Two Realities “Cake” Reveals about the Lives of Those in Chronic Pain

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A few weeks back I finally got around to seeing the movie Cake. Before the movie came out, I went back and forth between excitement and apprehension at the thought of seeing chronic pain depicted in a mainstream movie. Then, as the movie came to theatres, I started seeing reviews on numerous blogs that I like to read. Typically, I avoid movie views like the plague if I have not seen the actual movie. I don’t want to know the story and I don’t want a million other peoples’ opinions before I see it for myself. This time I read all of the reviews. I wanted to make sure the movie was worth watching, and I wanted to be prepared.

Most of the reviews that I read said some version of the same thing, emphasizing one view over another, but still in basic consensus on a few main points. Here is my quick take on the pros and cons of the movie.

The Pros

The highlight of the movie for me was the honest and accurate depiction of a life lived in severe chronic pain. Jennifer Aniston portrayed a realistic picture of the everyday obstacles faced by individuals with chronic pain. Little things like seeing her lie down in the car to be driven places made me smile, because it’s so true. Sometimes that is just the way life is.

The Cons

There are two main cons that other blogs have already reviewed in detail. The first potential difficulty is the emphasis on her addiction to prescription medication. Considering the current hesitancy of doctors to prescribe pain medications to those who need it, this film does perpetuate the stigma of the chronic pain patient as an addict and drug seeker.

The second main con, also described in detail in other reviews that I read, was a scene that made it appear that she simply needed to “decide” she wants to get better to be able to make progress. This could perpetuate the stereotype that those in chronic pain are lazy and exercise phobic and simply need to change their attitude. This is not the case for most individuals in chronic pain.

In Summary

I personally enjoyed the movie and thought it was worth watching to see an accurate picture of chronic pain. However, I would not be quick to recommend this movie to friends and family members to explain my pain because it could lead them to fixate on some of the cons and come away with negative stereotypes regarding chronic pain.

Two Realities about Our Lives of Chronic Pain

Here are the points I want to get to. As I was thinking through the two cons of this film, I was struck at how they point out two interesting realities about our lives of chronic pain.

One of the reasons I was not upset by the portrayal of addiction was that I believe the individuals who made the film had creative license and could tell the story the way they wanted to. They were portraying a story that is some peoples’ story. As I pondered this part of the story line further, I considered what the story would have been like without her addiction and without her suicidal ideation. Honestly, it would have been boring. No one would go see a movie about an individual with chronic pain without some sort of dramatized story line.

Add a prescription medication addiction, suicidal ideation, and hallucinations and, suddenly, our lives of pain become interesting. I honestly believe the emphasis on her addiction had much less to do with any sort of political statement regarding the prescription of narcotics, and much more to with the fact that the lives of most individual in chronic pain are not….very interesting.

Our lives are often monotonous and often boring. We lie down a lot. We sleep a lot, or toss and turn trying to sleep. We do the same things every day and we neither die or get better. Each day we overcome huge obstacles, but no one would be able to see this from just watching. Each day we are fighting for survival and a better quality of life, but to an untrained eye, it looks like we are failing at life. There is a reason they included her severe emotional disturbances, suicidal ideation, and addiction to prescription narcotics. The movie would be boring without them. The reality is that the naked, unaltered lives of individuals in chronic pain are not often inspiring, interesting, or entertainment-worthy.

Reality #1 – Some of us are just holding on to survive. Our unaltered stories are worth telling, we just need to convince people they are worth hearing without adding all that extra stuff.

And this leads in to the second reality. Our lives are incredibly difficult, and for many of us, no matter how hard we try, our lives will remain just as difficult. There are major aspects of our health that we have absolutely no control over. We are at the whims and mercies of our autoimmune systems, not-so-normal genetics, damaged tissues and out-of-control nervous systems.

Sure there are things we can do that put the odds better in our favor. We can choose to eat healthy instead of horribly. We can choose to take our medications and try various treatments. We can work towards better sleep habits, do our best to exercise, and change our attitude to be more hopeful and optimistic. And of course these things help, but at the end of the day, our bodies do as they please, and there is not a damn thing we can do about it.

So, why does Cake seem to insist that Claire needs to simply change her attitude? The reason is that no one wants to watch the story of someone who is living a life that is uncontrollable. How can you cheer on a hero who won’t be able to change his or her circumstances? How can you make an entertaining, interesting movie in which the main character will live and die in the same state of uncontrollable pain?

The fact is that our lives of pain are largely outside the realm of our control not matter how hard we try. No matter how hard we try, we will still be in pain. No matter how hard we try, we will still be tired, our bodies will still continue to deteriorate, and it is not up to us which medicines and treatments will help and which ones won’t. We can’t control the outcome of our pain, and no one wants to watch a movie about a life that can’t be controlled in the end.

Reality #2 – People want to believe that each of us has this underlying strength and resilience that will enable us to overcome any obstacle, but they don’t realize that sometimes the way we overcome obstacles is by living through them, not by coming out of them.

8 responses

  1. Very interesting. I am so out-of-touch when it comes to new movies. I briefly saw this mentioned somewhere on social media recently, but that’s all. I appreciate your review and your thoughts on it. Thank you for sharing!

    • Hi Rachel, I’m typically out of touch with new movies as well. This one recently came out on Netflix and Redbox, so that’s how I finally got around to seeing it. It has been floating around on social media, so I have been waiting for that to happen 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for such an insightful post. I was looking forward to seeing this movie before I saw the previews, which really turned me off of it. I especially disliked the scene in which Jennifer Aniston’s trainer asks her if she genuinely wants to get better. If someone in my life ever asked me that, I just might use my last spoon to slap them!

    In all seriousness, I am not sure I could handle seeing this movie. As I suspected after watching the preview and see confirmed by your blog, it does seem to perpetuate negative stereotypes of the chronically ill.

    I don’t believe that creative license is an adequate reason to inaccurately portray the chronically ill, despite the fact that we really are a pretty boring lot. There are many other more realistic obstacles that the screenwriters could have chosen to focus on, such as disbelief of family and friends and subsequent loss of relationships, the struggle to maintain a career, or the difficulties of getting diagnosed and the skepticism of the medical community.

    • That scene you mention was what I was talking about in the post that makes it seems like she just has to “decide” to get better and she magically will turn a corner. I agree that turned me off as well.

      I agree that they don’t have a right to inaccurately portray the chronically ill, but I think my point was that it wasn’t an inaccurate portrayal as much as it was a minority portrayal. There are many people out there whose stories are similar to the one portrayed in Cake. But unfortunately, I think the problem is when this minority story gets lumped in with the majority story as though all chronically ill individuals are addicts. But, I guess my thought is just because it is the minority story doesn’t mean its not worth telling the story….if that makes sense.

      But I really like how you listed other things they might have focused on – I agree I would love to see a movie like that. unfortunately, I’m not sure that would be interesting to the majority of movie goers 🙁

    • I tried to come from a different angle since there are so many reviews on it already. It’s definitely worth watching!

  3. Thanks for such an insightful post. I haven’t seen the movie and I don’ t think I want to.
    Your points about living with chronic illness are very well made and I think there is always a danger in any suggestion that people can think themselves out of pain etc.
    If it was as easy as that, wouldn’t life be a dream!

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