Coronation Street’s Johnny: 5 things I’ve learnt about MS
In June, Coronation Street's Johnny Connor was diagnosed with MS. We've been working with Richard Hawley, who plays Johnny, to help him learn about MS. We introduced Richard to the Chair of our Stockport Group, Richard Bones, who has MS, and his wife Jan. This is what Richard Hawley learnt from Richard Bones.
1. MS is about more than physical symptoms
Before I met Richard, I thought I'd be asking him about symptoms - about how it feels, physically, to have MS. But after a few minutes talking to Richard and Jan, I realised there's more to it. MS has a huge impact on your relationships, your hopes and your plans for the future. It ripples into every area of your life.
I played a character with MS years ago on another soap. I didn't feel that the storyline explored MS in a deep way, so I was interested to see how Coronation Street would approach it. Thankfully the writers are concentrating on how Johnny comes to terms with the diagnosis, and the impact on the people around him - I think that's very real.
2. MS can strengthen relationships
Talking to Richard and Jan, it was clear that they've been through some tough times. But they have an incredible resilience, and a beautiful honesty with each other.
I spoke to someone else with MS who said that, when he was diagnosed, he felt ugly, horrible, weak. But then he looked at his partner, and realised she loved him for being him - not all the external stuff. There's a beauty in realising that you are loved.
3. MS can make you question your identity
Talking to Richard, I realised that MS can make you question your identity. You wonder if you would be the same person if you didn't have MS.
On the show, Johnny has quite a simple view of life. He's successful. He's getting married. It should be the best time in his life. Then MS changes everything. His sense of potency, of strength, is attacked from within. He feels like less of a man, less of a person. Richard showed me that, ultimately, you learn to get on with life, to find a new purpose.
4. MS can be invisible
Richard told me that when he was diagnosed, not everyone believed that he was ill, because they couldn't see it. That really struck me. It must be difficult to deal with people not believing you.
Richard had to learn to trust people again, to admit his vulnerability. Now he has a strong sense of 'I am who I am'. It's up to you whether you stand by me.' You learn to forgive people for their lack of faith. You believe in yourself - you know what is going on.
5. With MS, things aren't always what they seem
The biggest thing I've learnt is that things aren't always what they look like. With MS, you can look like you're drunk when you aren't.
My dad had dementia, and I think it's quite similar in some ways - you don't know how it will progress, and other people can't always see it. So I've learnt to suspend judgement until you know what's going on in someone's life.