Last Wednesday, ABC aired the season premiere of “American Housewife,” during which the title character’s storyline revolved around her creating a fake case of Lyme disease so she could get out of volunteering for her children’s PTA. The “American Housewife” writers, producers and ABC network executives seem to think Lyme disease is funny enough to be the comedy schtick for their premiere episode, the same disease that put me in a wheelchair at age 28.
In the episode “Back to School,” the title character, Katie (Katy Mixon) films an over-the-top video for the other PTA moms to see on social media, complete with fake cartoon tears. During the video, Katie blurts out, “I have Lyme disease!” But Katie is faking her Lyme disease. (Interestingly, “American Housewife” takes place in the real town of Westport, Connecticut which is about 80 minutes from Lyme disease’s “ground zero” in Old Lyme, Connecticut.)
In the episode, Katie receives no blowback from any of the other characters regarding her fake Lyme disease social media post, other than sympathy from the character Suzanne (Jeanette Sousa). When Suzanne arrives at Katie’s home and tells Katie that she is also a “Lyme survivor,” the camera cuts to Katie’s sarcastic face, clearly mocking Suzanne and her well-meaning gesture of sharing. Does Katie perceive Suzanne as being overdramatic for labeling herself a “Lyme survivor?” I should note that because there is no cure, that many of us prefer the term “Lyme Warrior,” however, that’s just semantics. Would Katie have made that face if Suzanne had shared that she was a survivor of another disease? I can’t fathom that she would have, even on a sitcom. If Katie had been caught faking another, more respected disease, she would be labeled a pariah in the community, but because she has chosen Lyme disease, it somehow seemed OK with the show’s producers.
Lyme disease is already a terribly misunderstood illness. Yolanda Hadid, Ally Hilfiger, Rob and Marisol Thomas, Avril Lavigne and countless others have devoted their lives to Lyme disease activism, representing tens of thousands who suffer without a cure, that needs to be taken seriously by the Center for Disease Control and needs to be covered by insurance.
People with Lyme disease are constantly questioned by doctors, family, friends and employers regarding the validity of their disease. When a disease often takes years to be diagnosed, it is not uncommon for someone to be questioned about whether or not they are truly sick or “doing it for attention.” In the two-and-a half years that I searched for a diagnosis, I lost people I considered to be my closest friends and was even told by doctors that the only referral that they could give me would be that of a psychiatrist.
People with Lyme disease usually do not receive disability benefits because the seriousness of the disease is disputed. Using woefully outdated data, the CDC says that it can be cured with a quick round of antibiotics. This episode of “American Housewife” plants a seed in the mind of the public that Lyme disease is something that can be made up for the purpose of gaining attention or getting out of responsibilities, such as Katie uses it for in this episode.
Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” used Yolanda Hadid’s Lyme disease as a major plot point, with her friends and castmates constantly questioning the legitimacy of Hadid’s illness. Lyme disease also has been joked about on Fox’s “Brooklyn 99” and on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in the skit “Dick the Christmas Tick.” The ABC network has a responsibility not to misrepresent serious illnesses as something that can be easily faked or as something that can be made fun of or dismissed. In September, Yolanda Hadid was featured on ABC’s “Good Morning America” discussing her new book, appropriately titled “Believe Me: My Battle with the Invisible Disability of Lyme Disease.” Pop icon and Lyme warrior Debbie Gibson was featured as a contestant on the current season of “Dancing with the Stars” also on ABC this September. Gibson’s health was the main focus of her interviews on “Dancing with the Stars.”
It is difficult to comprehend how a network could feature stories of struggle and courage with Lyme disease and just days later, air a show that belittles and mocks it. I wish ABC would pull the episode from streaming and repeats, because the message that they are sending out is dangerous and contributes to the misunderstanding and normalizing the mistreatment of people with Lyme disease..