The Netflix documentary series “Afflicted” follows the lives of several Americans struggling with rare and/or controversial medical disorders and their attempts to find relief from their varying symptoms. The series offers little narration and is comprised largely of face to face interviews with the patients (as a physician I can’t bring myself to label them the “Afflicted”), their loved ones, alternative treatment providers, and medical experts speaking in general terms about the various disorders and symptoms.
Several themes emerge from these groups:
As a group, the pain and suffering of these individuals is undeniable. Regardless of the origin of their symptoms (undetermined organic conditions, physical manifestations of emotional distress, or likely a combination) they are not “making things up” and clearly their experiences are not “all in their heads.” They appear to seek legitimacy and validation for their conditions above all else, and their identities have clearly become consumed by their fixation on their symptoms. This is not an indictment of their characters, but an unfortunate by-product of the demonization of “Western Medicine”, the juggernaut of “Alternative Medicine” and its many charlatans and false promises, and the very real pain experienced by these individuals.
Whether caused by disappointing personal experiences or the reliance on group wisdom and social media, their prevailing attitudes towards the medical community is one of distrust, invalidation, and callousness. As a psychiatrist who works with scores of individuals struggling with both emotional and physical pain, I am saddened by this. It should come as no surprise to anyone that one’s emotional and mental state can worsen or alleviate symptoms, regardless of cause. Cancer patients, for example, experience better outcomes and experience less pain and loss of function when they are appropriately treated for co-occurring mental health problems and have an optimistic attitude toward their prognosis and treatment. On the flip side, everyone living person has at some point experienced physical symptoms as a result of anxiety, depression, or other emotional pain: stomach pain from stress, chest pain from panic, fatigue from depression, fainting from shock, etc. (On a personal note, I had back surgery as a young man following an accident and to this day I experience back pain when I am anxious or stressed. There is nothing physically wrong with my back during these times, and it is no coincidence that the physical manifestation of my emotional distress is the site of so much past physical distress).
So why, then, are individuals seeking answers, willing to subject their bodies to bogus “treatments” and mysterious elixirs, so threatened by the idea that anxiety and depression can be at least worsening, if not outright causing, these symptoms? Even if the symptoms are purely organic in nature, the distress caused by them is immense and should be addressed. Whether or not the “Chronic Lyme Disease” is present, shouldn’t every avenue be explored for potential relief from these symptoms? It seems that even entertaining the idea of mental health treatment and “chemicals” (never mind the armloads of mystery supplements ingested daily with religious devotion) for their emotional pain in some way invalidates their struggles. This is baffling to me. There seems to be a disconnect with the cause of an ailment and the need for treatment of any and all aspects of that ailment.
To put it plainly, on viewing the documentary, the validation provided by dubious alternative treatment providers that, ‘yes, this is a purely organic unexplained medical condition’ seems to outweigh the very likely possibility that mental health treatment could help alleviate their suffering. The over-identification with this conclusion requires the patient to believe that medical doctors are conspiring against them, along with pharmaceutical companies and anyone in their lives who dares to question the validity of this conclusion. Doctors must want people to be sick, are unwilling to listen, and will dismiss everything as “imaginary.” In a later episode, one of the patients states that he has been “living my life like a narcissist” which is somewhat unfair to himself. Pain and distress, regardless of origin, can dominate one’s existence. No one else knows what these patients are experiencing on a daily basis. Their fault lies in their stubborn resistance to mainstream traditional medicine and their utter lack of skepticism of anyone who leads off with the validation that “You’re right, you do have _________ Sensitivity Disorder. Only I have the secret knowledge needed to help you….” Taken to extremes, this results in devastating isolation and obsession with symptoms and treatments while largely ignoring how they are affecting loved ones and missing out on life. In essence, they become the affliction, which makes health and wellness an unknown and even threatening proposition. If I’m not the guy with "Mold Sensitivity”, then who will I be?