Unrest Reviewed: The Award-Winning Documentary About Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Warning: Minor Spoilers

It’s not often that you see films covering conditions like fibromyalgia. And Unrest, released in 2017, isn’t specifically about fibromyalgia. But if you take the time to follow the director of the film, Jennifer Brea, along on her journey through the world of chronic fatigue syndrome (or myalgic encephalomyelitis, as it’s referred to in the film), you’ll find that the film still has a lot of value for anyone with fibromyalgia.

Chronic fatigue syndrome shares many similarities with fibromyalgia, and in the opening seconds of the film, the viewer is met with something that will be instantly recognizable to anyone with the condition: a heartbreaking and even visceral sequence where Brea struggles to crawl the few inches along the floor to her bed while she is racked with pain.

It’s a powerful way to open a film about a devastating disease. The pain Brea is experiencing is clear on her face, and the dark circles under her eyes make it clear that she’s struggled with fatigue for a long time.

The film that follows is just as powerful and really should be required viewing for anyone who wants to truly understand what it’s like to live with an invisible condition like fibromyalgia. But Unrest isn’t just a primer for the uninitiated into the world of chronic pain. At its best, the film is a reminder that you are not alone.

In many ways, ME/CFS, like fibromyalgia, is a lonely disease. And Unrest demonstrates this very well. The movie is a combination of footage from Brea’s life and interviews with other people who struggle with CFS. That includes Leeray Denton, a mother who has been bed-ridden for years with her condition.

As her story unfolds through home movies and interviews, it follows a pattern familiar to many people with fibromyalgia. Leeray talks about the strain her condition took on her marriage, ending in divorce. She talks about how she’s lost all of her friends and watched her children move on with their lives from her bed. And in a moment that will also be familiar to far too many, she talks about how her daughter was also diagnosed with CFS.

But while Brea pulls no punches when it comes to showing how isolating the condition can be, she also discovers how the internet has allowed people who suffer from the condition to come together and support each other through frequent skype conversations and virtual meeting places. The huge number of people that Brea connects with and the wide range of their backgrounds is an incredible demonstration of how a devastating condition can bring people together, as well as pull them apart.

And in a film that shows some of the darkest moments of people suffering from the condition, that ability to come together also provides hope. Nowhere in the film is this more obvious than at a rally, organized through the internet, of CFS sufferers who are working to raise awareness of a condition that has been invisible- or even mocked, as shown in one sequence- for far too long.

Unrest spends a significant amount of time covering the situation of people with CFS in Denmark, where the disease is still treated as a psychological problem instead of a physical one. It’s a situation that has tragic results for one young girl in the film, who is pulled from her home and forced into a psychiatric clinic against her wishes.

That idea of simply not being believed is present through much of the film, and it’s something that anyone with a chronic condition will recognize immediately. At its core, Unrest is a plea from people who are sick to simply have the rest of the world recognize that they are sick.

But while the film is a great window into CFS for those who don’t struggle with it, it has equal value for those who do. Often, people who struggle with chronic illness think that the things they are going through are unique. But Unrest proves that the things they are experiencing are very common for anyone with chronic pain conditions.

Brea’s vulnerability- and even a misplaced sense of guilt that her illness prevents her from being a good spouse- is an incredible reminder that CFS takes a toll on every relationship. The struggles of the people with the condition featured in the film to live normal lives are also all immediately recognizable, and they serve as a constant plea for the recognition the condition deserves.

But while Unrest is dedicated to raising awareness of CFS and does it very well, there is one subject that probably deserved more attention than it received: suicide. The fact that people with CFS and similar conditions suffer from a high rate of suicide and depression is mentioned, but largely off-hand. Suicide is one of the biggest risks facing people with the condition, but too often the risk goes unspoken. It’s an invisible disease within an invisible disease, and it would have been nice to see the issue receive more screen time.

Even so, Unrest remains one of the most moving depictions of chronic pain and fatigue conditions out there. And everyone with any interest in fibromyalgia or CFS should see it at least once. At the moment, Unrest is available for streaming on Netflix, or for purchase on most digital media stores like iTunes, as well as on DVD.