By Cynthia Toussaint
Cynthia Toussaint is the founder of For Grace—a non-profit committed to women in chronic pain. She is a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.
When I watched the movie Room a week ago, I had no idea it was my life story. And I’ve got a strong hunch it’s every woman in pain’s story. At least those of us with high-impact chronic pain.
SPOILER ALERT – Room unflinchingly tells the harrowing story of a young woman, Ma, who had a wonderful life – and how in a moment that life went to hell.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Ma was helping a neighbor, Old Nick, round up his loose dog when he abducted her. For the next seven years, he imprisons Ma in a backyard shed using her as a sex slave. When Ma becomes pregnant, she raises her little boy, Jack, using imagination and storytelling to stay sane. When her son turns five, Ma finally finds freedom only to discover the outside world is rife with emotional pain beyond what she suffered in Room.
The movie begins with Ma and Jack in Room – and the desperation, isolation and depression hit me head on. Within minutes, I was itchy with dread-filled, familiar feelings. I was surprised the movie makers could powerfully show my fear, my cage, my desperateness to escape the unescapable.
As everyone here knows, the chronic pain experience cuts us off from most things normal – and when we scream for understanding, for mercy, often no one responds. That’s how it was for Ma and Jack as one scene depicts their daily attempt to shout through a single air vent in futile hope of being rescued.
One particularly disturbing scene was when Ma cruelly wraps a terrified Jack in a rug as a scheme to convince Old Nick that the boy is dead and needs to be dumped. She yells at Jack to play stiff and dead, then run as soon as Old Nick’s pick-up slows down.
Yes, we understand Ma’s desperate need to be found, but at the cost of traumatizing her son and putting him in harm’s way? This mal-adaptive behavior reminds me of what we women in pain subject ourselves and others to because of the never-ending, seemingly-hopeless torture. We’re consumed by the hatred of where we find ourselves trapped. I for one have on too many occasions thrown things, screamed at and physically traumatized my wonderful partner and caregiver, John. And that’s just for starters.
We’ve all done unthinkable things to survive. I know women in pain who self-medicate to forget or have many sexual partners to feel valued. Many of us don’t leave abusive or violent partners as the walls of our chronic pain Room prevent us from living independently.
When Ma finally gains her freedom with Jack and reunites with her family, I related to her story even more. After the initial elation fades, family members become angry, seemingly blaming Ma for their upheaval. Her father can’t look at Jack and abandons his daughter. Even the media judges her harshly. As a result, Ma attempts suicide.
This plot line took me back to 13 years into my CRPS when I was finally diagnosed. I was certain my friends and family would re-embrace me as now we had the answer to the horrible never-ending pain and misery that impacted all. I thought my name would be cleared and I’d be forgiven. Instead, they distanced themselves to the point of emotional abandonment.
The hardest scene for me was when Ma showed Jack a picture of her having fun with old high school girlfriends. With a flash of anger, she bitterly asks him what the difference is now between her and them. I knew the answer as tears welled. Ma said, “Nothing happened to them.” I too have often felt scorn toward pre-illness people I once knew and loved who moved on with their lives as if I never existed.
I highly recommend Room as it’s so amazingly crafted and emotionally affecting. Of course the screenplay writer wasn’t thinking about women in chronic pain and illness – but many of its themes cross over seamlessly. The life being destroyed in an instant, the suffocating isolation and loneliness, the torture and hopelessness, the loss of dreams and normal, the judgement and blame from those who should support us.
Ma and Jack’s Room had a skylight that brought in a piece of the outside world, a slim view of hope and possibility. Let’s look to our skylights… and hold on to the hope of one day being free.
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