Third Age: Something Chronic

Instead of facing the day with stiffening dread, the Oldie magazine tells me, you must give rating numbers to your painful joints.

So it’s out of bed to determine at once that your knees are a 4 1/2, neck 6 and back 5. If I don’t do any gardening today we might get that down to a 4. I now rate my daily exercises too. I have a 7- or 8-rated session, after which I might need a glass of something to reward my courage. Aches and pains are part of old age and the Oldie magazine (special subscription rates for the over 80s now) doesn’t shy away from that. Columnists freely give exciting and useful advice like that above. But serious chronic pain is rarely mentioned, except in obituaries when it may be said it was “bravely borne”. ABC TV did an excellent job last month of tackling mental illness. You can talk about mental illness now. You can talk about sexual dysfunction, strangely-shaped breasts, small penises, dysmorphia. A whole TV program called Embarrassing Bodies exists, but it seems to deal mostly with problems you can see. But I am pretty sure that chronic pain remains the great unmentionable. Even people you trust may run and hide if it is brought up. Doctors feel embarrassed by it. Some are just sad that they can do little to banish it; some, a few, get hostile. When I was a young child, it was more than mentionable. It seemed to be the hobby of the adults whose conversations I listened to from behind the horsehair sofa. I heard enough to freeze me with terror. By the time I went to high school things had changed. Maybe the war had hardened people. I remember our English teacher reciting William Ernest Henley’s Invictus and saying that some literary critics felt the poor poet, survivor of TB and amputation, was laying it on a bit thick when he spoke of overcoming pain through his “unconquerable soul”. Then there was an even greater change. From the 50s on, most physical pain was dealt with in surgeries. People could afford to go to the doctor and dentist. Pain was no longer commonplace. By the 60s everyone was aspiring to be among the beautiful people the media presented to us in desirable images. Pain, chronic pain became unmentionable, and even some acute pain. I can remember the very last woman who described her labor to me in graphic detail. Early 70s. Sheila Kitzinger, the natural childbirth guru, was already telling us then that childbirth was like shelling peas. You may dispute my timing, but basically conversations about chronic physical pain in any detail are off the agenda. Mental pain, on the other hand, is very much up for discussion. This means that truth goes out the window if you have to excuse yourself from something because of chronic pain. The first casualty of chronic pain is truth. After that, I am afraid, it is friendship that suffers. Not all friends desert the ship any more than all chronic pain sufferers speak of their pain, but people often find it difficult to acknowledge the chronic pain of their friends. I recall with amusement (now) when a friend of some 30 years said, after I cancelled something: “What’s wrong with you, anyway?” It was that gratuitous, loaded, suspicious “anyway” that was not to be borne. I remember the light in my sunny blue kitchen dimmed and the pine tree outside the window seemed to bend. I sent her on her way never to be seen again. And, of course, I learnt to be lie better about why I cancelled stuff. It would be a jolly good thing if the matter of chronic pain were opened up more, not so we can moan, but to acknowledge it’s there, mucking up useful lives, not always old lives, either. My GP thinks so, and he has a bust of Socrates in his surgery, so I trust him implicitly. @mollyfisher4

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