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When You Experience ‘Pain-Shaming’

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I want to talk about an experience I call “pain-shaming.”

I cried after calling the doctor’s office the other day. Afterward, in a wave of fury, I called my mother. She answered FaceTime with her usual big smile, and I could barely talk.

She knew something was wrong. I told her I had just made that dreaded call for another prescription — the stuff prescribed for “severe and disabling pain.”

The receptionist who took my call said, “It’s only been a few days since your last script. The 25th, actually — almost a week, but not quite.”

Through gritted teeth and desperate composure, I replied, “I have had chronic pain for five years. The doctor has written this for me before.”

My heart was now beating so low in my chest, I felt like I was going to birth it right then while the receptionist talked me through heart labor. After I hung up, I imagined her sitting at the office, and then arriving home, maybe to the smells of her slow cooker. Meanwhile, for dinner at my house, I’d organized braised nothing with a side of not much else.

Poor Mum, she lives away and feels helpless, so I don’t like to tell her too much about the reality of my day-to-day. But on this day, I’d had enough.

I told Mum about the enlarged eyes the women behind the counter get when they realize just how much medication I’m actually taking.

I told her I somehow now had a guilty conscience every time I saw my own doctor.

Once a prescription went missing, and all hell broke loose. There were phone calls to someone who was trying desperately to retrace every step the prescription had made.

After a 20-minute investigation, it was revealed that my pharmacist had not given me the required amount. The tension that was released from the air was palpable. Suddenly, I was back to being “nice mummy with a bob” who just needed something for her chronic pain. Back to being that well-spoken journalist with a sensible satchel and nicely-dressed kids.

I am one in five Australian adults in chronic pain, and many of us who require medication deal with this relentless conjecture on a daily basis.

I do not take pain medication for sh*ts and giggles. I am trialling a vegan diet, and I save alcohol for special occasions. I practice yoga and meditation, and I’m exploring a spiritual path. I even like crystals and salt lamps! Why? Because I have had to stare a lifetime of pain square in the face, and the only way I can deal with that is to do the best I can do with what I have left.

Isn’t it funny that we have teachers working tirelessly to stamp out bullying in the schoolyard, yet in the workplace it’s expected for us to just “harden up”?

When I took my toddlers to get their vaccinations, I watched them get jelly beans as nurses jumped around in front of them blowing bubbles. But when you are an adult getting your annual prick, you might just be told to look away.

Why does the kids’ hospital ward always have colorful walls with adult entertainers making bulldozers and Disney castles out of balloons? Where’s my Patch Adams?

We give children love, care and laughter when they are unhappy. Throw them parties, give them cake. But those of us “adulting” or dealing with sicknesses or diseases are expected just to “get on with it.”

There are certainly no teachers asking us if we are OK. No goody bag for the drive home after a colonoscopy.

Empathy is not something you can write a prescription for.

It comes from your husband bringing you a cuppa in the morning when he knows you are at your sorest; a friend who shares her lunch break with you because she knows you have a lot going on; or a neighbor who offers you their stand-up desk to borrow so you can see if it will be good for your back.

We’re not asking for much. Just some acknowledgement that we’re going through a tough time. And less Nancy-Drew-Sherlock-Holmes-eyeballing. Oh, and a letter asking, “How can I help?” with a voucher for a free neck massage thrown in for good measure — that would be fantastic.

And maybe a lollipop, too.

That would be nice.

Follow this journey on

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: August 31, 2016
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