The 10 Worst Questions I Get Asked About My Chronic Pain


For me, my chronic illness is back pain with the accompanying exhaustion and frequent depression. For you, it might be something else, but I would be surprised to find that we don’t dread the same kinds of question. I’m happy to answer the most common one that I get asked, which is the very sensible: “How is your back at the moment?” I have weeded out most of the others from amongst my nearest and dearest, but lapses occur and new friends have not yet been gently herded into the field of acceptable enquiries.

So the top 10 for me are as follows:

1. “Have you tried…?” It is a standing joke amongst my friends that I get asked “Have you tried Pilates?” all the time. I have nothing at all against Pilates and many of the physio exercises I do are also found whilst doing Pilates, but given that it is a famous treatment for back pain and I’ve been in pain for six years, yes I’ve tried it, thanks.

2. “Did I tell you that so-and-so has a bad back?” Yes, you have, probably more than once, and because swimming every week sorted it out for them, it won’t necessarily sort mine out. Backs are not all the same and thus please don’t suggest your solution is universal, as it implies that I am either lazy or stupid for not trying it.

3. “Can they do anything about it?” I had long metal rods put in it to correct the kyphosis four years ago, and usually a mention that I was prepared to go that far stops people from asking further. However, some do want more details. If you really want the blow-by-blow account of everything I’ve tried then I’m happy to give it, but don’t you dare look bored halfway through. It’s a long dull list, but you asked.

4. “Do you take painkillers for it?” Yes. I’m still in pain with them and insufficiently heroic to cope without them. And yes, I do worry about taking all that stuff into my body, so please don’t moan to me about having to remember antibiotics for a week.

5. “When do they think it will get better?” Obviously we all hope it’s going to get better, but no one has been able to promise anything on that score, especially where the rods were put in. More injections in my lower back might help but the last ones I had messed up other joints and I ended up in a worse state, so I am reluctant to try again. I too once thought that things were either curable or fatal, but it turns out that modern medicine still can’t do everything.

6. “Were you upset about stopping work?” This is a complicated one, as not working whilst in pain has obvious advantages over trying to carry on, and I am lucky that we can just about manage without my salary. The limited socializing that I can do would be impossible if I had to work the following day. However, I did enjoy my teaching job a great deal and my pride doesn’t enjoy having to be helped out by others financially, grateful though I am that they can.

7. “Would losing weight help?” Yes, I’m sure it would, and my failure to do so doesn’t mean that I’m secretly getting a kick out of being helpless, thanks. The pills mess up my metabolism, the pain makes many activities impossible, and a sugar boost is about the only thing that can keep me going until bedtime. So – whilst I admit a lack of willpower is also an issue – please don’t imply that this would be an easy way out of the constant pain.

8. “Does it hurt all the time?” Yes. Sometimes it flares up badly and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always there and very draining, and yes, that is pretty rubbish.

9. “Aren’t you grateful it isn’t worse?” Yes. Of course. It is possible to realize that other people are even more badly off and also be sick of your own crosses to bear simultaneously. I very much doubt you live in a state of constant gratitude yourself, in fact.

10. “Are you worried about the impact it has on your family?” Yes. There is
very little I can add to that, as the real answer to it is “Of course I am, but I’m trying to do my best for them!” followed by tears, but we’d all be happier if I didn’t do that in public.

So those are main things that I have been asked that I would hope not to be asked again. I would advise just asking how things are at the moment of anyone in a similar situation. If you feel the urge to ask anything further, you are probably best off with “And what would you like to drink?”

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