There are plenty of gruesome moments in the hit BBC show Line of Duty, but the one that has stuck with me wasn’t intended to be quite so shocking.
On being apprehended by DC Morton (Neil Morrissey), DI Cottan (Craig Parkinson) is confused as to how the other man was able to chase and catch up with him, as Morton lives with chronic pain and walks with a cane after a leg injury.
It’s at this point that Morton sneers, throws his cane on the ground and reveals he’s been lying about his disability to claim benefits and not have to go out into the field.
As a disabled woman who often walks with a cane, this made my blood run cold.
I’ve lived with chronic pain for most of my life and my biggest fear is that I won’t be believed, that people think I’m lying to scrounge off the state and that I’m seen to just be lazy.
Former friends have accused me of this exact thing because I don’t always need to use my cane.
To see just that portrayed on one of the UK’s biggest shows upset me.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a one off. On World Arthritis Day, the charity Versus Arthritis launched their new study, The Painful Truth, which explores how chronic pain is depicted in film and TV.
After reviewing the most popular shows and films of 2019, they found that chronic pain is not being shown accurately. What’s more, out of 100 hours of footage, just six minutes were dedicated to those living in pain.
Despite there being over 10million people with arthritis in the UK, chronic pain is still massively misunderstood. Many think it’s just an illness that older people get or worse, that it’s not real.
I was diagnosed when I was just 10 years old, but have had chronic joint pain since I was about eight. Although I’m unfortunately used to it, I know how debilitating and exhausting it can be.
It affects the joints in my fingers, wrists, shoulders, knees, ankles and feet. When the pain flares up in my hands I use compression gloves to ease it, but some days I have to admit defeat and stop working.
It also interacts with the osteoporosis in my hips and my chronic pelvic pain. Most days I don’t need to use a cane but when it’s really bad, I can barely stand.
I’m a lot clumsier than most people and fall over a lot, as well as dropping things often as my grip isn’t great. The bad days are exhausting, but they make me grateful for the good days.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if you said you had no idea what people with chronic pain go through, given how little representation is out there.
The charity also surveyed people with arthritis living in daily pain, of which more than half said they feel TV and film portrayals of chronic pain contribute to society’s lack of understanding about what it’s like to live with it.
The invisibility of my condition means I often face judgement, such as when people have told me it’s all in my head or brushed my pain off. It has been incredibly isolating at times.
Having someone laugh off or dismiss me is something that has happened to me a lot – like when I’m struggling to keep up with friends and they laugh it off with ‘Aww, it’s not that even bad,’ as if I’m just making it up.
Funnily enough, this seems to be one of the most depicted parts of the chronic pain experience on screen.
In over half (53%) of film and TV scenes, chronic pain is ignored by characters. This includes in the show Killing Eve when one of the lead characters, the assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), jumps on her handler Konstantin (Kim Bodnia) despite his protests that he has a bad shoulder.
Versus Arthritis also revealed that in 90% of instances, characters living in chronic pain simply have to get on with it. In Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film The Irishman, the main character, hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) has bursitis (inflammation of the joints) and must grin and bear his condition as he has no other option.
This ingrains the message that people with chronic pain should face it in silence.
I used to feel like I had to do this so as to not draw attention to my needs and avoid ridicule. I’d take painkillers and struggle through a full working day instead of asking for help.
In the end, it made my condition more painful. I wish I’d known now that my comfort is more important than what others think of me.
I would like the entertainment industry to include chronic pain in storylines and better represent our experiences. I’d love to see a diagnosis of chronic pain not being a death sentence or the beginning of an inspirational tale that involves someone learning to walk again.
Susan Kennedy’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis in Neighbours is a great example of this. It followed her through her early symptoms to her difficulty in having her pain believed by doctors and then adjusting to life with her condition.
We saw her emotional response to her diagnosis before eventually accepting and learning to control it.
It was a relief to have one show that put the effort in to try and get things right.
By misrepresenting arthritis and conditions like it, films and TV shows perpetuate tired stereotypes about disabled people such as that we’re lazy, faking our pain or being too sensitive.
It’s offensive to exclude us from popular culture.
The entertainment industry needs to take a more diverse approach to disability and chronic pain by including people from all walks of life instead of sticking to the status quo.
Just once, I’d love to be watching a romcom and see the gorgeous young protagonist walking with a cane.
And hey, if Netflix wants to commission a comedy about a cute but clumsy northerner who falls over a lot, I’m free!
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