February 12


13 Ways Fibromyalgia is Like Downton Abbey

By Sue Ingebretson

February 12, 2013

Downton Abbey, fibromyalgia, pain, PBS


Downton Abbey and Fibromyalgia

Whether you’re an avid Downton Abbey watcher or haven’t the remotest of interests in the wildly popular PBS series, I suggest you read on with an open mind. The frenzied fibroworld and pastoral living at a Yorkshire country estate may have more in common than you think.

Because I live and breathe the world of chronic illness, I’m always exploring ways to share that world with others. I educate and articulate details for those who may not understand fibromyalgia, ME/chronic fatigue, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and various autoimmune conditions, etc. While I mention fibromyalgia comparisons throughout, feel free to insert the chronic condition of your choice.

I also happen to live and breathe the world of PBS Masterpiece Theater’s production of Downton Abbey. Pup and I are glued to the screen each week. I forced invited my hubby to watch season 1 (don’t bother asking him because he’ll deny it). But I’ve savored seasons 2 and 3 just for myself and my furry companion.

Of course, I’m happy to jump into Downton Abbey plot conversations on Twitter and Facebook as they arise. And who can pass up sharing delightful pictures of Violet and her witty sayings? (i.e. “Don’t be defeatist dear. It’s so middle class.”)

As I thought about connections between fibromyalgia and Downton Abbey, I found my fingers flying over the keyboard. There’s lots to say. I decided 13 was a good stopping point — a baker’s dozen. I’m giving a flour-fingered salute to our beloved Mrs. Patmore and her efficient and innocent scullery maid, Daisy.

But … just like Daisy, some things that look simple on the surface are quite another thing once you dig a little. Grab a shovel and read on …

1)    They each begin with a crisis of titanic proportions

Titanic and Fibromyalgia

DOWNTON: For Downton Abbey, the beginning really was a titanic problem. The sinking of the Titanic created a scenario that sets the stage for continued drama. An heir to the Grantham family estate had been lost. Without a proper male heir (oh dash it all that Lord and Lady Grantham begat girls!), whatever would become of their humble home, Downton Abbey?

FIBROMYALGIA: To be clear, fibromyalgia has multiple causes. There is not ONE problem or event that brings on this condition, but rather a “perfect storm” of them. However, many causes (i.e. nutritional deficiencies, latent infections, genetics, toxic exposures, etc.) may exist undetected and it’s not until an accident, injury and/or an extremely stressful event does the condition – in its fullness – percolate to the surface. (Another clarification: for some, the percolating period is short, for others, it can be quite long – even years).

2)    No one can spell them

DOWNTON: Please, do us all a favor and cut out 50% of your W’s from Downton. What it is not — DOWN-TOWN. What it is — DOWN-TON. Got it?

FIBROMYALGIA: Where do I even begin with the misspellings of fibromyalgia? When I was first writing about it, few had even heard it spoken much less tried to spell it. I’ve heard fibralga, fibromaglia, and my favorite, Fibromylasia (which sounds like a very painful country to visit). Think of the prefix “fibro” (meaning fibrous tissues or muscles) + “algia” (painful condition) which pretty much makes it easy to remember. Okay, if not easy to remember, then look it up on Wikipedia. It should be spelled right there … I think.

3)    Everything looks “fine” … on the surface

DOWNTON: Upstairs on Downton Abbey everything is picture perfect. From the precisely measured place settings and the taller-than-me floral arrangements to the exquisite coiffures and baubles of the titled; life imitates art. Fine art. But if you mistakenly yawn at the elegant facade you’ll miss out on the undercurrent between the upstairs and downstairs residents. The realities of progress have the aristocracy in a collision course trajectory with the common folk. A “where worlds collide” theme runs amok throughout each episode.

FIBROMYALGIA: There’s a similar theme to those who deal with fibromyalgia: they may look “fine” but don’t feel fine. In fact, they may feel like something that’s been run over by a semi, put through a wood chipper, and then glued back together by graveyard shift assembly line workers. You get the picture. For fibrofolk, things are not always as they appear. It’s frustrating to field insincere compliments. What’s said – “You look fine.” What’s unsaid – “You look fine, so therefore if you say you don’t feel fine, you’re either fibbing, pretending, or trying to get out of something.”

4)    A lot of people have no idea what they are – but they sure are talking about them

DOWNTON: After season 1, the PBS crowd was abuzz. Would Mary’s secret be leaked? Could Downton survive the ravaging effects of war? The compelling nature of the series drew attention, the finely woven plots kept them hooked. After season 2, it wasn’t just regular PBS viewers. The word was out. Then news of the unexpected popularity hit mainstream media. News reports, late-night mentions, and parodies (the ultimate in flattery) flourished. Downton Abbey had gone big-time. Even if you’re not glued to your TV on Sunday nights, admit it — you’ve heard of it.

FIBROMYALGIA: I’ve heard people give the strangest descriptions when asked what they know of fibromyalgia. Some are well-meaning, others just plain comical. A chiropractor (who should have known better) once asked me, “Oh come on, it can’t be that bad. Don’t you think everyone wakes up with aches and pains?” Comparing every day aches and pains to fibromyalgia is like comparing an organ grinder Capuchin monkey to King Kong.  As far as popularity goes, fibromyalgia has yet (to my knowledge) to be parodied on late night TV. I have considered writing a stage adaptation of some of my work. But, the world may not yet be ready for Fibromyalgia the Musical.

And speaking of not ready, what’s with the portrayal of fibromyalgia in commercials? It’s so confusing! They depict fibromyalgia sufferers either malingering on a couch or rowing canoes and happily baking cakes. I don’t own a canoe. I’m not fond of cake. And, I don’t know what either has to do with fibromyalgia.

5)    Each have long, dry, seasons of nothing eventful happening

DOWNTON: For the die-hard Downton Abbey fan, this is the bad part. The season is so emotional, so gripping, and so devastatingly brief. After a few short weeks in the New Year (for the US watchers) the world of Downton Abbey goes dark. All joy is sucked from life as we wait, sigh, and wait some more for the following year.

FIBROMYALGIA: For those with fibromyalgia, this is the good part. Symptoms of many chronic conditions multiply and worsen in what are called “flares” (NOT “flairs,” by the way). While symptoms may be bad for a season, there are times in between seasons where the symptoms seem to abate or at least minimize. Again, for fibrofolk, this isn’t just a good thing … it’s a VERY good thing.

Violet and Fibromyalgia

6)    It’s really the biggest pain that runs the show

DOWNTON: For Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, things are pretty simple. If it’s not done and needs to be, tell someone beneath you to do it. If it’s a task needing a little finesse, manipulation, or coercion, do it yourself. And, by all means, use your position (and your cane) to drive the point home. You are, after all, entitled to your opinion – as is everyone else.

FIBROMYALGIA: Pain, as an over-arching theme, is pretty overt. It may be dull, throbbing, or searing, but in every case, pain steals the attention. While other symptoms need focus too, they often get ignored, or pushed to the back burner. It’s sort of like housekeeping at the Big Top. Imagine trying to focus on exterminating bugs under the bleachers while in the center ring, a lion is eating the tamer.

Pain always takes center stage.


Due to the unusual length of this post, I’ve split in half. Stay tuned to next week for Part Deux of 13 Ways Fibromyalgia is Like Downton Abbey.

Can you think of other ways? Or do you just have some good Downton Abbey gossip and comments? Please share below!


Here’s a direct link to Part 2 of this article!

    1. What great fun, Diane! Yet another thing we have to chat about. I’m so glad you liked it and stay tuned for more next week!

  1. Tho I have yet to experience Downtown Abbey and am not even sure I can get it, I thoroughly enjoyed the analogies to Fibromyalgia which unfortunately I know intimitely. I do think I might indulge for the sheer pleasure of being distracted from the pain. Thank you for a most delightful read! Karen

  2. I’ve been to the house where it is filmed, it’s stunning. The manager forgot her manners when asking me not to take photos inside, though.
    It is a beautiful country house in the middle of the countryside. It has a lovely forest nearby too.

    1. Oh how lovely, Chrissie — I would SO love to go there. Must have been an experience of a lifetime. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I love this with a passion. I love Downton Abbey so much, and I love the comparisons between it and fibro. I think this is awesome and such a creative way to explain it.

  4. My mother just told me about how much she is enjoying this series on PBS I had never heard of. What a great surprise to read this tonight.

    I told mom that I would look for a way to watch the series. I have been watching Call The Midwife on PBS and really enjoy that one!

    I sent my mom a link to this so she can enjoy this too!
    She is always listening to programs to help me find answers and she has learned more about Fibromyalgia than I think any mother wants to!

    Thank you Sue.

    1. You’re so welcome, Kim. I really enjoyed Call the Midwife, too! We do have much in common and I’m always happy to entertain AND educate 😉

  5. Sue,

    I knew you would have great ways to connect our favorite show and the painful and true aspects of Fibromyalgia. You always exceed my expectations! So funny, so right on and so true. My favorite is the biggest pain gets the most action! I hope you watched 60 Minutes tonight because Maggie talked a little about that. I can’t wait to read you next blog.

    Way to go sister! (I am glad none of us are in child bearing years and away from a hospital.) But I really want to wear those dresses! Stunning.

    Keep writing… you and down right spot on!


  6. I really enjoyed this article and am looking forward to the next part! I shared it on FB and emailed it to some friends who have fibro or similar chonic pain diseases. You have a sense of humor, but you are right-on about fibromyalgia! Thank you sharing this with us!

    1. Jacque — I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. Feel free to continue to pass it along. It’s great to share a sense of humor as well as a sense of community. Thanks for your kind comment!

  7. I truly enjoyed your post, and look forward to future postings. I have not seen Downtown Abbey, though I’ve read many postings about the show, I think I need to watch it while I knit.
    Your findings between Fibromyalgia, and DA are spot on. The one thing I will add is on a good day with fibromyalgia, when you have less pain, no brain fog and a bit more energy, you fill like a million bucks. But, these kind of days are few and far,far between.
    Thank you for the lovely posting.

    1. Mariann — I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Did you know there are healing and stress-relieving benefits to knitting? So, to watch Downton Abbey AND knit would be a win/win combo! Thanks for your lovely comment and I look forward to hearing from you again!

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