Afflicted is an extraordinarily bleak seven-part Netflix Original documentary series created by Dan Partland. It follows individuals with severe, chronic illnesses who seek out increasingly bizarre and controversial treatments in the hopes of living a normal life.
Featuring personal accounts from those afflicted interspersed with statements from various medical professionals, almost all of whom simply throw up their hands and say, “You know what, this is news to me,” a recurring theme in Afflicted is whether or not these illnesses are even real. Many have been self-diagnosed using Google after the described symptoms puzzled doctors. Are they psychosomatic? Psychological?
It’s easy to be sceptical when you meet Carmen, whose affliction is (self-diagnosed) EHS – electromagnetic hypersensitivity. When she first arrives, she lays down the ground rules with the production team, explaining that they need to leave their phones in the car, remove their smart watches, and stand further away from the telephone lines. When she needs to send a long letter, she whips out an old-fashioned manual typewriter. And when she needs to visit the grocery store she calls in advance, asking the staff to bring what she wants to the customer service desk, so she can sprint in and out again without overexposing herself to the store’s fluorescent lighting.
It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for Carmen, as she strikes a faintly ridiculous figure. Even in conversation with her husband, while describing how she can’t stand near the stove too long, she quite clearly prompts him heavily. He mostly just stands there looking confused. This, of course, is entirely the point of Afflicted; how are you supposed to feel about an invisible affliction with nebulous symptoms that doctors don’t understand? Cynicism is easy and, I must admit, tempting. It’s even more tempting when it comes to Jamison, who has been in bed 24 hours a day for two years, having been initially diagnosed with ME – Myalgic Encephalomyelitis – and gradually deteriorated to the point that now any physical movement, including speech, causes him pain.
Through a Bluetooth speaker connected to his phone, Jamison explains that while he used to be fit and active, now he’s completely bedbound. (While he’s explaining this he wears earplugs, because his own digitised voice emanating from the speaker hurts him too.) His caregiver says she’s never seen anything like it. And his parents are the first to bring up the word “hypochondria.”
Sometimes, hypochondria seems unlikely simply because the illness is so esoteric that it’s difficult to imagine who might come up with it. Bekah, a self-proclaimed psychic witch with face tattoos, lives in a van with her boyfriend, Jesse, because of chronic mold sensitivity. This seems reasonable enough to me; she’s violently allergic to even tiny amounts of mold in buildings or houses, forcing her to carry around a cooler full of medication that might make her go blind or become emotionally unstable. But then she steps out of the van in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere, and says, “Something smells moldy.” Afflicted intentionally does this; juxtaposes the believable with the utterly ridiculous, the sincere accounts of spouses and significant others with doctors who you can just tell are stifling a scoff.
The fact remains, though, that whether these people are victims of misunderstood illnesses or their own minds, they’re undeniably suffering. No plea for attention could possibly be this committed, not when the afflicted will go to such lengths; experimental blood transfusions, tours through electromagnetic ghost towns – even the commitment required to remain in bed for two years would be unfeasible for someone who wasn’t truly experiencing something, even if it wasn’t what they thought or claimed they were experiencing. And it’s even worse for someone like Star, who has received about twelve diagnoses for various autoimmune disorders, but is still largely laughed at and dismissed because she’s a good-looking, otherwise fit and healthy woman.
In that sense, then, Afflicted is an important and powerful series, drawing attention not necessarily to these specific illnesses, but to the idea of being at the mercy of a malignancy that is largely invisible and thoroughly misunderstood. It almost doesn’t matter what the specifics of the affliction are, or even if there’s an affliction at all. The series encourages you not to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but to spend a day in someone else’s body; the metaphor, though, remains just as powerful.