The Mighty Logo

To the Writers of 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine': Lyme Disease Is Not a Punch Line

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Recently, Meryl Streep used her platform as winner of the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes to call attention to President Trump’s public mockery of a disabled journalist. It went viral, striking a chord with millions of viewers internationally. A lauded icon of the Arts, Streep ventured into the seedy underbelly of the current socio-political zeitgeist to speak to what constitutes good character. Silently there was a palpable consensus: it is categorically wrong to mock somebody who is physically suffering.

Politics of the day aside, what does it say about us if we tacitly accept this mockery? While we expect all ailments to be off-limits, there is a debilitating disease that seems to be considered fair game.

Tell me, do we feel comfortable with jokes about Lyme disease?

“That’s the fake illness that’s in fashion now, right?”

“What disease? Is it a citrus allergy or something?”

“I had that, got treated early and I’m fine – those chronic Lyme whiners need to get over themselves!”

Full disclosure: I have chronic Lyme disease. There’s no definitive, universal testing, treatment or diagnostic guidelines. It’s like finding a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket just to get a diagnosis. Should I celebrate? I don’t know.

Having Lyme often means being accused of making an illness up; that’s a whole new level of creativity I never knew I possessed. What isn’t obvious to others, though, is that I routinely feel like I’ve been hit by a truck accompanied by the worst hangover of my life, with cement limbs and a “technical difficulties” sign permanently plastered over my brain.

Lyme’s like all the other horrible diseases with none of the recognition. It’s hotly politically contested with two warring medical camps offering completely opposing views on every aspect from how to define, diagnose and treat it. There’s no financial subsidization through the medical system. At best you’ll enjoy bemusement at medical offices and ER departments, at worst outright abuse. Then there’s the Herxheimer effect: treatment actually results in feeling worse before any improvement. Say goodbye to your previously unappreciated, yet wonderful, ability to seamlessly coexist with life.

Be assured that the ensuing “spare time” as you become housebound is thoroughly unenjoyable. You rapidly learn that wherever your body goes, so do you. Your body is no longer a friendly place to be. So please reframe your concept of free time accordingly. There will not be luxurious baths with champagne flutes within arms reach, no devouring every novel you’ve been recommended but too busy to read, no snacking on all manner of treats while watching endless Netflix episodes, because, food intolerances. There just won’t be much fun. Get used to this if you have your heart set on feigning this disease.

It might feel lonely as your existing friendships dwindle and you find your new primary relationship is with inanimate objects: to be clear, that’s your couch and bed. The shower gets some time if you’re lucky but really it’s more like an awkward third wheel in your love triangle; sometimes you visit but you’d never choose to leave the others full time. It just doesn’t meet your needs like they do, ya know? But loneliness is an illusion. Why? Because there are literally thousands, probably millions, of people like you out there. Welcome to Lymeland, friend.

I’ve noticed that Lyme disease has increasingly caught the attention of screenwriters and found its way into character dialogue. I know this because when your body is a cage of horrible sensations that seem to be allocated arbitrarily by some terrible daily lottery, you need an escape. I can’t watch medical dramas anymore despite the binge-friendly high episode count. My life is a medical drama. So recently, in search of some light hearted comedic relief, I was watching the season three finale of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” This was hot on the heels of a day lost to paralyzed limbs and inability to speak without slurring. I felt my stomach drop as I was verbally sucker punched by what played out onscreen:

Gina: All right, mister, here are five stories about my cousin Lee-Ann and her alleged Lyme disease.
Bob: How’s that gonna make me talk?
Gina: Not everything’s about you, Bob. I just needed to vent. God, you’re such a Lee-Ann.

Gina: So it’s like, “Yeah, maybe you’re tired all the time because you’re sick, Lee-Ann, or maybe you’re depressed because you live in Reno.”

This fictional person was mocked for claiming to have Lyme but, according to the character making the joke, she’s probably just depressed because she lives in Reno. You know who’s depressed right now and totally not in Reno? Me, and likely every other Lyme patient who saw that episode. This episode aired on April 19, 2016 and was viewed by an estimated 2.02 million Americans and that’s not counting viewers like myself watching through services like Netflix. That’s no small audience reach.

This wasn’t the first time Lyme was used as a plot device in this season of the series. In episode six, titled “Into the Woods,” the dialogue insinuated that awareness of the disease can lead to an irrational fear of the outdoors.

Some will say, “Don’t take this so seriously, it’s just a joke.” I can confirm unequivocally that there’s nothing funny about living this nightmare. I’ve seen this approach to Lyme disease in a number of shows in recent years, but this felt especially hurtful. The writer of the season three finale tweeted that he enjoyed the Lyme joke so much he wanted a whole show dedicated to stories about this fictional Lyme patient.

tweet from dan goor about lyme disease on brooklyn nine nine
Tweet by Dan Goor that says, “I want an entire episode of LeAnn’s Lyme disease stories. Never enough Gina.” A comment below says, “Why is it ‘alleged’ Lyme disease? As if LD patients don’t get beat up enough by the medical system, friends, blogs, now TV? Wow.”

Writers’ views are impactful and open mockery does nothing to help the public perception of what is already a maligned disease. This sort of conversation around Lyme legitimizes the denigration of sick people who end up running a defensive PR campaign for themselves, trying to be unnaturally cheery and inoffensive in a sort of hyper-vigilant attempt to retain credibility. This is ludicrous. Instead of focusing all their energy on getting well, genuinely ill people experience ridicule and, often, ostracization.

Tracking back to Meryl. She makes an excellent point about ethics and character. Mocking any ailment that has befallen another human being, whether immediately physically obvious or not, is callous. Is it unreasonable, then, for me to feel dispirited watching these TV scenes unfold? Seeing something that undermines the moral sentiments Meryl raised play out on a popular series is a bitter pill to swallow, and trust me, I swallow more than my fair share of pills.

Awareness is fantastic and TV can be a fabulous medium for it, but let’s not kick people suffering from a debilitating, real illness while they’re down. They say laughter is the best medicine, but Lyme should not be the punch line.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Photo by Brooklyn Nine-Nine Facebook page

Originally published: February 3, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home