No matter our age or state of health, most of us want to look and act as though we are well. Indeed, for many people, looking and acting “normal” is necessary in order to hold onto their jobs.
One reason that people so dread the diagnosis of dementia, other than the obvious one of having an incurable, life-altering disease, is that once the fact is known that they have the disease, it’s quite possible that their employer may find “other reasons” to decide they no longer need their services. Even friends can drift away since they often don’t know how to respond.
Such was the case for glamorous fashion expert Christine Schwab. Her fight wasn’t against Alzheimer’s or other dementia, it was against rheumatoid arthritis. Yet, the premise is similar. People diagnosed with chronic illness of any type will likely relate to this a great read.
Schwab worked in television as a fashion expert. Her life was hard driven, with deadlines for shows like Live with Regis and Kelly, Entertainment Tonight and The Today Show. She even appeared on Oprah – a segment in her book that will grip you as tightly as any novel. Imagine trying to hide the pain and disfigurement of RA, when success in your job significantly aligns with your appearance.
Schwab hid her pain and gradual disfigurement from RA from everyone but her closest family members and, eventually, an assistant or two. Armed with the knowledge and skill to hide flaws with makeup and clothes, she used her talent to the max. Because of her high profile, and the attendant sway in the fashion world, she promoted the “stylishness” of tennis shoes as a trend. Why? Because she couldn’t wear glamorous stiletto heels. Schwab even covered her deformed hands with fingerless gloves – the better to show off her style setting personality, and, not so incidentally, to hide her swollen, bent fingers from the prying press.
Schwab endured potentially poisonous treatments and the horrors of extended steroid use in order to cover up her crippling disease. She was desperate to keep the work she’d spent a lifetime building. Schwab was a freelancer who knew that the top brass at any company could take one look at her red, swollen feet spilling out of her shoes and conclude she no longer fit the glamour image required.
Schwab interweaves stories about her troubled childhood, where she was “boarded out” by a single mother who didn’t want to alter her lifestyle so she could care for her daughter. She’d been taught that looks were everything. Her loving husband said she was beautiful the way she was, yet she couldn’t believe that was true. You’ll have to read “Take Me Home from the Oscars” to find out what she did about her disfigured hands.
I was concerned that Schwab’s remission – which she hints at throughout the book so I’m not spoiling the plotline – may give false hope to many RA sufferers, but she does explain that what is working for her, at least for now, won’t work for everyone.
With this book, Schwab has broken her nearly 20-year silence about having chronic illness and the effect it’s had on her life. She did so after she was in relative safety as far as her work was concerned, something she’s very upfront about.
If she’d had a disease like Alzheimer’s, and had for example a job where people’s lives depended on her skill, she would have had to “come clean” much sooner. But Schwab was in the fashion industry which is not about life or death. Her work depended on presenting a stylish image. Through sheer will, lots of self-admitted denial, and plenty of financial and emotional resources, she pulled off her cover up until she found a way into remission.
True, this book is about arthritis, which will be spotlighted come May. But “Take Me Home from the Oscars” is about far more than living with RA. It’s about our culture and how we view sick people. It’s about living with chronic disease and feeling compelled to appear “normal.” It’s about the huge emotional cost of covering up and, for her, a long list of lies told in order to survive in the business world. People with multiple sclerosis, dementia, cancer, arthritis and many other diseases can also feel this need.
“Take Me Home from the Oscars” is a gripping memoir you will race through with ease. However, it’s so much more. It’s a courageous commentary on our culture, complete with some juicy bits about “personalities.” More importantly, it’s the story of a woman with a public presence who has finally decided to speak out about her disease to help other’s understand the live of someone with a life-altering disease. Published by Sky Horse Publishing, “Oscars” is available in book stores and online.
Published On: April 08, 2011