Dagwood Bumstead: Regular Guy or Victim of Invisible Illness?

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Poor Dagwood. All we can do is accept him and love him just as he is, because we can't quite understand what's going on inside him. He can't pass by a couch without lying down. He can hardly drag himself out of bed to go to work in the morning, regardless of how much sleep he has had. He is a binge eater, desperately gulping food for solace and comfort. He becomes irritable and frustrated if his daily soak in the tub is postponed or interrupted, as if he were in considerable pain. Without his devoted wife Blondie to keep him on track, he probably couldn't survive.

Once at the office, it is all Dagwood can do to stay awake at his desk. He is constantly at odds with his boss, who views him as a lazy slacker performing beneath his abilities just to aggravate. Friends and co-workers see him as a lovable "space cadet" whose short-term memory problems and poor concentration are just an endearing part of his personality; certainly not signs of real cognitive difficulties.

After all, in his leisure time, he plays cards with the boys, doesn't he? He bowls and goes fishing (he even gets up at the crack of dawn to go fishing!) If there is something he really wants to do, he gets out and does it, and apparently even enjoys it. Sometimes, if Blondie stays on his case long enough, he even helps around the house a little. So he's "normal," right? But what about that indefinable sadness we see in him? HE can't understand why life is such an endless struggle for him compared to others around him.

In our culture, we have a hard time believing people are sick if we can't see conspicuous outward signs. We prize silence in suffering. It seems more acceptable, for example, to self-medicate with alcohol or other addictions than to talk about feeling ill. And the medical community often reacts poorly when its traditional concept of illness fails to live up to reality. For decades, perhaps even centuries, we have accepted Dagwoodesque or couch-potato behaviors a normal, "personality thing." But I submit that Dagwood is a pop-cultural metaphor for hidden illness among Americans.

Mr. Bumstead is a comic embodiment of coping mechanisms for diseases that aren't taken seriously. He could be considered a two-dimensional emissary from that hidden population, indeed from an entire sub-culture of people with invisible chronic illnesses. Which could explain a lot.

For example, it so happens that the population of people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), often an "invisible" disease, is disproportionately (though by no means exclusively) FEMALE. There is a lot of speculation among experts over whether there is, out three somewhere, an invisible throng of males (Dagwoods, if you will) with CFS. People who are diagnosed with CFS often have symptoms similar to Dagwood's. The difference is, they have recognized that they need help and have openly sought it.

In the past, we have accepted "Dagwoodism" as amusing, but relatively harmless behavior. That it shows up as a stereotype in the funny papers is an indication of what a widespread phenomenon we are dealing with. Everyone smiles and nods in recognition. Many, many people relate to it in a personal way, and it sells comic strips. So why rock the boat by saying such folks are actually sick and need help?

The truth is, people who silently endure the invisible illnesses may not recognize what unclaimed power they have. The opportunity to ease their own suffering and the suffering of others is immense, should they begin to validate themselves, an seek appropriate support and medical attention.

Continuing to use CFS as an example, people with CFS feel rather alone in their struggle to have their illness recognized by the medical community and by society. They are very grateful for everyone who has already chosen to speak out and wholeheartedly encourage others to do so. And women with CFS feel particularly alone. Like it or not, we still live in a world where men are usually taken more seriously than women in crucial areas, including (perhaps especially) health care. While most women with CFS would prefer to be respected in their own right, they need help NOW, and if it could come indirectly through the actions of their male counterparts, doubtless few would object.

And perhaps afterward, if we feel up to it, we would all get together and have a GOOD laugh.

Sara Brenner - onset of illness: circa 1962, age 6