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Why the Reaction to Justin Bieber’s Lyme Diagnosis Is Unsettling

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Telling someone I have Lyme disease usually yields a comparable reaction to disclosing I have a cold. “So what?” People just don’t know what Lyme is. I don’t blame them; I wouldn’t either if it hadn’t nearly ruined my life.

Now, when I share my diagnosis, they’ll say “Ohh, like Justin Bieber?” Um, yeah, sure*sigh* Celebrities: They’re just like us…kind of…

For the Lyme community, a celebrity diagnosis can spark much-needed interest and discussion. Finally, people might actually care about Lyme, woohoo! Any increase in public awareness is enormously encouraging and might trickle down into a little compassion for the countless “ordinary” people quietly battling Lyme every day.

I don’t think celebrities suffer any more or less than the rest of us, but I think they suffer differently. And, after diving into the depths of Twitter, I’m glad I’m not one of them.

In response to news of Bieber’s diagnosis, many fans tweeted messages of love and support, while others disclosed their own struggles with Lyme. Some critics apologized for trashing the singer’s disheveled appearance in recent months. All of this was uplifting and encouraging.

Several people called the diagnosis a publicity stunt, which is only to be expected in the world of celebrity gossip. At least the nonbelievers were random Twitter trolls, not doctors and other health professionals like they are for us non-famous Lyme patients.

Two types of comments in response to Bieber’s, however, appalled me, both because of their content and the number of times they were echoed.

The first were those calling “Lyme” a cover-up for substance abuse and “treatment” a euphemism for rehab. That disgusting assertion, by uninformed strangers, does a grave injustice to both the Lyme and addiction communities. Who do these people think they are? Would they have dared to make those comments if the diagnosis was cancer? Multiple sclerosis? ALS? What is it about Lyme that emboldens people to assume it’s any less real or serious than other illnesses? If someone shares a diagnosis, give them the benefit of the doubt that they are suffering in some way.

If you have nothing nice — or accurate — to say, don’t say anything at all. If you have no knowledge about an issue, keep your mouth shut. End of story.

Perhaps more disturbing, however, were the comments describing the diagnosis as “karma” or “payback” for the Bieber fandom’s purported mistreatment of Bieber’s ex, Selena Gomez, during her very public struggle with lupus. When Hailey Bieber took to her husband’s defense on Twitter, the malicious rejoicing escalated.

What I had hoped would be a productive or at least informative discussion about Lyme disease and the incalculable suffering it causes quickly devolved into a petty catfight between warring fanbases. No one was even mentioning Lyme anymore, or lupus for that matter. These devastating illnesses were being casually cast around as mere weapons in an internet feud that can only be described as utterly, mind-numbingly stupid.

I know it’s just Twitter, and I am not easily offended, but after reading the threads, I felt drained and discouraged. It may just be Twitter, but it reflects the wider disenfranchisement and disregard faced by the Lyme community in general. I was deeply and personally hurt by the complete lack of sensitivity, compassion or basic respect shown these two devastating illnesses. The association with that pettiness threatens the credibility of Lyme disease. It demeans an illness for which there is already a lack of understanding and thus deprives its victims of compassion. It denigrates the constant and courageous struggle of people who are truly suffering.

At the end of the day, I take the tweets with a grain of salt. I can’t reasonably expect random strangers to take Lyme as seriously as I do. However, I can’t help but wish people were either a little nicer or a little less vocal about their unkind opinions.

As for the Biebers… Justin, I wish you the best with your treatment. It’s a long and difficult road; stay strong. Hailey, I applaud you for defending your man. A supportive partner is a key part of the fight.

Originally published: January 10, 2020
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