For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Cake is a movie with a Jennifer Anniston about a woman in chronic pain. When my partner first downloaded the film I was really excited to watch it. Chronic pain is a real struggle for so many people. Our story will finally be told!
I got my hopes up, but Cake was absolutely infuriating. They had such a great opportunity to share our story and fell entirely short. Not only is Cake a terrible representation of what it is like to live with chronic pain, the film seems to go out of its way to make us look bad. This is a common issue. People with chronic pain are commonly treated like criminals for being in pain. Our entire struggle is diminished as “drug seeking” and society basically shames us for the pain we have no control over. Cake is making these misconceptions worse.
Chronic pain does not equal addiction!
Claire, the main character of the film, falls short in so many ways. Claire is an abrasive addict. She is obviously addicted to opiates. She likely is actually in severe pain, but she is not responding in a healthy manner. There are people who take opiates for chronic pain and get help the correct way. Claire does not. She lies to her doctor to get medication. She drives to Mexico to get medication. She steals from her dead acquaintance to get medication. She drinks in excess while on medication. She takes an incorrect dose of her medication. She even overdoses as a response to stress!
For these reasons, Claire is an ideal character to represent addiction. The problem is that, for many, she represents someone with chronic pain. She fails us.
Pain isn’t Passing
In Cake, Claire’s pain begins as a part of a car accident in which she lost her son. Claire is in physical rehabilitation to make improvements over her condition. We are shown an aqua therapy session in which Claire gives up quickly due to pain and the therapist complains about her lack of improvement. Eventually, when Claire begins to try harder; things begin to magically go her way. This upsets me greatly. The most frustrating misunderstandings people with chronic pain endure are perpetuated by this horrible movie.
For example, chronic pain is not on a timer. Chronic pain isn’t usually pain from an accident that should continue to improve in time. For a lot of us our problems will get worse with age or stay the same. That “you aren’t better yet?” mentality is so frustrating! Explaining that this is the state of your health and it isn’t going away anytime soon is incredibly taxing.
Hard Work… Impossible Work
You just need to “work harder and you will be better!” This mentality, encouraged by Cake, is also harming those of us with chronic pain. In my condition, (Ehler’s Danlos III) hard work and physical therapy are often required to heal from injuries. However, no amount of determination or hard work is ever going to magically fix the collagen in my joints. I will continue to have problems. My control over my recovery is limited by my underlying condition. Just like many other chronic pain sufferers.
At one point in the movie Claire decides she is done with drugs. She even dramatically tears out her IV. I seriously can’t roll my eyes at this enough. In Cake, Claire’s determination was enough to stop the meds and deal with her pain drug-free! This is far from reality.
For me, pain meds are the last thing I try. If I am on pain medication for an extended time it is because I would not be able to function, survive, and/or live in the amount of pain I am in off of medication. There are too many side effects for me to be on them unless it’s a necessity. Opiates aren’t some nice crutch you start and stop on a whim!
You would never praise a diabetic for suddenly forgoing insulin. If Claire needed the amount of opiates she was consuming, suddenly stopping is unrealistic. Stopping opiates suddenly after an extended amount of time is simply a bad idea. That should have been a decision she made with her doctor. Cake continues this belief that opiates are only for those who aren’t mentally strong enough to handle pain. Taking medication for severe chronic pain is not a sign of weakness. Stop stigmatizing treatment for chronic pain!
Chronic Pain and Suicide
The single thing that I appreciated was that Cake approached topics of depression and suicide ideation. Physical pain can have a huge impact on mental health. It is under-addressed that a lot of people in chronic, severe pain think about suicide and self-harm. It is actually quite natural for these thoughts to come up in chronic pain patients.
What about it wouldn’t be natural? If you were in pain constantly would you too not wonder about escape? Patients who feel this way should be offered support and therapy; under no circumstances should someone in severe long-term pain be shamed. Whether patients disclose depression, suicide ideation, worries of dependency, or ask for a pain medicine there is no reason they should ever be treated as a criminal. Any open and honest communication should be encouraged.
If the pain is severe enough that suicidal thoughts are occurring then coping mechanisms need to be enhanced. Often chronic pain patients do not ask for help with these coping strategies despite medical professionals being equipped to help. Both the act of admitting depression or suicidal thoughts as well as requesting additional pain relief are extremely stigmatized. Therefore, patients aren’t talking to their doctor and getting the help they need before suicide becomes the only viable option left. This is a topic that needs to be talked about more and I appreciate Cake addressing it. Addressing depression and suicide ideation really is the only thing that movie did correctly!
I also believe that it is necessary for patients to be able to be honest about worries of dependency, tolerance, and addiction to opiates. By criminalizing opiate addiction, we have made it so that these patients, like Claire, cannot get the help they need. If Claire wasn’t worried about being judged or treated like a criminal she may have been able to get the treatment she needed for her opiate addiction.
Cake is Just Wrong
This movie genuinely had me in tears, and definitely not because it was a truly moving. So many people who were in my life have treated me like I’m Claire. They treated me like a drug addict for being in pain. This is how a big part of the world sees us. It already is terrible to be in pain every waking moment. Those around you seeing you in pain and still treating you like a drug addict due to the stigma behind opiates is even worse. I know for a fact that a portion of my family would rather see me screaming, crying, and writhing on the floor in pain rather than have me take opiates. For me, that is the most heartbreaking part.
So to Cake with all its misconceptions: Not all of us are in pain due to an accident. Not all of us are in pain because we aren’t working hard enough at rehabilitation. Not all of us will get any better. Some of us will get worse. It will not be because we weren’t trying hard enough.
We are nothing like Claire. We want to get better. We want it more than anything. We hate taking the drugs. We avoid them when we can. We don’t lie or manipulate doctors. We are not weak because we take medication. We are strong from the pain we have fought all these years.
Most importantly, we are in pain and every day is a battle. So give us your support, not your judgement.