Jennifer Brea wasn’t supposed to break down. But in 2011, her body did just that. The 28-year-old was on the verge of a Harvard PhD and a wedding, but a series of viral infections transformed her from an energetic young woman to a bedridden patient with a mystery illness.
Desperate to escape the pain, exhaustion and loss of muscle control that bound her to her bed, Brea visited a long list of medical specialists — many of whom questioned whether she was sick at all.
In reality, Brea has myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME. Also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, the condition can mystify health-care providers and disable patients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 2.5 million Americans suffer from the illness, 90 percent of them undiagnosed.
“Unrest,” Brea’s intensely personal documentary about her journey through ME, asks why physicians still know so little about the disease. The film delves into Brea’s ordeal, her marriage and the lives of others whose health was stolen by a condition that can strip a person of dignity, mobility and hope for the future.
More women have ME than men, and Brea’s experience fighting for recognition from her doctors is central to the film’s narrative. Her documentary is a testimony not just to the terrors of ME but also to the struggles that women often face when relaying information about their own bodies to medical providers.
ME can keep patients painfully separate from their everyday lives and loved ones. “Unrest” breaks through a bit of that isolation and offers a sometimes heartbreaking look at what it takes to survive a poorly understood disease.
Brea, who directed the film largely from her bed, received a Special Jury Award from the Sundance Film Festival for her documentary. It’s available for rental and purchase on streaming services including Vudu, Google Play and iTunes, and in select screenings at theaters worldwide.