“A revelation and a call to action” – The Salt Lake City Tribune
“Riveting…equal parts medical mystery, science lesson, political advocacy primer and even a love story” – The San Francisco Chronicle
Jennifer Brea is an active Harvard PhD student about to marry the love of her life when suddenly her body starts failing her. Hoping to shed light on her strange symptoms, Jennifer grabs a camera and films the darkest moments unfolding before her eyes as she is derailed by M.E. (commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), a mysterious illness some still believe is “all in your head.”
In this story of love and loss, newlyweds Jennifer and Omar search for answers as they face unexpected obstacles with great heart. Often confined by her illness to the private space of her bed, Jen is moved to connect with others around the globe. Utilizing Skype and social media, she unlocks a forgotten community with intimate portraits of four other families suffering similarly. Jennifer Brea’s wonderfully honest portrayal asks us to rethink the stigma around an illness that affects millions of people. Unrest is a vulnerable and eloquent personal documentary that is sure to hit closer to home than many could imagine.
I have been awaiting the arrival of this film for some time. It has been a few years in the making but I only found out about it after watching Jen Brea’s TED talk earlier this year. Having already been screened in other parts of the world, and winning lots of awards on its way, Unrest had its UK premier just a couple of weeks ago in London. For those of us too unwell to go to our closest screening, we had the opportunity to pre-order the film online, and patiently, or not so patiently, wait for the 31st of October, the day of its release.
On Tuesday I was finally able to download it and I watched it in stages over the following three days. What can I say…
It’s beautifully made.
It made me cry and it made me smile.
I felt validated. So often people tell me how I should feel. That I have to be hopeful, that I can’t give up, that I have to believe that I’ll recover. Watching this film reminded me that everything I have felt since having ME, every emotion and every fear has been valid.
It made me feel sad, angry and frustrated. I felt moments of grief and moments of rage. I also felt understood, and grateful. I felt like I belonged, like I was part of a community, an uprising!
Unrest: a state of dissatisfaction, disturbance, and agitation, typically involving public demonstrations or disorder
The most surprising reaction I had to the film, was that I found it strangely comforting. I had thought it would be the kind of film that I would only want to watch once, that it would be too difficult to watch it on repeat. But I have already started watching it for a second time, and I think will watch it again, and again, whenever I feel a bit lost or disconnected.
My ME is not as severe as Jen’s was (while she was making this film), but it was all so familiar. The opening scene is very effective. I found myself holding my breath as I watched Jen try, with every fibre of her being, with every ounce of strength she had left, to lift herself off the floor and into bed. I’ve never, thankfully, been that disabled by my ME, certainly not for such a prolonged period of time. I have experienced that complete lack of strength, the extreme weakness in my body, when I haven’t been able to lift my head or my arms, or have lost the use of my legs. But I haven’t been as severe as Jen, in terms of, I am mainly housebound and am bedbound for at least half of the day, but Jen has been bedbound for months at a time.
When it comes to the ‘fatigue’ that people with ME experience, it’s this extreme weakness, this complete lack of strength and pure exhaustion that we’re talking about. It’s so far away from the myth that we’re ‘just tired’, I mean, it’s just nothing like being tired. It’s like referring to a hurricane as, ‘just a puddle’. It’s so insulting, not to mention factually incorrect, to conflate the two.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why we, the people with ME, have needed a film like this to come along.
It’s this idea that ME is just ‘being tired’ that drives the general perception of ME. It’s what many people think, until they get ME, or know someone who has ME. But even when you know someone with ME, you don’t really see the truth. Because when you see us, when we’re well enough for you to see us, our illness is largely invisible. You don’t see us when we’re alone at home, or in bed, so it’s easy to misunderstand, it’s easy to forget about us.
A lot of the misunderstanding is also due the damaging name, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). If the term CFS didn’t exist, and our illness was only ever referred to as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), it would change perception immensely. The name CFS has done so much harm. It makes people think we’re just fatigued, just tired. And why would anyone spend their time campaigning for, running marathons for, signing petitions for, writing to MP’s for, raising awareness for… someone who is just tired.
The name CFS has also caused problems, in that, it’s easy to conflate the illness CFS (ME), with the symptom ‘chronic fatigue’. This confusion has had massive repercussions. So far, in the UK, the only government funded research into ME has been for psychological research. The ‘scientists’ involved believe that ME can be cured by ‘lifestyle changes’, Graded Exercise Therapy (GET), and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). (Please read my previous post on the PACE Trial for more info.) The problem is, the participants of the trials didn’t actually have to have ME (for which the defining/cardinal symptom is Post Exertional Malaise) in order to participate, they only had to have ‘chronic fatigue’. So, the only treatments that the UK, and beyond, have to offer people with ME, are GET and CBT, ‘treatments’ which have only been trialled, not on people with ME, but people with chronic fatigue.
It is, I believe, this false notion of what ME is, that has enabled the unbelievable situation that we are in today. It has held back funding for biomedical research, it is why we have no safe or effective treatment options, no cure, no support from our medical establishments and little respect from the general public.
I can’t blame all the people for not having a thorough understanding of ME, how can any of us know everything about every illness. But, I do blame people, whether friends, family, doctors, scientists, MP’s, journalists, employers, anyone who knows someone with ME, who has a patient with ME, or a constituent with ME, who choose not to inform themselves. The people who choose apathy or blatant disbelief, despite the wealth of knowledge available online, and worse, despite what they are being told by their loved ones. These people are responsible for the decades of neglect and mistreatment that people with ME continue to face. It’s because of these people, that we have to use our precious limited energy on informing, fighting, campaigning and advocacy. These people are the reason that the film, Unrest exists. If Jen had been believed by her doctors from the beginning, she wouldn’t have had to turn her camera on herself. Her doctors only believed her, not on her word, but only once they saw visual evidence. That was the seed that planted this remarkable, and vitally important film.
This quote from the film seems particularly relevant right now…
What terrifies me is that you can disappear because someone’s telling the wrong story about you. I feel like that’s what’s happened to all of us who are living this. And I remember thinking, there’s no one coming to look for me because no one even knows that I went missing.
We need people to start listening, we need people to start telling the correct story, otherwise, nothing will change.
Sadly, a few days ago, we lost a member of the ME community. She was a wife, a mother, an active member of the ME advocacy community. I’ve shared this Ron Davis quote before, who actually features in the film, “The good news is, these patients don’t die. The bad news is, these patients don’t die.” It’s not, strictly speaking, true. Yes, it’s more common to live with ME for decades, than to die from ME, but that’s not to say ME can’t kill, it can, and it has.
I heard about her death via Jen’s Facebook page, this is what she said…
I am sad but mad as hell. When our community loses someone to this disease, my first thought is always, “someone killed you.” Because someone did. A lot of people.
Think about what Jen is saying here. Today, in 2017, we are no further forward in treating this illness than we were thirty years ago. We, the people with ME, are in the same place today that people with MS were in before the invention of the CAT scan. We have been waiting for far too long for the invention of our ‘CAT scan’ machine.
How can this be, that science is so behind when it comes to ME? It can be, because of the misconceptions that people have about ME. That’s it. It’s that simple. These falsehoods, these misconceptions have held back progress. They have fuelled the lack of investment into biomedical research. While people continue to tell the wrong story about us, while popular opinion (aided by the likes of Comedian Ricky Gervais – see trailer below) continues to believe that we are ‘just tired’, we won’t get anywhere. In order to get adequate funding for research, funding that is in line with other serious conditions, funding that will SAVE LIVES, we need people to tell the correct story. And this, is the reason I do what I do. This is why I write my blog. This is why I publicly share such personal information. This is why I approached my local paper to feature my crowdfunding campaign, not for the donations for my wheelchair, but for the opportunity to raise awareness. This is why I share every article I find about ME on Facebook and Twitter. I cannot just sit back and accept society’s neglect of us. I will continue to fight, I will continue to do everything in my power to make a difference. And after watching this film I am more fired up than ever before.
Something else that came up in the film was the loss of friends, a strange phenomenon that so often runs side by side with chronic illness. Jen said something interesting in a recent Twitter thread, it was about some of the reviews of Unrest, but it got me thinking further about the issue of fading friendships…
About half the film critics reviewing Unrest have said not it’s a “must see” but rather that it’s “a hard watch”. I’m the last person who should be speaking about the quality of my own film. But I can’t help but think what they are saying is “sick and disabled people are hard to watch”. Which is another way of saying – I’d rather look away. What I say at the end of every screening is that Unrest represents for people on this part of the spectrum, the best case scenario. And so while the world says, this is almost too heartbreaking to bear, patients say, you don’t know the half of it. It’s the height of privilege to be able to look away from pain, whoever’s pain it is. And so we are forced to package our pain, meter it, make it acceptable to others in a form that seduces or implores in just the right way. Which is the dance that EVERY oppressed group whether female, black, gay, transgender or disabled has been doing since forever. It is exhausting because there are times all I really want to do is scream.
A few of my friends have drifted out of my life since my diagnosis, and especially since I moved out of Edinburgh. Jen’s quote above made me wonder, do they, like the film critics, find me ‘too hard to watch’? I’ll never know. Because those who have removed themselves from my life have done so without a conversation, an email, a letter, an explanation. Has it been easier for them to walk away, than to face my life as it is now, to see me and my suffering? Is Jen right, is that the height of privilege, to be able to look away from other people’s pain? Have my lost friends made a conscious decision to look away? Were they so accustomed to the friendship that we used to share, that they can’t, or won’t, adapt to this new life of mine/ours? Or maybe they just don’t like me, that would be preferable actually. It’s something that I have been, and will continue to think about for some time.
What Jen said in her Twitter thread also made think about how I present myself. I use my blog to communicate, and to share. It’s my way of talking honestly about my experience of living with this illness, packaged nicely, but without rubbing it in your face. I try not to sugar coat it, but I do end up, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, doing just that. I protect you from the most harrowing bits, I try not to come across as too negative, I word everything very carefully. Basically, I try to make my existence, my life, more acceptable to you. My blog, while it goes part of the way there, it doesn’t go into the absolute raw reality of my life, no words could, as with every other ME patient, however much I share, you don’t know the half of it.
Now, I knew I wouldn’t get through this film without crying. The first tears I shed while watching it were at this point…
It was like I had died, but was forced to watch as the world moved on. If I completely disappear and I’m in this bed and I can do nothing then it’s like I don’t even exist or that I never existed. And then what was the point of it all? Of being born in the first place? You know and honestly there are a lot of days when I just feel like I’m doing a good job by just holding it together and not killing myself. Like I’m really proud of that. And it’s not – I really don’t want to die. Like I really don’t want to die. But at a certain point it’s hard to call this living and I think the grief of all those things I might not do or see or have or…
That was Jen speaking, but it could be me, I’ve said all of these things. I’m proud of me too. I believe that anyone who can exist through this illness, with the suffering, the stigma, the disbelief, the isolation… are in possession of the most incredible inner-strength. What we live through, for years, decades, lifetimes, most (healthy) people would find unbearable for just one day. We’re positively superhuman. If I get through this alive, I’ll be so goddamn proud of myself. But if I don’t, I won’t blame myself at all. Like they say in the film, suicide is the leading cause of death in people with ME, and that isn’t shocking to me. Like Jen, I don’t want to die, but I do want to not have ME anymore. This is one of the hardest things I have faced while living with ME, the effort of staying alive. Yet, while I do my hardest every day to keep going forward, to remain hopeful, I joined Dignitas (a Swiss non-profit members’ society providing assisted/accompanied suicide). It’s kind of funny, given its purpose, but it’s my Dignitas membership that actually helps me to keep going, knowing that I have that option, one day, if I choose, it’s like my comfort blanket.
Importantly, Unrest also has a focus on those who care for us. The people we couldn’t be without. I don’t feel I’m in a place to comment in much depth, given I’m the patient, and not the carer. But I do know how hard this life can be, the life of caring for someone with ME. And when the carer is a spouse, a sibling, or a parent, etc, it can muddy the relationship a bit. It was lovely to see, despite the odd bit of frustration, i.e. the tent scene, how much Omar values and loves Jen and their marriage. From what they showed us, they don’t seem to have lost what they had before ME joined the relationship.
I think Jen, her husband Omar, and all the film’s ME participants have been extremely brave in making this documentary. I’ve been wondering if I’ll ever be brave enough to turn the camera on myself, I can’t see it happening, but then I also never expected to blog about this stuff, or end up in my local paper.
I would also like to thank Jen, Omar, everyone involved in the making of this film. It’s already making a difference. Here in the UK we desperately need the government and the NHS to start listening. We need funding for biomedical research. We need the NHS to stop prescribing ‘lifestyle changes’ which only harm, rather than help. The biggest ever investment into biomedical research in the UK came from America, the NIH! We need our own government invest in us.
One of the wonderful things that the Unrest team were able to do was arrange a parliamentary screening of Unrest. Forty three MP’s attended. We can only hope now that these MP’s will start fighting for us. Labour MP Mark Tami has already said…
This sort of stigma around ME is exactly the sort of thing we need to eradicate. Little is known about the illness and there is no known cure for it, which is probably why society appears to be so ignorant towards it.
ME is clearly a very complex condition but as a country we are not doing enough for patients who are suffering from it. This essentially boils down to funding, I therefore intend to push the Government to provide sufficient funding, and ensure this funding is adequately spent in the right areas.
This is exactly the kind of response we need from this film. I want people (the ones who don’t have ME) to have their eyes opened by the brutality/reality of what they’re watching. I want them to be amazed at the resilience of the ME patients featured in the film, against all the odds these people keep smiling and keep hoping. I want this film to educate people. I want it to highlight the dire need for treatment and a cure. I want the people who have previously dismissed ME to admit they’ve been wrong, to put that aside and to keep educating themselves and others. I want our governments and our medical establishments to stop ignoring us. I want this film to push people into action, and if it doesn’t, I don’t know what will.
Unrest Official Trailer
Jennifer Brea’s TED Talk
On the big screen (in Scotland)…
Vue GLASGOW Fort, Monday 27th November, 7pm. Buy tickets here… https://www.ourscreen.com/film/Unrest
Odeon EDINBURGH Lothian Road, Wednesday 29th November, 6pm. Buy tickets here… https://www.ourscreen.com/film/Unrest
Eastgate Theatre and Arts Centre PEEBLES, Thursday 18th January, 7.30pm. Buy tickets here… https://eastgatearts.com/events/unrest/. (Particularly pleased about this screening in my own town, in the theatre I used to work in! Arranged by myself, my mum and a good friend.)
For other screenings, search here… http://see.unrest.film/showtimes/
On Vimeo… https://vimeo.com/ondemand/unrest
Unrest is coming to DVD in December. Follow this link and fill out the form to receive a notification when DVDs are on sale… https://www.unrest.film/watch/#DVD
UNREST REVIEWS / UNREST IN THE NEWS
BBC Breakfast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRAM7Q2nx10
BBC / Mark Kermode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGoK56TdNQY&t=2s
BBC News / Stories http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-41888146
The Salt Lake City Tribune http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=4867522&itype=CMSID
The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/movies/unrest-review.html?mcubz=0
San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfchronicle.com/movies/amp/Documenting-a-disease-from-the-inside-12217878.php
San Francisco Weekly http://www.sfweekly.com/film/film-film/unrest/
The Hollywood Reporter http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/unrest-review-967867
Film Inquiry https://www.filminquiry.com/unrest-2017-review/
The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/a-film-directed-from-bed-tells-the-story-of-woman-with-chronic-fatigue-syndrome/2017/11/24/05a42594-cec1-11e7-81bc-c55a220c8cbe_story.html?utm_term=.bae816e6532c
Rotten Tomatoes https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/unrest_2017