Friday, November 25, 2011

50/50: Life is permanent remission

Patrick and I watched 50/50 today.

My immediate reaction was: Holy shit. I wish I could be more eloquent than that, but every now and then, you have an experience that leaves you in holy shit mode.

Watching this movie was like watching our lives—well, mainly like watching Patrick’s life.

One scene in particular struck home for him. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sitting on the couch, bald, skinny, smoking, in his pajamas, watching The Colbert Report, the coffee table heaped with the accumulation of several days’ detritus.

Welcome to disability and its ugly twin, depression.

In the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a 27-year-old guy named Adam who is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. The movie is a great combination of unflinching honesty and humor (Seth Rogen plays his BFF).

I’d heard that the film had mostly gotten positive reviews—and after I watched it, I immediately checked it out on Rotten Tomatoes and found that it got a respectable 94% fresh rating. Reading through the reviews, I found that something the critics kept saying, however, was that the film struggled at times with maintaining a sense of realism.

Um . . . what?

First of all, the film is based on a true story.

I know, I know. Hollywood is not exactly famous for sticking to the facts. But the film was written by Will Reiser—based firsthand on his personal experiences with cancer when he was in his 20s.

Second of all, I’d like to reiterate that, as young people struggling with terminal illness, we found it to be spot-on—it’s almost uncanny. There was a point when Adam is in the hospital, getting prepped for surgery where we both just went, “Ohhhhhh.” It was too much like all the times we’ve been in the hospital.
From the moment Adam is diagnosed, we could relate from everything right down the line: uncaring doctors, a panicking mother, his swift deterioration, dealing with nausea, being the youngest patient in his chemo group, having people not know how to respond when you explain about his health problems, relying on our friends for support.

At one point, after he gets diagnosed, Adam’s office throws a party for him, “so they can celebrate Adam’s life.” It’s the most awkward thing ever. Just a few scenes earlier, the boss was being an utter dick to Adam and now, at the party, he’s hugging him, telling him how much he’s going to miss him. Oy. Patrick and I can relate to how people will completely change their tune when they find out you’re dealing with a massive illness, especially in the workplace. Suddenly, you have friends you didn’t even know you had—or wanted! Friends who hug! Isn’t it nice how facing death can bring people together!

Our favorite part was how the old men of the chemo group -- played awesomely by Matt Frewer and Phillip Baker Hall -- sort of adopted Adam, having bonding sessions over IVs and pot brownies, (Washington, where the film takes place, is a state where medicinal marijuana is legal). When Adam tells them he has neurofibroma sarcoma schwannoma, one of them knowingly says, “Ah. The more syllables, the worse it is.”
I think that these critics are basing the ‘lack of realism’ on their own experiences with illness and the medical establishment as older adults; they have no idea what it’s like to experience a terminal illness as a young adult—how surreal it can be, how alienating. The film perfectly depicts Adam as he wrestles with feelings of shock, helplessness and rage at his situation. In no time, he is like a middle-aged man living in a twentysomething’s body. Again, I can’t tell you how right this is. In my developmental psych class this semester, we just got through talking about how one of the characteristics of middle adulthood is the experiencing of stressful events. As one gets older, the likelihood of going through major catastrophes increases: accidents, illness, the death of a parent, financial crisis, etc.

For some of us, the reality check comes early. If you’re not careful, it can fuck you up good and proper. You can forget how to relate to everyone because you know that death is 100%, but nobody wants to hear that at a cocktail party-- and your mere presence reminds them of that. Fortunately, Adam’s doctor refers him to a therapist. She is, herself, only 24, working on a doctorate. Together, they muddle through Adam’s problems.

Patrick and I were faintly jealous that Adam had cancer—something for which millions of support groups exist. There aren’t support groups for young people with kidney disease. I still can’t get over my luck that I found a shrink in my neighborhood who happens to have a lot of experience with caregivers.

Something else that I kept seeing in the reviews is the abuse that gets heaped on Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. She plays Adam’s girlfriend who cheats on him. I had a lot of sympathy for her. It’s a tough gig, supporting someone through a major illness. It was interesting how the film chose to depict Adam’s mother (Anjelica Houston) as a caregiver—her husband, Adam’s father, had Alzheimer’s. The contrast between the two of them was not lost on me—Adam’s mother had clearly made her choice to stay. Adam’s girlfriend tried but couldn’t do it. Give her credit for that.

My shrink, as you might imagine, and I have had a lot of conversation about this. Why some people stay and why some don’t. Sometimes it’s not the ones you’d expect either—he’s known couples who’ve been married forty years who get divorced at a diagnosis of some terrible disease, while others who are engaged determinedly stick around through messy car accidents that leave their intended as paraplegics. I guess love has its reasons that reason knows not, eh?

But something my shrink has said about the people who do bail—we have to admire them for knowing themselves and their limitations. There is something to be said for that as well.

The film’s title comes from Adam’s chances of survival. What is unspoken throughout the film is how the chances of survival go up when we are surrounded by people who are rooting for us and supporting us and of course, keeping a sense of humor—even if those chances only go up infinitesimally.

I’m not a betting woman, but I’ll take those odds.

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