Chronic Pain and Cake: A Step in the Right Direction

I went to see the new movie Cake last week. I was anticipating the film because, as someone who is intimately familiar with the physical and emotional ramifications about chronic pain, I was excited to see that someone took the effort to produce a movie about chronic pain.

Cake Movie Chronic Pain: A Review In my opinion, the movie finally sheds some much needed light on the ramifications of chronic pain, but no one movie can cover all of the facets of pain. I hope this movie will open the door for more discussion and movies. Invisible illness, chronic illness, spoonie

Prior to go going to see the movie, I searched in vain to find out from what “illness,” the main character was suffering. I couldn’t find anything. I read great reviews about the movie from the Arthritis foundation and other chronic illness organizations. Articles on mainstream websites were popping up about chronic pain because Cake was about to be released. So, regardless of the character’s diagnosis, the movie was bringing attention to a large group of people who are largely ignored. Society idolizes youth, beauty, and health, so there isn’t much attention to those in pain.

Jennifer Anniston’s character, Claire, was suffering pain following an injury. However, she was in the middle of a painful rehabilitation process. She didn’t have an autoimmune disorder, neurological condition, or something with little to no chance of recovery. Additionally, there were circumstances in her life that added to her emotional pain that already came from being in chronic pain. So, I am afraid that audiences will perceive her emotional pain as related more to her circumstances surrounding the injury, than from the pain itself. [Note: I don’t want to spoil the movie, so I am being purposefully vague.]

With that being said, the movie does show how emotionally painful chronic pain can be. In fact, the opening scene is about another chronic pain patient who commits suicide because the pain was too much for her to handle anymore. That can be an extreme example of the results of chronic pain, but the isolation (both from immobility and self chosen), as well the anger, frustration, and depression that results from living with long term pain is real. It affect millions every day. The Institute of Medicine estimates that chronic pain affects 100 million Americans a year. You probably don’t meet them because, they’re in pain. They stay at home where it is more comfortable, where they don’t have to deal with the ignorance of the general public, where they suffer silently.

My largest issue with the movie, since it was being marketed as a movie about chronic pain was that Jennifer Anniston’s character was suffering from an injury with the possibility of recovery. Yes, the road is long and hard, but there is an endpoint. There were the scenes where she was asked her if she wanted to get better, implying that getting better from chronic pain is a choice. I agree that in her case, she lacked motivation to a certain degree, which would have helped her. And in some cases of non-injury related pain there are definitely lifestyle adjustments that can be made for most conditions to avoid adding pain or minimizing pain, but I hope the general public doesn’t confuse an injury with an autoimmune disorder or neurological condition, etc.

Confusing those conditions would only reinforce the pervasive attitude that people in chronic pain, who will only be able to manage symptoms and pain, are actually lazy and unmotivated because they can’t pull themselves up and out of the pain and depression. I am motivated to manage my pain and conditions, but pain management is an art, not just a science. Every person is different, so it takes trial and error on both the part of the doctor and patient. I am by no means lazy, but because it takes a long time to work on pain
management does not mean that I am not trying.

I know that a single movie cannot even begin to touch on every topic related to chronic pain, though. So, I think Cake is a great start! Another reviewer pointed out that Claire even had a solid support system. Claire was supported both emotionally and financially. She pushed them away, out of her pain. I can identify with pervasive anger and frustration that makes me want to shut everyone out. The sad reality of chronic pain, though, is that there are many people who lack the emotional and financial support systems to help them cope with chronic pain, so they only feel more pain as they try to juggle a job and family and friends who think that they’re just lazy because the family doesn’t understand the condition or can’t understand why the patient can’t just “get over it,” or “be tougher.”

One thing, though, that Cake did wonderfully, is show how a patient’s pain affects everyone in his or her life. Regardless of the cause of pain, it hurts the spouse, the parents, and anyone who is a caregiver. Her pain caused her to lash out at the people who loved her. Not only did that hurt her husband and her caregiver, but seeing her in pain like that could not be easy on them, either.

After I saw the movie, I looked through Twitter for the hashtag “CakeMovie,” to see what people were saying. Unfortunately, they were saying exactly what I thought they’d say. Their comments only served to underscore the fundamental misunderstanding among the public that does not suffer from chronic pain about the emotion ramifications of chronic pain.

My favorite response to the movie came from a self proclaimed “actress.”

uninformed person
When I told her that “feeling sorry” for the main character was not the point and that her response was as I mentioned above, an indication of society’s fundamental misunderstanding of chronic pain, she said that a movie need “hero.”

I don’t really know anything about writing fiction or movies, but I do know that there are no heroes in Chronic Pain. There are victims. Victims of circumstance and illness. I’m not saying that patients need to have a victim mentality, but part of processing the injury or illness is grieving for the loss of health. People can move on and become empowered to be their own advocate with doctors, make lifestyle changes, and reclaim their lives, but they are still at the mercy of the illness. A patient can be as empowered as they want, but they cannot actually prevent what is happening to his or her body. We are all still at the mercy of symptom flares that have no particular cause that we can find. Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to make that very point.

Claire is not a hero. Chronic pain doesn’t have a clean ending, where everyone can throw a party and celebrate recovery. There are no remission parties or celebrations. It’s a process. Even if/when Claire reaches a place where she is no longer self medicating the pain, she’ll always be scarred by the years of pain. It doesn’t leave overnight. I may be having a “good” day, but I don’t meet a friend for coffee because I’m afraid of causing pain on accident. It can be easier to sit still and hope the pain doesn’t come back because the memory of pain and how it messed up my relationships will still be in the back of mind. I would do anything to avoid that, even if it means missing out on new opportunities.

I hope that this movie will open the door for movies about the pain of searching for a diagnosis and treatment or what it’s like to be young and have to readjust all of your hopes and dreams when you become sick with something that is not a matter of recovery, but a matter of lifelong pain management.

The movie does seem to be opening the door for discussions on chronic pain–I saw mainstream media covering the topic a lot more leading up to the release! So, I don’t know how anything can educate people about chronic pain, unless they are unfortunate enough to experience, but maybe news articles, movies, television shows, and blog posts can slowly chip away at the ignorance surrounding some of the issues.

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  • Kate Mitchell

    Everything you said about this movie is in line with what I have heard about it. I’ve made the choice not to see it because I think it will upset me, either because it won’t live up to what I want to see from a movie about chronic pain or because it will touch too close to home. I am glad to see your opinion on it!

    • I cried so much. I went to a matinee, at 10:45 AM, so I was pretty much alone. It wasn’t watching her physical pain that hurt as much as seeing how she was being self destructive, which I can identify with.
      It’s reflecting on it later that concerns me because people will confuse (and I see that they are confusing) chronic pain from an injury with chronic pain from an illness. All of the talk about if she wants to get better, she really can, just reinforces the idea that the chronically ill are lazy people, who aren’t working hard enough to get better. Maybe if I think positively enough, my brain will undamage itself and my neck won’t hurt anymore–I don’t think so.
      I do like that it generated mainstream stories about pain and might lead to more films, documentaries, or books–like fiction books. I’ve read plenty of books about people with cancer, because the person either goes into remission or they die. Chronic illness is so open ended that people aren’t touching it with a 10 foot pole, it feels like.

  • It’s good to hear that culture is beginning to talk about chronic pain and invisible illnesses (this less so but still). I don’t love the word victim, even though this did happen TO me. I try not to think like that but I think that is because (and this is on my good mental days, not necessarily physical days) my hope is in Jesus. But there are days when it is hard. When people don’t get it and I am a mess. You make me want to see the movie to learn more. And if people are looking for a “hero” in any narrative form, be it movie or book, then they don’t understand the concept of genre. Thanks for reviewing this!

    • Well, the main character of this movie is a victim of a car accident, who is in chronic pain. She is not chronically ill, which concerns me because a wider audience may not differentiate between the two.
      While victim may have a negative connotation, it does not mean that someone who gets an autoimmune disorder is not a victim. They do not have any agency or choice in having a disorder or syndrome. With that being said, just because someone is a victim does not necessitate that they act with a victim-mentality. Part of recovery, even though it may not be physical recovery, is dealing with the emotions caused by the loss of health. They can put their hope wherever they chose, but they still did not chose to be chronically ill.

  • I agree with what you said.. it’s a great place to start but it’s not the be all and end all. Hopefully this starts the ball rolling and makes people more aware.

    • Yes. It is marketed as a chronic pain movie, which it is, but I would love to see a chronic illness movie–which involves pain, but not necessarily something that can get better with time. Like life-long pain management and the REALLY long road to diagnosis that comes before it.

  • So interesting. I really knew nothing about the movie other than talks of how great Jennifer Aniston was in it. I’m still wondering why she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar!

    • I don’t know if she was that great, to be honest. The part was a challenging one, for sure, but… I don’t know. My perception was probably clouded by a lot of other factors.

  • I saw this movie last week, and I have no experience with chronic pain so I was wondering how accurate her portrayal was. Before seeing it, I was under the impression that she had some illness that caused her chronic pain, so I was also surprised to learn her pain came from a car accident. I thought it was a very beautifully done movie, and I think Jennifer Aniston did a good job, but I feel like some people are saying she did such a great job because she was so brave for not really wearing any makeup and it’s just a very different role for her since it’s not a romantic comedy. That in and of itself doesn’t mean it’s an Oscar-worthy performance, though. I hadn’t even thought about most of the things you brought up, so I’m really glad I found this post. It definitely gave me a lot to think about!

  • I still haven’t seen this, but I really want to see this now. I can’t believe I missed this post! Such a great commentary on it and great thoughts. 🙂

    • I had to laugh because I was wearing practically the same clothes she was during the movie. There were good parts, but some pretty bad parts. I hope it opens the door for more movies.
      I’d love to see one about someone struggling to find a diagnosis or dealing with a new diagnosis/being frustrated/losing friends!