CAKE – A portrayal of chronic pain through film

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As Psychologists in long term pain management, we were excited to hear about the release of CAKE starring Jennifer Aniston who plays the role of Claire Bennett, a lady in long term pain following a car accident. Long term pain (referred to as chronic pain) affects over 1.5 billion people worldwide which can be both physically and emotionally debilitating. Living with chronic pain presents Claire with many challenges which are commonly experienced by people with long term pain.

Themes covered in the film

In the film Claire battles with the day to day management of her pain which was often manifested in anger and frustration making it difficult for her to maintain close relationships. Even her relationship with her housekeeper is tested throughout the film. Her loneliness is comforted in short bursts though her sexual relationships which in themselves presents a struggle due to her physical pain.

Claire attempts to cope with her chronic pain through the use of prescription medication which she is reliant upon. This dependency leads her to hide medication throughout the house and build false relationships with healthcare professionals to obtain her next prescription. She goes to any length to obtain the medication once she has exceeded her allowance and throughout the film continually mixes her medication with alcohol.

Chronic pain can affect people’s mobility in different ways and in the film Claire struggles with sitting upright whilst in the car so is consequently driven by her housekeeper whilst lying down. She also finds sleeping in a comfortable position challenging.

The notion of suicide runs throughout the film after the early revelation that a member of a pain support group (Nina, played by Anna Kendrick) commits suicide and leaves behind her husband and son. However, the hallucinations experienced by Claire (as a result of her over reliance on medication), presents Nina as a sub-conscious outlet for Claire to explore and work through her deeper challenges and struggles.

Critical review

Living with long term pain can have a knock on effect on all aspects of life and in the film we see this. In addition to the themes covered, financial implications can also play a role particularly if people struggle to sustain employment.

Claire also benefits from a good physical environment which includes a heated swimming pool in her house, although this raises good awareness of different coping strategies it is not something that everyone will have access to.

The film also portrays some of Claire’s chronic pain through her physical scars. Chronic pain is often known as the “invisible condition”, and not necessarily manifested or associated with visible injuries. This emphasises the awareness of chronic pain as an internal experience and hence one of the challenges is communicating this to family, friends and clinicians.

Overall the film raises important issues related to chronic pain and brings to the forefront the daily challenges faced by people living with the condition. We must remember that a quality of life despite having chronic pain can be achieved and this includes acceptance, distraction though hobbies, attending support groups, physical therapy and the motivation to achieve. Healthcare professionals including medical doctors, physiotherapists, specialist nurses and psychologists offer a multidisciplinary approach to pain management and can help people develop a tool box of effective coping strategies.

The film Cake is released in UK cinemas on 20th February 2015 (Certificate 15).