Chronic Pain Finds a Place in Hollywood with “Cake”
I had the opportunity to attend an early screening for Jennifer Aniston’s new movie, “Cake,” for which she was nominated for Best Actress by the Golden Globe and SAG Awards.The film, which comes out on Friday, January 23rd, follows one woman’s struggle to adapt to life after a traumatic car accident that left her with chronic back pain. Trailers for the movie show the main character, Claire, taking copious amounts of pain medication to deal with her physical ailment. Members of the chronic pain community, including myself, have been fearful that this movie would further the stigma that pain patients are drug-seekers who don’t work at improving their quality of life. The movie beautifully weaves in the dangers of abusing pain medication while exploring the issues of relationships, grief and self-healing. I believe this movie will help to increase the awareness of the millions who suffer from chronic pain without painting an unfair assumption that everyone in this position acts this way. The movie also forced me to evaluate my own condition in a way that I wasn’t quite ready for.
While the scars on Claire’s face and body hint at the pain she endures, nothing captures it better than Aniston’s performance. She provides an authentic representation of a chronic pain patient. The grunts as she rolls over in bed, the wincing in pain as she opens a door and the overall breathlessness she exudes just from walking were entirely relatable to me. Although I experience a different type of chronic pain, I realize that anyone who lives in pain deals with the same issues regardless of where their pain originates. The movie shows the mundane daily life of a person in pain: the doctor appointments, the endless hours in bed, the need to live in the dark, the feelings of loneliness and despair. It threw me off guard at how closely her actions resembled my own when dealing with a pain flare-up. I caught myself thinking I can go days without showering, I ignore phone calls, I wear loose baggy clothes when I don’t feel well and I can become agitated when the pain overcomes me – all just like Claire.
Claire relies heavily on prescription pain medications to get through her days. She hides pills around the house, she mixes meds with alcohol, she lies to her doctor about her progress to get refills, and she even goes to Tijuana to illegally obtain what she needs in order to deal with life. She placates those around her by telling them what they want to hear in order to get what she needs from them. While these actions could be viewed as stereotypical for a drug addict, the movie forces the audience to feel her pain. Therefore you understand why she goes to such great lengths in order just to make it through the day. Claire is never chasing a “high,” only wanting the pain to go away. I wish for the pain to subside everyday too.
The movie shows the army of people needed to support a pain patient. The doctors, counselors, nurses and physical therapists whose job it is to provide help, but also adding perspective from caregivers who work tirelessly to help a patient manage daily life. Claire’s main caregiver is her housekeeper, Sylvana, who unwillingly enables Claire’s addiction while trying to push her towards healthier choices. A usually quiet woman, Sylvana eventually reaches her breaking point with Claire after she continuously exhibits reckless behaviors. In that moment, I was reminded that the caregiver suffers right along with the patient, a heavy burden for anyone.
The movie tackles the taboo subject of suicide. Claire goes on a quest to understand why a fellow member of her support group chose to end her life of pain, leaving behind a husband and child. She struggles with whether she, too, would be better off ending her misery. Depression is often co-morbid with chronic pain due to the isolating nature of disease. Those with depression have an increased risk of attempting or committing suicide. Claire’s battle with suicidal thoughts and actions show a very real issue experienced by those who are overwhelmed by their condition.
“Cake” shows Claire at her lowest point, rock bottom. I’ve had those moments. I’ve been through the same stages of grief for the loss of friends, loss of career, loss of freedom and loss of identity. Not knowing how or if this would ever get better. There is no fairytale ending, just the hint that Claire is ready to help herself.
Unlike Claire, I have a tremendous support system. How different would my life be if I didn’t have them? It made me sad to think there are those in our community that don’t have that lifeline. For a brief moment I panicked about what would happen if my boyfriend or friends decided my chronic illness was too much for them to handle anymore? Am I unfairly asking too much from them? With tears in my face, I turned to my boyfriend at the end of the movie and simply said, “I’m sorry. And I love you.” I’m sorry that he has to suffer along with me. He squeezed my hand and assured me that we’re in this together. Until you are personally ready to examine your own behaviors and relationship with your chronic pain, don’t go see “Cake.”
In an interview with Aniston shown at the end of this special viewing, she was asked what message she wants the audience to take away. She responded that she wants people to understand and have compassion for those in chronic pain. And she wants people in chronic pain to have hope and to get help when needed. I walked away from this movie feeling like she accomplished these goals through her portrayal of one person’s fight to deal with their pain.
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