There’s been a lot of buzz in the chronic pain community surrounding the upcoming release of the movie “Cake” starring Jennifer Aniston. I think many of us had hoped that this would be the movie that put our condition on the map, the foray into pop culture that we, as chronic pain patients, so desperately need to help make society at large more keenly aware of our daily struggle. Cast aside by the government, doctors, insurance companies, employers, friends, and family, this film could have sparked a movement towards recognizing, validating, funding, and treating chronic pain. Unfortunately, after thoroughly researching “Cake” as much as possible prior to its release date on Friday, I am concerned that Aniston’s portrayal and the story line will do more harm than good.
The trailers show Aniston as a chronic pain patient named Claire who travels to Mexico to obtain copious amounts of prescription drugs. We then see her furiously popping pills, chasing them with alcohol. We see Claire in a hospital bed, though it is unclear if she landed there as a result of her drug abuse or as a psychiatric admission due to the hallucinations she frequently has featuring her friend who has committed suicide. She is portrayed as altogether unlikable and near the end of the preview, she is asked by her physical therapist “Do you WANT to get better? Really?” Aniston herself says the movie is about “choosing life” though it is unclear what that means at this point.
Problems abound, just from viewing the trailer and associated interviews. Chronic pain patients already face a plethora of stigma from the outside world, ranging from being labeled as drug addicts, “crazy” people, drama queens, and lazy and unreliable. We are consistently told that we are burdens on our families and friends, as well as society as a whole. That is why “Cake” seems to be exactly what we don’t need.
I do not dispute that some chronic pain patients have problems with substance abuse…and they deserve to have their stories told. However, many of us are not addicted to our medications. We take them as directed, under the supervision of a medical professional, in order to improve our quality of life. Many of us heed the warnings on the bottles that caution against mixing our meds with alcohol. However, many of us continue to be labeled as addicts or drug-seekers because of the type and dosage of medication required to lessen our pain. (Notice that I didn’t say “cure”…right now, most chronic pain is merely “managed” with very little hope of a cure.)
Many of us experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health disturbances as a result of being in pain all of the time, as well as constantly being made to defend our condition. Living with an invisible illness sometimes feels like an impossible task and when it is suggested that our pain is “all in our head”, that is a condemnation of our mental health. Some of us developed psychiatric symptoms in response to the emotional roller coaster that is chronic pain. Perhaps you would be anxious as well if you never knew when you were going to wake up in agonizing pain. You might be depressed too if you had to spend countless birthdays and holidays confined to your bedroom or a hospital due to pain and other symptoms beyond your control. Many of us are limited (and even incapacitated) on a regular basis and not just on special occasions. The daily grind of meds, doctors appointments, procedures, diagnoses, and sheer emotional and physical exhaustion can feel like a slow dissent into hell, especially when accompanied by unending hellacious pain. And all of us want to get better. We long to get better. We pray to get better. We fight to get better. We have surgeries, allow doctors to inject us in every part of our bodies, take medications with side effects that are just barely better than what they are intended to treat, endure painful testing, seek out alternative therapies. This is why it is so dangerous to suggest that all we have to do is to want to get better and we will. I have never wanted anything so badly in my life and yet here I am, 11 years later, with no end in sight.
I understand that “Cake” is just a movie and that one movie can only do so much, even in the best of circumstances and if there were a handful of excellent films about chronic pain patients, this plot line wouldn’t bother me so much. But the fact that this movie seems to be being hailed as THE definitive portrayal of chronic pain, the most authentic window into the lives of those of us who battle this every day alarms me. I’m concerned that “Cake” will only serve to further embed the negative stereotypes about chronic pain patients already ingrained in our culture. I hope with all my heart and soul that I am proven wrong.