As Jonathan Reid-Edwards prepares for the release of his film The Good Neighbour, he looks back on how it was inspired by his own Crohn's diagnosis and the subsequent journey to acceptance as he learned to live with his condition.
Before my Crohn’s diagnosis, I would declare the following: I am a filmmaker who writes and directs short films. Now, five years later: I am a filmmaker who writes and directs feature films. One word, one very big change. Not that I make feature films- though yes, that’s a big change personally and for audiences. No. The real change was coming to terms with my Crohn’s diagnosis and it’s profound and positive change on my wellbeing.
As a working-class filmmaker, life has always been one of juggling day jobs- be it bookseller or waiter- and grabbing film work wherever I can. Beginning a career as a filmmaker is a stressful undertaking- long hours, the vast majority of them unpaid, coupled with two accepted beliefs. One, that on average you probably won’t make your first feature until you’re in your thirties or forties. Two, that you have to learn how to feed yourself until your second feature, when someone is paying you an actual wage for your work.
You barely sleep, eat what you can, and your health suffers so much you feel like too little butter over too much toast.
So six years ago when I started to drastically lose weight, I didn’t think much of it. I was running a lot and thought that the stomach pains were simply all the caffeine I was drinking, that I was just suddenly great at exercise and my metabolism was finally kicking in aged 29. I soon started suffering tremendous pain at the base of my spine. A benign tumour was discovered on my tailbone as well as lesions on my spine. Thanks to the fabulous NHS (more on them later), I had it removed and thought I was cured. That benign tumour must have explained all of those odd symptoms, I thought. But the fatigue and weight loss continued (I was at seven stone), and the searing abdominal pain too. Then, there was the blood. Always there. Always reminding me all was not well. This was, it turned out, Crohn's disease, and completely unrelated to what was removed from my spine.
I had grown up with people who had Crohn’s, and so dreaded what it could do to you.
I was lucky- I got diagnosed fairly quickly by yes, those fabulous folks at the NHS. I had seen childhoods spent more at home than at school, and my gut reaction (here all-night, folks) was what this meant for my dreams, my hopes. How was I going to continue making films, living with this disease? I started on steroids (later azathioprine) and watched my diet like a hawk. The weight started coming on, yet I was worried about how the steroids would have an effect on my other two chronic problems- anxiety and depression. I felt like I had entered a perfect storm, one into which I could spiral if I wasn’t careful. Like everyone, I looked to the wider world for totems of living with Crohn’s and found countless stories. Some close friends who I had no idea had the disease, and more famous people who have soldiered on and persevered. I realised they had accepted their diagnosis for what it was: a fact of life, and one that they could either complain about or live with. How did they get to that point? How did they accept Crohn’s into their life?
So. Four years ago. I am a filmmaker who writes and directs short films, who also has Crohn’s disease. I was on a short trip to LA, trying to sell a script that would be my first feature film. Doubt had crept in: my brain was foggy from my still relapsing body, and at times I was curled up on the bed, screaming through the pain.
Battling through that relapse, I had an epiphany: I had to ask for help. It was so simple. And it changed everything.
My partner in film and life, Kate Tuck, was on hand, and would prove a tremendous support, and the key to getting through this. You see, I was someone who prided themselves on their self-sufficiency, and stubbornly so. We decided: head back to London and write a low to no budget film that is about someone coming to terms with a chronic illness. About someone learning to ask for help.
And so 'The Good Neighbour' was born. The film that means I can say I am a filmmaker who writes and directs feature films. Yes, on the surface, it is about a woman coming to terms with a chronic illness- in the film she has multiple sclerosis, another illness that actually shares many symptoms of Crohn’s, notably the fatigue and brain fog, and that not everyone has the same symptoms either. Behind the camera though, is where my Crohn’s diagnosis proved a positive change in my life. In having to accept help from other people to get through the worst of it, to tell myself that that’s okay and doesn’t lessen me as a person, I was a much better collaborator on set.
Film is a collaborative medium. It takes the coming together of so many different disciplines to do one thing: serve the story.
Making a film is about listening. Being open. Accepting and rejecting ideas for the right reason. Without the journey to becoming a Crohn’s fighter, I would not be nearly as a good a filmmaker. It also inspired my first feature film, something I never thought would happen when I was first diagnosed. So yes. My name is Jonathan Reid-Edwards, I’m 35 years old and have Crohn’s disease. I’m a filmmaker who writes and directs feature films, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help and support of so many wonderful people. There’ll be relapses, there will hopefully be remissions, but remember this: you are still you and there will always be people there, whether you see them or not. You just have to ask.
I will say this though- I really miss being able to drink black coffee on set.
The Good Neighbour is available on Amazon Prime.