Monday, April 16, 2012

Diabetes and the Narrative Impulse (Harry Potter vs. Owen Wilson)

When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, one of the (unhelpful) responses we often get is “well, at least it’s not cancer.” Why do people focus on this particular comparison, minimizing the impact of diabetes? In the theatre, one of the things I’m fascinated by is the concept of the illness narrative – whether it be AIDS (The Normal Heart, Angels in America), Cancer (Wit is probably the most famous) or mental illness (Proof, King Lear, 4.48 Psychosis, too many to count), among others. These narratives show us how people and society deal with the concept and reality of illness.

The comparison between cancer and diabetes intrigues me, because cancer is far more traditional from a narrative standpoint, and perhaps that’s why it gets so much attention and sympathy (and is popular in theatre, novels, etc.) – there’s a bad guy, your life is on the line, you fight him and either lose bravely as a martyr or emerge victorious as a hero. The plot is traditional and as potentially satisfying as a narrative can be.

Diabetes is a non-traditional and frustrating illness narrative because it is chronic. At least, with cancer, you can WIN. There is no winning in diabetes. There is doing better, and doing worse. And it’s a fatalistic narrative that you have to fight against mentally, because there is an almost 100% chance that, no matter how long you live, the “bad guy” will quietly win – diabetes will at least be partially if not fully responsible for your death. People with chronic conditions have to adapt to the nontraditional illness narrative, the one where illness becomes static and isn’t filtered through a satisfying narrative goal. People thrive on creating stories for and about themselves. That’s why stories are there; they shape our lives, and how we understand ourselves. And that’s why there is so much diabetes burnout- the “goal” isn’t victory, it’s daily survival. It's also why it's harder to fundraise for chronic conditions, unless you show pictures of adorable children. A vital community is necessary when it comes to diabetes – it must be continuous, always there, flowing like the condition itself. It’s why people blog – they are creating and sharing their stories.

So with diabetes, there is no large, exciting battle, only many everyday ones. It’s not Harry Potter. It’s not Spider-Man, Transformers, or The A-Team.

It’s Office Space, and your diabetes is that annoying boss, Bill Lumbergh, and man, do you ever have some TPS reports to file. And just like you can do the same thing with diabetes day after day and totally different things happen, today you need a cover for your TPS reports and you didn’t realize it. Didn’t you get the memo?

Yes, diabetes isn’t Frodo vs. Sauron. It’s more like a terrible buddy-cop-romantic comedy movie starring a bumbling Owen Wilson.

Stick with me on this one.

So Owen Wilson, force rookie, and his older, beleaguered partner, let’s say Tom Hanks, or maybe Denzel Washington, are patrolling your insides. The autoimmune team. And Owen Wilson is your best friend, but he’s a hothead and HE’S A COP WHO DOESN’T PLAY BY THE RULES! Yeah, one of those. He’s going straight for the top, but then he takes too many chances and accidentally shoots your innocent pancreas, who is probably played by Ben Stiller or something. And there’s a total mess and DenzelTom says, “This is what happens when you don’t PLAY BY THE RULES.”

Anyway Owen gets kicked off the force and he feels really guilty about it, so he decides to move in with you to make things right. He’s always hanging around. It’s like You, Me and Dupree, or something (disclaimer: I have never seen You, Me, and Dupree). And you just can’t make him move out because you feel guilt for some reason; maybe it’s that Wilson charm, maybe you feel partially responsible, maybe he just keeps on coming up with more and more convoluted reasons to stay. So you have to deal with him clogging your sink and never cleaning his stuff and breaking your lamps from time to time. And that’s the narrative. Owen Wilson screwed up on the job, he’s moved in with you, and one day his comical antics will inevitably burn down your house. Cancer is Lord Voldemort. But Harry (spoilers) beats him. You’re stuck with Bill Lumbergh, and you’re stuck with Owen Wilson.


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