How Selma Blair on Dancing With the Stars reshaped my view of my chronic illness

Selma Blair is my hero.

That might sound trite or cliched, but it's hard to find the words to express just how much her run on Dancing With the Stars after a 2018 Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis meant to me. I too have a chronic illness (fibromyalgia). As anyone with a chronic illness will tell you, it can be difficult not to feel defined by your limitations, partly because our ableist society is designed to remind you of them at every turn — I've had my fibromyalgia diagnosis for 11 years and too often my way of dealing with it is to ignore it, trying to pretend it doesn't exist.

But with her appearance on Dancing With the Stars, Blair proved that no matter the circumstances, it's your courage and your spirit that define you.


ABC/Christopher Willard Selma Blair and Sasha Farber dance a jive to "Jailhouse Rock" on Elvis night.

When I first heard Blair would be competing on this season of Dancing With the Stars, I was honestly surprised. I've been inspired by her journey thus far — her frankness about her MS in a recent People cover story, the way she has absolutely rocked her cane on red carpets. But dancing weekly in a competition that pushes completely healthy folks' bodies to the limit? How would that go?

Chronic illness is not like a flu or a cold where you (hopefully) have a few bad days and then feel better. Every day requires a mental MRI of your body, a check-in with your aches, pains, and energy level. Depending on how extensive your pain is, how often you experience flares, your illness can dictate the terms of your day-to-day life. Questions I regularly find myself asking include: Do I have the energy to commute to work? How about some low impact exercise? Cooking myself a meal? The list goes on.

But by choosing to go on Dancing With the Stars, Blair was making a resounding statement for resilience in the face of those daily questions. And her performances were beyond my wildest dreams. Despite her challenges of struggling to feel her left leg and getting her body to talk to itself, she delivered high-energy, well-executed, radiant dances week after week. I'm on my couch feeling sorry for myself for being inordinately tired from waiting in line at Disneyland, and she's out here doing a joyous quickstep to The Muppets Show theme song and a freaking CARTWHEEL.


ABC/Christopher Willard Selma Blair and Sasha Farber dance a quickstep to "The Muppet Show Theme."

Here, I also want to pay tribute to her professional dance partner, Sasha Farber. May we all find someone with his grace, understanding, and compassion. He defined what it is to be a good support system to someone with a chronic illness, how to be a partner on and off the dance floor. His priority was protecting Blair, creating situations where she could shine, and listening to her (and her body) while still granting her the space to succeed.

But for the supreme joy and gumption that every single one of her performances radiated, I perhaps was even more inspired by her decision to bow out of the competition. I'll admit, I was crushed by the news at first. Along with her fellow contestants and the viewing audience, I cried through the package where she confessed to Farber that the competition was proving to be too much wear and tear on her body. It was hard for me not to feel a little despair at her decision, a little defeated.

Dancing with the Stars Selma Blair
Dancing with the Stars Selma Blair

Eric McCandless/ABC Selma Blair with partner Sasha Farber on 'Dancing With the Stars'

I'd been having a particularly challenging month with my fibromyalgia, odd symptoms I've never experienced before and intense levels of pain. Seeing Blair leave the show made me fear the possibility of surrendering to these symptoms and whatever that might entail; it made me give into my ableist brain gremlins.

Now, having sat with it for a week and a half, I realize that defeat or a recognition of my limitations is the last thing I should take away from Blair's exit. What she did, the choice she made, was a heroic one. Because she chose herself.

I don't doubt that she didn't only consider her own emotional turmoil in making this decision, but also what it would mean to those who have been cheering her on (from doing interviews with her and her fellow contestants, I can confirm Blair is by all accounts an incredibly positive and selfless person).

Dancing with the Stars Selma Blair
Dancing with the Stars Selma Blair

Eric McCandless/ABC The 'Dancing With the Stars' cast surrounds Selma Blair after she announced she was leaving the show early.

The thing people will tell you about invisible illness over and over is that the toughest part of it isn't so much the physical and mental symptoms as it is the invisibility — the sense that people can't see or won't believe your experiences (let's not even talk about the number of times I've been glared at for not giving up my seat on public transportation when I've desperately needed it). It's a vicious cycle of wanting to maintain that invisibility, to shove down your pain and carry on, because if everything looks okay, you should be okay. Indeed, it took visible damage in an MRI to get Blair to hit the brakes.

But by competing on Dancing With the Stars, Blair made the invisible visible. She put a face to the quiet courage it takes to get through the day with chronic pain. Not just with her dance routines, which occasionally used her cane in clever ways and contained clever workarounds to accommodate her disability — but with her decision to bow out.

There are those who will see Blair's exit as the embodiment of being defined by your limitations. But it was, in fact, the opposite. She took her pain and her challenges and thrust them into the spotlight of the ballroom, all with an exquisite joy and gratitude. She proved to herself that she was capable of things she hadn't thought possible — but then she turned around and made a choice that said I don't need to prove anything to anyone, least of all myself. 

Sometimes the bravest choice you can make is realizing that plowing ahead to make a point to yourself (or others) is foolhardy. Pushing yourself to the brink just to prove you can isn't courageous, it's reckless. The thrill of victory and agony of defeat is a false binary. Putting yourself and your health first isn't giving up or making concessions for your illness. It's having the grace to realize that longevity and wellness are worth more than temporary glory or instant gratification.

You are only defined by your illness if you allow yourself to be — and in Blair's final dance and tearful goodbye, I didn't see a woman defined by her MS, but rather someone willing to blow up any box someone might put her in, all for the sake of herself.

Dancing with the Stars Selma Blair
Dancing with the Stars Selma Blair

Eric McCandless/ABC Selma Blair dances a waltz to Andra Day's "What the World Needs Now Is Love" with partner Sasha Farber.

I'm still struggling to learn this lesson. To make peace with the notion that doing it all and pushing through exhaustion isn't the best way to cover yourself in glory. It's a very hard lesson to learn.

Blair is an actress; I am a journalist — these are both professions that emphasize the hustle and the grind as markers of success. But choosing yourself and choosing rest require a lot more courage than charging ahead with blinders on. Courage I'm still trying to find, that Blair's journey is teaching me how to look for.

Blair is an inspiration to me because she showed us what was possible, only to spin that into a greater lesson that what's possible isn't what matters. It's what you prioritize and honor within yourself in spite of that siren call of possibility. Because sometimes, anything is not possible. And that's more than okay.

Thank you Selma for not only having the grace to accept this for yourself, but also the courage to teach the rest of us where true victory really lies.

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