope that maybe, just maybe, this is the cure we’ve been dreaming of.

Dre demonstrates how prevalent and tempting these snake oil cures can be – but ultimately, managing your health with a chronic disease will likely be a lifelong endeavor of trial and error.

4. It shows that a chronic illness diagnosis doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

Getting diagnosed with a chronic condition certainly isn’t ideal or desirable – but it doesn’t have to completely ruin your life, either. Yes, you will likely need to make some lifestyle changes – many of which may be really tough. For instance, Dre really loves food, but his diabetes diagnosis means he probably won’t be able to eat many of the same delicious things he did before.

Even if you’re no longer able to do your favorite activities or eat your favorite foods, it doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy life. Sometimes when one door closes, five more open. Chronic illness may require some adaptation, but the world will keep spinning, and you will keep going. Dre’s diagnosis challenges him, but in the end he figures out how to keep moving forward, sending the message to all other chronic warriors that you got this.

5. It has a great message for those who worry that their illness will be the only thing that “defines” them.

At the end of the episode, when Dre has finally agreed to let his wife Rainbow prick his finger and test his blood sugar, he says, “I guess I’m probably afraid admitting I’m a diabetic because it means I’ll be a diabetic for the rest of my life.” She nods, quickly pricking the tip of his finger. Dre is shocked by how easy and pain-free it ended up being, and realizes he’s going to be OK, even if he’s diabetic. Rainbow responds:

“See, Dre? This does not have to define you. When people think of Andre Johnson, they’re gonna think: Great shoe collection. Talented ad man. Beautiful wife. Smart wife! How did he get that wife?! Look, Dre, the important thing to know is that diabetes… is not gonna dia-beat-us.”

Even though Dre has a diagnosis, he is still a person outside of that with a family, a job, unique interests and hobbies – so many things that define who he is more than his health condition.

If you have been diagnosed with a chronic illness, know this is not the only aspect of who you are as an individual. Life with chronic illness can certainly be bumpy and full of lots of unexpected twists and turns, but, as “Black-ish” demonstrates, getting a diagnosis is not the end of the road.

Originally published: December 13, 2017
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