Healthcare, Illness & Love: Oh My!

Not a lot of movies impress me these days. Hollywood seems way more interested in special effects, remakes, superheroes and horror than relationships and character growth. So I don’t watch too many movies, especially not ones with stupid titles. But one day I was on a plane and bored when I begrudgingly watched the movie Love & Other Drugs. I was blown away.

It’s kind of a weird movie. At first it seems like a typical romantic drama where two dysfunctional people (Maggie and Jamie) figure out how to be in a relationship. Although it starts out like that, mid-way it turns into a movie about the healthcare industry and what it’s like to love someone with a chronic illness. That’s a whole lot of story for a movie that wasn’t rated very highly (Rotten Tomatoes gave it 48%). Critics thought it tried to do too much but, for me, that was part of its charm.

The intersection of the healthcare industry and a severe chronic illness is a potent one. People living with chronic illnesses are, by necessity, big consumers of healthcare which is how the two main characters meet. Maggie is fighting through the darker side of healthcare by spending months trying to get an accurate diagnosis (she has Parkinson’s), paying cash for services, waiting hours to be seen, and taking a ton of drugs just to be able to function normally. Jamie is on the brighter side, making top dollar as a pharmaceutical rep selling drugs to physicians.

Despite the money being made, almost every character demonstrates just how screwed up our healthcare system is. A homeless man takes samples of Prozac that were thrown away – drugs he’d never be able to afford on his own – and manages to get well enough to land a job interview. Maggie leads a busload of elderly people to Canada in order to buy the drugs that are too expensive for them to afford in the United States. Jamie deals with physicians who are struggling with too many patients, too much paperwork, and too little reimbursement. The movie makes clear that it’s neither the doctors nor the patients who are the real winners in the world of medicine.

Although the dark undercurrent of healthcare flows throughout the movie, it’s the relationship between Jamie and Maggie that’s the real story. Instead of having a contrived set of circumstances keep them apart, it’s Parkinson’s that throws them for a loop. Maggie’s illness drives the story so thoroughly that it’s almost a separate character. And that’s very true to life. In my counseling practice, I’ve seen more and more people (women in particular) with chronic illnesses, everything from Multiple Sclerosis and Crohn’s to Rheumatoid Arthritis and Fibromyalgia. The diagnosis often tends to take on a life of its own, especially when you consider how it affects relationships.

For those who are single when they’re diagnosed, there are a host of considerations. If your family isn’t helpful (as many aren’t), another network is needed. Support groups are available but they’re a mixed bag. While it’s wonderful to be around people who completely understand your situation, you also have to see the progression of your disease reflected in those around you. Those who are worse off remind you of what possibilities lie in your future. This is particularly true for someone like Maggie who was diagnosed at a young age.

Dealing with romantic partners is also a minefield. When do you inform potential partners about your illness? Telling people before they truly get to know you is almost a guarantee they’ll leave but waiting until later feels like a betrayal. Maggie is proactive with this. She tells her partners early then constantly pushes them to see how much they’re willing to take because she’d rather know sooner rather than later if they’re going to leave. She also gives voice to the concerns about being a burden and how the care that’s needed will affect the reciprocal nature of her relationships. This is all new to Jamie who, before he met Maggie, was never self-aware enough to realize the benefits of a loving relationship.

While her avoidance of emotional intimacy is irritating at times, the most refreshing thing about the character of Maggie – the thing you don’t often see portrayed in movies – is how she reflects the variety of emotions common to people living with chronic illnesses. In addition to not feeling well physically, Maggie clearly displays the emotional roller coaster that comes with tough diagnoses: loneliness, the constant interplay of hope and disappointment, fear of the future, anger and grief towards the unfairness of the situation, and the terror of ending up alone with little assistance. Dealing with these emotions is difficult – and Maggie isn’t always gracious with them – but the portrayal feels real.

People who already have partners when they’re diagnosed don’t get off easy either. Partners of people with chronic illnesses have to manage a lot of challenging emotions too, like the anger and grief of not being able to have a normal life and of watching your loved one daily do battle with their illness. The movie gives a nod to those caregivers who demonstrate the courage to willingly limit their options because of love. This is important but, at the end of the day, partners are volunteers. They always have the choice to leave, something the person living with the disease knows all too well. Thus, the fear of whether they’ll stay and how the couple will deal with the unfairness and lack of reciprocity (“I’ll need you more than you need me!” Maggie tells Jamie) is deep.

The ending is another thing that sets Love & Other Drugs apart from other movies. Jamie and Maggie still end up together. It’s a romantic comedy: of course, they’re going to get their Hollywood ending. But the reason it’s different is why they choose to be together. Maggie’s Parkinson’s isn’t going away. If anything, it’s going to get worse, a fact which Jamie finally, painfully realized.

But the disease is incidental to how they work as a couple. Regardless of how their body works now, people living with chronic illnesses and injuries are still the same people they were before. Their personality is unchanged; it’s just their body that’s different. And that’s exactly why Maggie and Jamie work well together. Although their bodies were what initially drew them together, what keeps them together is that their personalities – their inner selves – bonded enough to allow the other room to grow. Unlike couples in other rom-coms, by the end of the movie, both Jamie and Maggie have matured.

I was in tears at the end of the movie. The story of Maggie and Jamie – the problems with healthcare, the challenges of a chronic illness and their journey toward true love – felt real and meaningful. I know these people. I’ve counseled these people. Their story is one worth seeing. If movies were more like this, if they were both touching and relatable, I’d definitely go to the theater more often. Hollywood, are you listening?

Share Your Thoughts