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Despite constantly being disregarded as lowbrow trash, reality TV in 2016 is portraying chronic illnesses in a way that no scripted show does, writes Stephanie Anderson.
Stephanie Marie Anderson

18 May 2016 - 1:21 PM  UPDATED 18 May 2016 - 1:21 PM

As someone who watches a lot of TV, I hear all too often (from elitists) that reality TV is lowbrow trash. They tell me that it's all scripted, and lay out a myriad of other arguments about how it's a waste of time, to which I reply "and how would you know, if you don't watch it?"

Aside from the fact that teen pregnancy is at an all-time low in America, a decline which has been attributed in part to MTV's 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom series, two reality shows on US network Bravo have featured plot-lines focused on women living with chronic illnesses in the past year, something I have never seen a scripted show do.

First, we have Yolanda Hadid's (formerly Foster) public battle with chronic Lyme disease on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Over the past three years, viewers have watched Yolanda's health decline rapidly, and much of the show's most recent season focused not only on her battle to find answers and relief from her illness, but the all-too-real reaction of the women around her as they debated whether she was actually sick, what she was sick with, how sick she was, and whether she may have actually had Munchausen's syndrome.

Meanwhile, on Shahs of Sunset's fifth season, we're currently following Golnesa "GG" Gharachedaghi as she deals with both the physical and emotional challenges that come with suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for five years. In the show's most recent episode, we see GG break down on a camping trip. The trip, planned by her friends as a way to cheer her up and get her off the self-destructive path of binge drinking and pushing everyone away, shows her friends coming together to support her and encourage her to ask for help when she needs it.

As someone who has suffered from an "invisible illness" for five and a half years, these two stories have been some of the realest portrayals of chronic illness I have ever seen.

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On Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, former housewife Taylor Armstrong mentioned that she found Yolanda's illness confusing, saying: "It seems strange that she's like, happy selfie, sick selfie, happy selfie, sick selfie," and describing Yolanda's decision to document medical treatments on Instagram as "a little much".

Yolanda responded on her blog, saying that Taylor's comments showed "ignorance". "Maybe it should anger me," she wrote, "but instead it makes me want to fight harder and speak louder for those whose voices can't be heard."

Taylor's confusion is all-too-common. Like Yolanda, I have seen the flicker of doubt in someone's eye as I explain my illness to someone. The two-second flash of someone as they think "but you don't look sick", before they rearrange their features into one that mimics understanding. But I am sick, and I have an incredible pile of medical receipts at home to prove it. 

Viewers can also see the Real Housewives debating Yolanda's illness. Lisa Vanderpump say that she doesn't understand how Yolanda can say that she's been so sick for so long, when just last year they were "running around Beverly Hills together" on a scavenger hunt. Yolanda is forced to explain, time and time again, that she has good days and bad days, and that in order to do those things, she'll often have to miss something else, rest up beforehand, or suffer the consequences afterwards.

On Shahs, GG opened up to her friends about her struggles, explaining that the illness has not only affected her physically, it has permanently altered the course she'd imagined and assumed her life would take. She speaks of a new-found uncertainty about whether she wants to have kids, out of fear she'll pass along her illness, and concerns about whether her illness will allow her to do all the things she'd envisioned doing with them; holding them, playing with them, and everything in between. You can feel the rawness of her anger and pain as she talks about the emotional consequences that come when your body betrays you.

Anyone who suffers from a chronic illness will relate to GG's struggle to accept her new "normal", and will empathise with her grief for the life she assumed she would have before chronic illness came in and ruined all her plans. They'll see the struggle of walking the tightrope between accepting life as it is and finding the strength to keep fighting, in the hope that one day things will be better.

GG's story in past seasons of Shahs has focused on her anger issues, depicting her picking fights and generally being hotheaded. This new story brings all of this behaviour into a new light. This is a woman who spends every day battling for her health, for the life she once took for granted and assumed would continue, whose tolerance for everyday problems or conflicts is now near-nonexistent because she's putting everything into fighting a silent battle with herself. She wants to appear strong despite her body being weak. This is a woman who no longer has the capacity to let things go because her body won't cut her a break and give her a reprieve from her problems. As a person who once had to call in sick to work after breaking into uncontrollable tears, brought on by the fact that I couldn't get my dry shampoo bottle to spray properly and it was the absolute final straw for me that morning, GG, I feel you.

I am so grateful to have these women on TV. They remind me that my struggles aren't something that only I have been burdened with, and make me feel less alone. They raise awareness of invisible illnesses, which I hope will one day mean that when I explain my problems to someone, that I won't see that flicker of doubt in peoples' eyes, and they inspire me to keep going, even when the only thing I want is for everything to stop so that I don't have to deal with it all anymore, and there's no script for that.