After several weeks' hiatus, Mark and I eagerly tuned in to Fox (which I would watch for no other reason) for last night's episode of House. We are both big fans of the show, Mark for the medical stuff (even if it is pretty far from believable) and House's sarcastic wit, and me for the same wit and because I've developed a big fat crush on Hugh Laurie (who hasn't, really?). I realized last night, though, that there is something else I really like about the show.
It deals with pain. And not just the transient pain of patients who have specific, curable or treatable illnesses, but the chronic, never-ending pain House himself is in. The topic of this pain doesn't go away. It peaks and wanes, but it's always there, and not just as a reason for House's drug addiction, but as a topic in and of itself. In last night's episode, when House apologized to Tritter, he explained his behavior with something along the lines of "I am in constant pain. Pain that, on a good day, is just unbearable."
As a society, we don't know how to deal with chronic pain or illness. We have a decent idea of how to wrap our minds around illnesses and pains that are temporary, that can either be fixed or lead to a fairly rapid death, but the idea of chronic pain and illness eludes us. I think this may account for part of our appalling treatment of the disabled, though that's just a guess. We seem to only be able to conceptualize "sick" and "better," and have no idea how to deal with the idea that sometimes functioning in pain or sickness for the rest of one's life is just the way it is.
I am close to two people who are in chronic pain. Though neither of them is a Vicodin addict like House, they both manage their pain pharmaceutically, to a greater or lesser degree. Also unlike House, neither of them has an external manifestation of the pain (House walks with a limp and uses a cane, for those who don't watch the show). Both of them have reached a point with the causes of their pain where they more or less know it's permanent. And I don't necessarily know how each of them feels about it, but I know that from the perspective of someone who loves them, it is infuriating to watch them have to deal not only with the physical and emotional consequences of constantly hurting, but also with living in a society that has no place for that, no idea how to deal with it, and no vocabulary with which to talk about it.
One of the most frustrating things, at least from what I have observed, is having people ask how you are and knowing that their question is much less "how are you coping?" and much more "are you getting better?" People who should know that better isn't really on the table. It begins to seem almost accusatory, as if people are thinking that it must really be your fault you're in pain if you haven't gotten better after this long. As if righteous diseases and disorders have timelines, but chronic ones are somehow unworthy of sympathy.
I know from firsthand experience that there is a lot of guilt surrounding being a chronically sick person, even if your illnesses, like mine, are, in the grand scheme of things, minor. I feel guilty every time I get sick and have to miss work, or miss another commitment, or slow down in any way. I feel like if I just got sick once in awhile, it would be OK, but since I get sick so often, people are inevitably going to blame me for it and begrudge me the down time (and, to be honest, sometimes they do). I would imagine this to be even worse for someone in chronic pain, whose condition exists not annoyingly often, like mine, but constantly. We all know, from whatever experience of pain we've had, that pain limits you. It limits you physically, and it limits you mentally and emotionally. Just being in pain is tiring, a drain on your resources. Not only does House's addiction to pain killers make sense, if one imagines a bad pain they've had and having to carry that pain around constantly forever, but his personality makes sense as well. Pain cuts through the bullshit and leaves you with what's real, and that's not always polite, or pretty.
We should have room in our society to talk about pain, and to accept that people who are in chronic pain have a burden to bear that cannot even be imagined by those of us who go through the majority of our days pain-free. This isn't to say that we should have more sympathy, or that actions should be excuse from people in pain that would not be excused from others, but I think these people deserve to have their pain acknowledged as a circumstance of their lives that must be realized and taken into account. When you know someone is never going to "feel better," it is unbelievably selfish to continue to ask him or her if they do. It's not for them, it's for you, so you can feel like things are progressing the way that they should be, so you don't have to face the fact that sometimes it doesn't get better. Certainly the person who is living with that fact has already faced it.
It's probably part and parcel of the quick-fix society in which we live that we don't know how to respond to each other when something is wrong that is never going to be right. We specialize in correcting problems, not in living with them. But the truth of it is that most of us are not going to be so lucky as to have solutions for everything, long-term. Though we may never have the kind of chronic pain conditions that House has, or that the two people in my life have, we are going to age, and there's likely to be pain with that. There is a lot of room between what we think of as sick and what we think of as well, and a lot of people spend the majority of their lives in that space--it is ridiculous and embarrassing that we as a society want so badly to overlook those people, place blame on them, or try to fit them into categories where they don't belong. House may just be a stupid TV show, but it is one doing something I've not seen much before--placing it's central character directly in that gray zone, between the "healthy" people around him and the "sick" patients he treats. He moves within that zone, but he's not going to get out of it. And that's something we need to see, to accept. Only when we face that pain is not always a transitory state, that there are people for whom it is part of the fabric of daily life, and that those people can and do go on living and living well, will we be able to deal honestly and compassionately with those people, and with the fear of pain in ourselves.