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How Rejecting the Hollywood Ending Has Helped Me Cope With MS

Living Well

January 23, 2024

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Photography by Ani Dimi/Stocksy United

Photography by Ani Dimi/Stocksy United

by Ashley Harris

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Medically Reviewed by:

Heidi Moawad, M.D.

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•••••

by Ashley Harris

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Heidi Moawad, M.D.

•••••

•••••

Offbeat films inspire me with resilience, community, and courage.

At age 11, I sweet-talked my mother into taking me to see the movie “Grease” five times. I adored it. Hopelessly devoted Sandy eventually lands Danny, the handsome leading man. Tough girl Rizzo turns out not to be pregnant and reunites with her guy. And ditsy Frenchy drops out of beauty school and goes back to high school. The movie wrapped with all Rydell High classmates graduating and singing “We’ll Always Be Together.” It was the epitome of a happy Hollywood ending, and to a young girl dreaming of adulthood, I couldn’t wait for my own life to follow suit.

But things didn’t work out that way. At 31, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), which brought embarrassment, fear, and, at times, anxiety and pain.

My marriage to my own Danny collapsed.

And my career created stress and disappointment, as I failed to “fake it ’til you make it” and advance as quickly in the marketing field as Tess McGill in “Working Girl.

Watching romantic comedies such as “Failure to Launch” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” with their sappy and overly contrived endings, depressed me.

Call me bitter, but for years, I avoided movies, especially those made-for-TV Hallmark films that other people enjoyed so much. They seemed like a cruel joke.

As selfish as it sounds, I couldn’t help comparing my life to the lives of the characters in these movies. Where was my perfect ride-off-into-the sunset Hollywood ending? Call me bitter, but for years, I avoided movies, especially those made-for-TV Hallmark films that other people enjoyed so much. They seemed like a cruel joke.

But when the pandemic came, and with it, a wealth of video content that was now available to stream in the convenience of my home, a new world opened up for me. I suddenly had access to older, less well-known, and often independent movies with characters facing challenges even greater than mine. Losing myself in the stories of people living on the edge brought solidarity and a new kind of fulfillment. I witnessed resilience, humanity, community, and courage, and I grew to recognize these things in my own far-from-perfect life.

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Letting go of the fairy tale

One of the first movies that resonated with me was “The Night of the Iguana,” a 1964 film based on a play by Tennessee Williams. This film features a disgraced clergyman-turned-travel guide who leads a church group on a tour of Mexico, enduring oppressive heat and the constant complaints of the all-female group.

The Reverend T. Laurence Shannon, already on probation at Blake’s Tours, finds himself stalked by a starry-eyed teenage girl who throws herself at him, a compromising situation that arouses the ire of Judith, the prudish leader of the group who vows to destroy him.

At a coastal inn near Puerto Vallarta, where the group is staying, Laurence forges a connection with Hannah, a penniless artist who relies on the grudging kindness of the innkeeper, Maxine, an earthy and troubled widow. Hannah ultimately rejects Laurence, and the film closes as he at last succumbs to the overtures of Maxine.

I have shaky legs and crushing fatigue, and I’ve made my own share of mistakes, but I wanted to believe that I, too, deserved my own form of happiness.

I wasn’t looking for a traditional Cinderella love story. I was far more taken with this story of broken characters such as Laurence and Maxine making the most of their lives.

I have shaky legs and crushing fatigue, and I’ve made my own share of mistakes, but I wanted to believe that I, too, deserved my own form of happiness.

Living in the remote Uwharrie mountains of Randolph County, North Carolina, is as exotic as the coast of Mexico in its own way. We have no iguanas, but I enjoy seeing the friendly lizards called anoles that make themselves at home on my deck every summer.

And it was on this very deck in July 2017, in a climate as muggy as Puerto Vallarta, where I married J.P., a man as flawed as I am and who had also suffered a failed marriage in his past.

I realize now that a lasting love relationship takes far more than the sort of romance featured in a Hollywood rom-com. It takes work and commitment every day. J.P. accepts me for who I am, even with the limitations brought by MS, just as I accept him and his limitations. Still, it’s not easy, and when he picks me up after I fall, I can’t help but think of the fearless Maxine reassuring Laurence that she will always get him back on his feet.

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Living in the moment

I’ve recently started watching French films of the poetic realism movement set in the 1930s. These black-and-white movies, steeped in shadows, featured desperate characters on the fringes of society, often on the brink of death.

However, even in the worst of times, such as in “The Grand Illusion” (1937), when two prisoners of war escape their German captors only to face winter in the Alps, they manage to put aside their differences and help each other survive.

Films such as “Hôtel du Nord” (1938) and “L’Atalante” (1934) offer many such tender moments of humanity, and they remind me of the importance of living in the moment and appreciating the kindness of people in my life. In the past, I was often annoyed when people in my church asked if something was wrong when they saw me walk a little slower, but now I choose to interpret their curiosity as a sign of love and genuine concern.

Looking ahead with courage

I also enjoyed “The Trip to Bountiful,” a 1985 film based on a play by Horton Foote that I hadn’t watched until recently. In this movie, the elderly Carrie Watts aches to leave Houston, Texas, and return to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas but must outwit her overbearing son Ludie and nettlesome daughter-in-law Jessie Mae to do so.

Carrie is forced to travel by a slow bus and loses her purse, but despite these obstacles, she manages to brighten the life of a fellow traveler who’s lonely for her army husband. Although Ludie and Jessie Mae eventually catch up with Carrie just as she finally makes it to her dilapidated homestead, the film concludes with the three of them returning to Houston with a new, albeit fragile, peace.

From my perspective, this ending reinforced the balance between my own nostalgia for the times before I had MS and the courage to soldier on and face the reality of my disease.

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Finding my community

Now that I’m watching movies again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that some modern films match my cinematic tastes. At the recommendation of friends, I recently watched “Nomadland” (2020).

It stars the no-nonsense Frances McDormand as Fern, a feisty widow who loses her job and must travel the country in a van while looking for work. She faces countless setbacks along the way, but an oddball fellow traveler teaches her roadworthy survival skills. Although Fern passes on the opportunity for a love relationship with a nice man she meets and ultimately returns to a seasonal job, she achieves a sense of serenity about the future and embraces her nomadic lifestyle.

After reflecting on “Nomadland,” I’m learning to take life as it comes and not worry about the future. As a freelance writer, I enjoy the independence of my own “itinerant” work and find it far more fulfilling than the more stable marketing jobs I’ve had in the past.

After living nearly 25 years with MS, I’m more receptive to the wisdom found in films that focus on what is real and what is possible.

In a larger sense, I’ve started to regard all people as fellow “nomads,” and I relish the brief moments of community I’ve experienced on my own journey, whether it’s with fellow patients in the IV infusion suite where I take my MS treatments or with a stranger I meet while picking up food at Panera.

I look back with kindness on the naïve girl who dreamed of being like Sandy in “Grease.” As an 11-year-old, Fern would have terrified me. But at this stage in my life, after living nearly 25 years with MS, I’m more receptive to the wisdom found in films that focus on what is real and what is possible.

The advice given by the character Bob near the end of “Nomadland” helped me just as much as it did Fern: “I think that connecting to nature and … and to a real true community and tribe will make all the difference for you. I hope so.”

Medically reviewed on January 23, 2024


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About the author

Ashley Harris

Ashley Harris lives in southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina, surrounded by the mystical Uwharrie Mountains. She writes about gardening, exercise, self-care, and life with MS. She has also written for Real Simple, Wired, and The Independent and authored a poetry collection, Waiting for the Wood Thrush (Finishing Line Press 2019). She’s currently working on a memoir of linked essays exploring love, faith, and serenity while living with multiple sclerosis. For more, you can visit her website.

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