Yet as someone who has, for nearly the past 20 years, lived with invisible illness, I can tell you that it is a legitimate look. My personal complex of illness stems from an unusual neurological condition called spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak syndrome, which leads to a brain with an insufficient cushion around it. I also have post-concussion syndrome. In my own decades with sickness as a varyingly close companion, there have been many points at which my life was truly defined by pain and disability on the inside, but still looked pretty nice and zippy on paper (or Facebook). I had two kids, I moved cities, I traveled, I hosted events, I wrote books and articles, I got out of a marriage that wasn’t working, I had boyfriends. Sometimes I did some of these things very slowly, as if from the middle of a lake of glue. Sometimes I did them white-knuckled, with a brain that felt like a fat, broiling whale bladder. Other times I was more fine — like now — and if someone were to encounter me on the street, they might assume I was 100 percent cured.
What I am describing here is the between-space spectrum of functional illness, a zone occupied by many with invisible illnesses — with feet both in the world of the well and in the universe of the sick. The sociologist Arthur W. Frank has called this cohort “remission society.” But I prefer to think of it as a society of walking wounded, because the term better includes people affected by illnesses including lupus, Lyme disease, migraine, endometriosis and, yes, the stubborn remnants of concussion — all of which are more chronically pooh-poohed, disbelieved or gaslighted, not least by the medical community.
Oddly, it’s a realm Paltrow says she herself inhabits. Just a few days before the trial began, the actor and Goop founder was lambasted for a podcast interview in which she seemed to suggest that her normal daily food intake was composed of coffee, bone broth and vegetables — a therapeutic diet she says has been helping her get over her own symptoms of long Covid and other health issues. (Paltrow later clarified that she eats “full meals.”) But the interview, which might have been strategically given to position Paltrow as a sick person who got uncomplainingly ill and then took care of her own business through an anti-inflammatory diet and a stiff upper lip (rather than blame and the courts), backfired: Not only did it make Paltrow look disordered and out of touch; it also put her own health issues into the same quotation marks as Sanderson’s. An illness invisible, and thus relentlessly questioned.
So, I don’t believe that Sanderson is a victim of reckless Hollywood royalty on skis. But I do believe his brain injury. Because I know, intimately, what a brain injury can do. And I know that between illness and health, there really is no zero-sum game. A man can have a life forever altered by a concussion. And he can also Zumba.
Source photographs: mbbirdy/E+/Getty Images; screen grab from YouTube.