Picture it. You are a lonely kid whose parents make no money. You move from town to town–one step ahead of the bill collectors and one step behind a decent job that’ll make all the phone calls stop. Your clothes are shabby and your hair hasn’t seen a pair of scissors since the time you hacked it all off a few months ago because your mom couldn’t afford shampoo and you’d ruined it by trying to wash it with some pink hand soap at the gas station.
You are a smart kid. You have a good brain and dreams of going to college. But it’s hard to do homework when you can’t afford pencils and paper and your light bill goes unpaid so often that you don’t bother trying to flip the switch anymore. The only hot meal you ever get is at school. You get that because you filled out the paperwork for free lunch yourself so it wouldn’t hurt your mom’s pride to know you qualified. Sometimes there are ketchup packets and you save those and take them home to snack on for a sort of supper. This is your life and every day is an uphill battle.
But then at school your classmates see nothing more than the dirty clothes, the ragged hair and the fact you never have your homework done. They decide then and there that you’re stupid. You’re scum. You probably steal things, they think, so you never get invited to their houses. And you deserve detention. One day something goes missing out of a girl’s gym locker. You didn’t take it because you know yourself how precious possesions are. The few you have–an old fountain pen long out of ink from your grandpa, an attendence pin from a Five Day Club in one of the towns six moves ago–are your treasures. You’d never dream of taking anything from anyone else, no matter how badly you want clothes that match and have no holes and how badly you want a hot meal before bedtime. But the entire school knows you’re the poor kid. The dirty kid. The kid who smells bad. So the fingers point at you and you sit huddled in the principal’s office (Principal doesn’t mean “pal” to you) as the police are called in to search your locker.
That’s the best way I know to describe the life of a patient with a chronic pain illness. Because any other analogy I try doesn’t seem to get the point across. We are good people who got dealt a VERY bad hand. We have done nothing wrong–at no point did we cause our diseases ourselves. Yet the rest of the world looks at how we seem to them and makes up their minds that we are something we aren’t. They don’t understand what life is like. People whose acquaintance with pain is occasionally slamming their thumb with a hammer or burning a hand on the stove don’t quite have the tools to conceptualise a life of dealing with constant, neverending pain. Pain so bad that it makes you vomit. Pain so bad that you sometimes cannot bear to wear clothes.
When the concept of drugs comes up–and there isn’t a pain patient alive who likes to talk about the drugs–you know that the mind of the person you are talking to is immediately running straight to “yeah, sure, it’s just an excuse. They’re really just another addict.”
And we love the drugs. With all our hearts. Because how can you not appreciate the thing that makes the pain a little less bad? (It never-never-never goes away for more than a few minutes at a time.) We love the drugs but we don’t like them. Because while they make the pain go away they also make us tired. They make some of us depressed and a lot of us sick to our stomachs. They give us wonderful things called “bounce-back headaches” and they sometimes make some other pains worse for a couple of days. But the drugs are like our hot school lunch. They are often the only meal that keeps us from starving to death. They are what keeps us sane. They are what allows us to keep working and not feel useless. More than one pain patient has literally been kept alive–away from suicide–because of the relief from opiates.
So while my heart breaks for the Granju family and others like them who have lost loved ones to pain medication abuse there is no way on earth that I can get behind any more demonisation of pain patients or the doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies who help make our lives bearable.