President Bush had it. Irene from The Real World: Seattle had it. Novelist Amy Tan, musician Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates), and actor Richard Gere have all had it. Here in the Northeast, you can't go around the block without running into someone who's fallen prey to Lyme disease, or who at least knows someone who has. Yet for all this ubiquity, there's an aspect of the disease that's remained largely hidden — until now.
FIGHTING BACK: The battle against Lyme disease.
Released earlier this year, Under Our Skin labors to bring "the Lyme controversy" into mainstream conversation. That controversy, discussed at length in the piece that accompanies this one, is nowhere close to being resolved. Nor is it easily understood, though director Andy Abrahams Wilson does a good job of boiling down the salient facts, albeit from a biased point of view.
Wilson became interested in Lyme disease after a friend struggled with neurological problems and was ultimately diagnosed with Lyme. He quickly recognized that beyond the basic facts, there exists a severe lack of credible information about the disease.
“I was shocked about what I thought I knew about Lyme disease,” he writes in his director’s statement. “How I hadn’t taken it seriously, and how I knew few others did either. I was shocked that something with such far-reaching, life-and-death implications went so unnoticed.
“As with most mysteries,” he continues, “I soon found that conspiracy theorists filled the void.”
Under Our Skin goes into some of those theories, primarily to investigate the persecution of “Lyme-literate” doctors who believe that long-term (sometimes intravenous) antibiotic therapy is called for in certain cases. The documentary delves into whether or not the Infectious Diseases Society of America Lyme disease panel harbored conflicts of interest or plain-old narrow-mindedness when it issued guidelines for diagnosing and treating the disease — guidelines that suggest chronic Lyme infections don’t occur, and that it is dangerous to treat Lyme disease with long-term antibiotic regimens (as many people in the film did).
But most importantly, Wilson’s film focuses on several sick people who say they suffer from chronic Lyme disease — and who have found doctors who agree with them. Their stories are dramatic, scary, and heartbreaking. When he flashes quickly from one to the next, letting them share what they’ve been told is wrong with them, or how they feel about their sickness, it’s extremely effective.
Most arresting is Mandy Hughes, a beautiful young woman who was “diagnosed” with chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and dystonia before she tested positive for Lyme. In uncomfortably long, lingering shots, Wilson shows us Mandy’s good days — when she smiles and laughs about the absurdity of her condition — and her bad ones — having a seizure on the couch, attaching a tube of antibiotics to a port in her chest, or fretting that her husband will get sick of her sickness.
The only problem with Under Our Skin is an absence of climax; Wilson moves from the mystery of the illness, to the involvement of the doctors and insurance companies, to the question of whether or not Lyme can be transmitted through sex or from a mother to her fetus, but never moves through a complete story arc. But perhaps that’s the point — the true tale of this multifaceted illness is far from its resolution.