If you haven’t yet seen Cake but want to, you might want to bookmark this post for later.
Sunday afternoon, Dan and I were looking for something to do that didn’t require a whole lot of effort.
“Hey,” I said, “Cake is still in our Netflix queue.”
A part of me wanted to see it when it was still at the theater—the part of me filled with delusions about being able to sit in a comfortable chair for 102 minutes, let alone an uncomfortable one. The sane part of me, however, knew I’d be better off watching it at home. And, luckily, the sane part of me still wins most of the time.
Five minutes into the movie, I was fighting tears. Jennifer Aniston was so believable playing the role of Claire Bennett.
“It’s making me hurt just to watch her,” Dan—who knows chronic pain in the form of psoriatic arthritis—said. I agreed. (In fact, since I saw the movie two days ago, I’ve been in a flare. Perhaps I identified with her pain a little too much for my own good?)
There were many things in the movie to which I could relate, but two really struck me: Claire’s hair and her clothing. It’s not that I want to go out in public looking like a giant sack of potatoes; it’s just that it’s the best I can do most of the time. On the rare occasion that I feel up to doing more to make myself presentable, I don’t want to waste my energy on something so superficial. I’d rather use my energy to make a meal or wash and fold some laundry. So combing the tangles out of my hair after a shower? Not on your life, man.
If you can tell that my hair has been blown dry, you know I’m having one of the best days I have had in 14 to 18 months. Or at least I want you to believe that I am.
Light a Candle
Here’s a little exercise that may help you comprehend how chronic pain affects everyday life for people. Go grab a butane lighter (one of those multi-purpose deals) and a candle. Now light the candle with the lighter. Can you even imagine not being able to make one of those things work? I couldn’t either. Until yesterday.
My hands are so weak right now that I have to use both of them to produce a flame. I need one hand to press the safety mechanism and the other to engage the trigger. Once the flame is rolling, I may or may not be able to connect the fire with the wick of the candle. This simple task used to require a thumb, a forefinger, and barely a thought.
Now imagine making a few of these can’t-do discoveries every week for a year or more. The pain drains you of everything—will, muscle tone, positive attitude.
My luxurious bath towels are too heavy to hold, so I have to go back to old skimpy ones.
I get winded trying to roll over in bed. Sometimes I can’t muster the energy to change position until long after my legs have started aching.
Do I get depressed sometimes? Fuck yeah, I do. You would too.
People with Chronic Pain Judging Other People with Chronic Pain
Back to the movie though. At some point during the film when Claire was trying to get her hands on more opiates, Dan told the TV that Claire needed to at least try. I immediately came to this fictional character’s defense. A few minutes later, though, and I was the one being dismissive of her struggle.
Oh, well at least she’s got physical scars and a clearly identifiable cause for her pain.
“Why are we like that?” I asked Dan. “If anyone’s going to be able to empathize with someone who has chronic pain, it’s going to be someone else with chronic pain, right?”
It wasn’t really about empathizing with a fictional character, though. I was expressing my frustration that her story wasn’t exactly like my story. Because I want people to get me. I want my own validation. Screw Claire Bennett. Whoever she is.
No wonder people with addictions, chronic pain, and invisible illnesses become jaded with support groups. You have to go in with the understanding that even after sharing the most intimate details of your personal story once a week for months or years, not one other person will know what it’s like to be you. And people who’ve never been to a support group in their life will ask helpfully, “Have you tried going to a support group?”
Wait a minute. Do I mean that in addition to losing a child, getting a divorce, paying bills, overcoming the constant pain and disabling results of the wreck, fighting drug addiction, taking a shower, and suppressing thoughts of suicide, Claire Bennett has to dig even deeper and figure out by herself how to manage her own expectations at group therapy?
And the kicker? Group therapy, like the pool therapy that torments Claire, was probably required by her doctor. She has to prove to her prescribing physician (someone who probably only intellectually understands what chronic pain is) that she’s deserving of a few meager moments of opioid-induced respite. How does she prove her worth? By SUFFERING.
Then she has to hide her addiction to said painkillers so people don’t label her a pillhead and make it even harder for her to find relief.
Anyone still wondering why Claire squirreled away meds behind that painting in the hallway? Anyone still looking down on her for making Silvana drive her to Tijuana?
I don’t take prescriptions for my chronic pain. But what if I need them someday? Is this what I have to look forward to?
So eventually Claire decides to kick the painkillers, offers conciliatory vodka to her group therapy leader, and gives water therapy another go. She brings Nina’s surviving child (Nina is the woman from group therapy whose suicide haunts Claire throughout the movie) a shark kite and a cake for his birthday. Then the movie ends with Claire finally sitting upright in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle, presumably for the first time since the car accident that killed her own son. If all of this gives you warm fuzzies and fills you with optimism for Claire’s future, congratulations! You still have no idea what it’s like to live with chronic pain.
Just because Claire’s got her shit together now doesn’t mean she’ll have that luxury tomorrow. Perhaps the hardest part of living with chronic pain is having a few good days, and then having that progress ripped right out from underneath you without cause or explanation.
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