It takes a certain kind of person to be able to handle a television writer’s lifestyle. When staffed on a show, the hours can be long, intense, and seemingly never-ending. But then filming ends and you’re left unemployed, forever looking for the next gig, all while trying to also write on your own projects in your “free time”. Not everyone is cut out for it. However, being a TV writer can be made even harder when you suffer from a chronic illness and need to find a way to work through the pain and still deliver the script on time.
Transplant writer and co-executive producer Rachel Langer has become a bit of an expert on finding ways to ignore, lessen, and work through some huge amounts of pain as she worked on the CTV drama’s first season. Langer, who wrote this week’s episode, “Your Secrets Can Kill,” suffers from endometriosis, a painful disorder that can affect up to 10% of women and cause painful periods, infertility, and excessive bleeding. In honor of March being Endometriosis Awareness Month, Langer, who also has written for The Order and CBC’s This Life, shared her story with The TV Junkies. She told us how the pain from endometriosis affected her as she attempted to work in the Transplant writers’ room, and the steps that showrunner Joseph Kay, along with the Transplant producers at Sphere Media, took in order to be allies and help her be able to work through her pain.
The TV Junkies: How did the opportunity to work on Transplant come about?
Rachel Langer: I worked with showrunner Joseph Kay on both seasons of This Life and like to joke that he is responsible for both my best and worst writing habits, but truthfully I was lucky to work with him on This Life and we stayed in touch after it ended. I kept bugging him to keep me apprised of what was all happening with Transplant while he was developing it with the folks at Sphere Media. When it looked like it was going to become a reality I let him know that I totally respected that he needed to staff his room however worked best for him and the show, but that if he thought my voice would be a fit I’d love the opportunity. I guess he thought it would be (thanks Joe!) and I interviewed with him and Tara Woodbury from Sphere over the phone and once both networks approved the choices the rest was history!
TTVJ: Now you live in Vancouver, but Transplant was shot in Montreal. What was it like basically moving to a new city for several months to work on the series?
RL: This was an interesting show for me because I was away for almost 11 months. My husband Derek and I had just signed the lease for a new apartment when I got the gig and I ended up starting the room a few days late so we could move. So we moved in and three days later I was off to Toronto and then Montreal and by the time I got back, our lease was almost up for the year. I’m really fortunate to have a super supportive partner who is also a filmmaker so he understands, but I won’t lie – it was a long haul.
TTVJ: You’re pretty outspoken on social media and other outlets about your battle with endometriosis. In what ways did that affect you while working on Transplant?
RL: I started on Transplant three months after undergoing a total hysterectomy removing my uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes. I was definitely still recovering, and Derek and I talked a lot about what that was going to look like during the job, but ultimately I LOVE working. It makes me really happy and I was already going stir crazy from sitting still for weeks and was ready to take on a new challenge. I’ve been open with Joe about my health journey since first talking about it for a story on This Life, and I carried that open philosophy with me into the room. The upside of being outspoken on social is that a lot of people already know. The downside is that you can’t really escape it when you just want to knuckle down and do the work. There’s still stigma around what it means to deal with chronic pain or health problems and I am always cognizant of how that might affect me in a work environment. My response is usually to work insanely hard, but truthfully, I think a lot of the time I’m the one worrying that it’s an issue when other people are just like, cool yup, she’s doing her job like everyone else. One of my good friends recently said to me “Sorry, but most of the time people just aren’t thinking about you!” it sounds harsh, but it’s SO true and actually a huge relief most of the time.
TTVJ: What were some ways that dealing with your health and pain problems manifest as far as your day-to-day life on Transplant? I’m thinking how you’ve talked about needing to sit on floors and things like that.
RL: There’s a very stationary component to being in a writers room. You sit ALL DAY. By nature, I’m a real fidget, and the added endometriosis component means I prefer not to stay in one position for a long time. Derek’s gotten really used to it when we watch movies – I’m all over the couch/floor. I remember sending Joe a text a couple weeks in asking whether my constant motion was disruptive. He dispelled that notion immediately and I did as much work as I could to stop outsourcing my own anxiety about that stuff and instead just said to myself: okay cool, this is my reality and you know, it works! I’m contributing, and I’m doing a good job, so the mechanics of where I sat really wasn’t important. I would say I spent 70% of that writers room on the floor or standing. Nobody was bothered by it once they got used to it.
TTVJ: How did showrunner Joseph Kay and the producers at Sphere try to work to assist you with what you were experiencing?
RL: They were great about it! Tara was always really chill about the floor sitting when she’d come for pitches and it just helped normalize it, which I really appreciated. When we got to Montreal and we no longer had a couch in the room Virginia Rankin [executive producer] asked me if she could order me a bean bag chair to sit in. I was really touched. It was one of those things that women can be really great at noticing and offering without making it a big deal. When it arrived I was so excited and we FLATTENED that bean bag. (It was definitely 90% me, but the other writers enjoyed it too when I wasn’t hogging it.) Joe was also really great about normalizing it. When people would come into the room that weren’t part of the core team they’d sometimes get very concerned about why I was on the floor and whether there were enough chairs. Joe would just casually say “she’s a floor sitter, don’t worry about it.” I was very supported. It’s a special kind of magic when people can find ways to support you without making it a big deal.
TTVJ: What are some ways your health issues weren’t handled great in the past on other series that really affected you as you tried to write for those shows?
RL: I’ve been REALLY fortunate for the most part in this respect. On The Order, before I’d had my fourth surgery. I often wrote while laying on the floor of my office because it was more comfortable for me and Dennis [Heaton, executive producer] and Shelley [Eriksen, executive producer] would always encourage me to do whatever I needed to take care of myself. I also am really proud of my work on that show. I met every deadline and spent tons of hours on set and had a blast! Dennis and Shelley both made it clear that my work ethic was never in question.
The hardest show for me was one where we didn’t get frequent bathroom breaks and we worked while eating lunch. There was no space to walk around and I didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the floor. Eventually I had to start asking for breaks every couple hours. It was uncomfortable, but eventually I realized it wasn’t just me who needed more frequent breaks! I wouldn’t want to repeat that.
TTVJ: What are ways you think the TV industry, or just individual shows, could better serve people working on them who may be like you and trying to work while dealing with medical issues?
RL: I’m always nervous that being honest means being sidelined by someone else’s fear. Even doing this interview gives me pause because there are a thousand reasons not to hire someone, and it could seem like I’m giving people another one – but I think my past track record helps with that, and I’m honest with myself and other about what I can take on and how it’s going to look. I have to trust that people will accept that as truth instead of worrying about any perceived limitations. I know I have good references, and I do solid work. Knowing what I’m capable of should be up to me, not anyone else.
That said, I want to be clear that not everyone has the luxury of just pushing past their symptoms. These symptoms are very real and cause debilitating and life altering effects. They affect every person differently, therefore there is no one-size-fits-all response! My words about working hard and powering through are language I’ve internalized in an attempt to normalize my situation, but without context could seem ableist and dismissive. There are many people for whom that is not an option and they do not have the privilege to just forge ahead and many don’t have access to the treatment options I’ve had. It’s a double edged sword when talking about this disease because I want people to understand my reality — I use work as a way to cope — but that isn’t possible or desirable for everyone and that is totally okay!! I never want to shame or minimize what other people are going through, or to say the way I do things is correct or better. It’s very personal and specific to the individual.
I think the key thing about being an advocate or an ally is taking cues from whoever is dealing with the issue. The most amazing thing for me is when people would notice and check in without making a show of it. I don’t moderate my expectations of myself, and hope people will follow my lead on that.
If a person seems open to talk about it, ask questions to help you understand, and look at differences as opportunities to expand rather than inconveniences. It’s interesting because most of the time to look at me you’d never know I was going through this. I have a really strong pain-poker face – even the ER doctors can’t tell a lot of the time. It’s a blessing and a curse, but it means I don’t often encounter the same immediate prejudices as someone with a more a visible condition. That said, they’re still there underneath when you poke at them. I think going through this is helping me learn to be a better advocate for others as well.
TTVJ: What do you wish people knew about hiring someone that suffers from a chronic illness?
RL: They’re probably going to work 3x harder than everyone else just on the basis of their own anxiety about it all, so there’s really no need to assume it’ll be an issue.
TTVJ: Since Transplant is a medical drama, did you then try to incorporate any of your story into the cases on screen?
RL: We did. You’ll see a story about endometriosis in Episode 102. Originally we’d planned for that to be in Episode 103, which I was writing, but the episode just couldn’t hold everything and so we “transplanted” it (I’m not even sorry about that pun) into 102. In retrospect it was a little traumatic for me to write about it so soon after my own surgery and the ramifications of losing my ability to have kids (and still not seeing the pain free results I’d hoped for.) When you work in TV, the stories ideas you offer to a series belong to the show, not to you and I struggled to let the story go a little bit. Particularly because I felt a burden of responsibility to the many many people I’ve encountered that suffer from endo and wanted to properly represent the experience of the disease. It’s impossible to represent every experience, but I felt strongly about doing my best. That said, there are a lot of layers of people that approve stories before they make it to the screen and not all of them come from a place of being inside the story, so figuring out how to make it dramatic and align what my truth was with what would be satisfying to the story was a process. I think there was more I could have done to protect myself emotionally for that process, but I’m really a “leave it all on the table” person, so I’m still figuring out how to do that.
TTVJ: What about outside of Transplant? Do you have any other projects we should keep an eye out for?
RL: I’m currently in prep on several short films – something I do with my husband Derek who is a talented director. We’re both really excited to make as many of those as we can this year, now that we’re in the same city again. I also wrote an episode of The Order for season 2 – stay tuned for an airdate. Outside of that, there are a couple of development projects cooking, but I’m going to let them simmer a bit more before lifting the lid.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.