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What 'Doctor Strange' Gets Right About Chronic Pain

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I’m in love with Benedict Cumberbatch. Let’s just get that out of the way right off the bat. In truth, it’s hard not to fall for the actor known for his roles in “Sherlock,” “The Imitation Game,” and now Marvel’s “Doctor Strange.” I mean, have you seen his eyes? His hands? And, have you heard him speak? Enough said.

I’m a 30-year-old female who prefers a good drama over any superhero movie, so when I headed out to the theater to see “Doctor Strange” on the night it opened, I did so purely for Cumberbatch. I knew his acting would be phenomenal — just watch his portrayal of Hamlet if you still need convincing — and figured that it would be enough to enjoy his talents, even if I wasn’t wild about the movie itself.

What I didn’t anticipate was that I would be in tears within the first 20 minutes or so of the movie.

I knew the basic story: Neurosurgeon Doctor Steven Strange suffers a traumatic car accident and damages his hands beyond repair. He turns to the Ancient One in a last-ditch attempt to heal, and learns to harness powers that are, essentially, magic.

But I was shocked by the accuracy and emotion with which the movie highlighted chronic pain, nerve damage, and injuries that alter our lives. Strange’s injury wasn’t just brushed over, as I’d assumed it would be. It was more than just a plot point. It was central to shaping Strange’s life, attitude and future.

Time for full disclosure number two: My career was altered because of an injury. Or, more accurately, multiple injuries. In college I double majored in music performance on the flute and English composition. The English was to be a fallback in case it turned out I didn’t have the talent to be a performance musician. During college I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, practicing for eight or more hours a day, training my body to do the physically impossible. And for a while, I succeeded. I was a strong performer with a future, and my senior recital was a major triumph.

But I had been battling pain in my hands and wrists during my junior and senior years of college. Doctors dismissed this as minor injuries fixable with surgeries, so I pressed on, wearing ice packs as I practiced, slathering my wrists in muscle rub, and taking copious amounts of painkillers.

After graduating college, I took a year off from pursuing music further as a graduate student. I knew I needed to get to the root of the issues. About a year later, I was diagnosed with repetitive motion syndrome, tendonitis, nerve damage, carpal tunnel syndrome, and then, fibromyalgia. The fibromyalgia was the final seal on the fate of my career.

It would not be physically possible for my body to sustain itself under the stress of a music performance career.

By that point, my hands had worsened to the point where my fingers were frequently numb, my hands and fingers trembled, and I had little control over them.

And that’s exactly what I saw in Strange’s hands. Cumberbatch did a tremendous job in teaching his hands to shake and tremble, and the movie drove home the impact that the loss of a career — the loss of a former life, basically — can have.

There’s a point in the movie where Strange asks, “What is life without my work?” His ex-girlfriend, Christine Palmer, replies, “It’s still a life.” Strange shrugs the comment off, and his dismissal — his disbelief? — is perfectly accurate.

When you lose something, like your career, that is so you, that so defines you, it feels almost like losing your life. I can’t count the years that I poured into playing music. I was happy to make the sacrifices at the time — I had no nights and no weekends while I was in college — because I knew I was working toward something. But when that is ripped away from you, you’re left hollow. All of that work that you poured in — where did it go? You have nothing to show for it, and that factor that defined you, is now gone.

I once held the title of “musician.” A few months after my diagnosis, a friend introduced me to a coworker as someone who “used to be a musician.” It was a gut-wrenching moment. I had no new title to replace “musician” with; I had no identity.

This movie gets it. As I watched “Doctor Strange” and we moved into the second hour and Strange’s hands were still referenced, I sat there in amazement. There’s something powerful about knowing that you’re not alone, and watching this movie was like listening to someone saying that they understand. The writers get it; it doesn’t just go away. The change never leaves you, but instead it transforms you. And if you come out the other side a better person for it, good. But that’s not always the case.

It’s been almost four years since my diagnosis, and I’m still bitter. I still envy people whose hands work normally, and watching my college classmates progress in their careers can be agonizing at times. Somehow I doubt I’ll come across an Ancient One to help me find my greater purpose, but I’ve started on that journey on my own. I do teach flute lessons, but more so I’ve focused on my writing and developing a career as a freelancer.

And I heal, a little bit at a time. Seeing an injury depicted with realism and sensitivity to the emotional toll it brings in popular media? That’s a healing step forward. So often chronic pain gets glossed over, but it’s prominently featured in one of the most popular movies this year. For me, that movie is a message of understanding. Someone gets it.

So I’ll continue on. Each day brings with it the unexpected. Will a trip to the store send my pain over the edge? Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to have a good day. Maybe the pain will only partially impair my activity level. I’ll continue on with my writing, and maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to make a difference for someone else with my words, with my story. After all, “Doctor Strange” was just a comic. But to me, it means so much more.

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Photo courtesy of Doctor Strange on Facebook

Originally published: November 18, 2016
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