By Penny Shipway
Do you remember when Sudafed contained pseudoephedrine and anyone who dared ask for it had to produce a driver’s licence?
Even my mother who wears pressed shirts and a full face of make-up every day would get drilled by the pharmacist with a raised eyebrow.
A friend actually told me you can still get the “real” Sudafed but it takes a script from the doctor and you have to pick it up the next day – probably with an Armaguard truck and two guards.
It’s true that getting over-the-counter pharmaceuticals can be an awkward task.
But imagine what it’s like trying to get the really strong stuff – weekly. After five years.
Let’s call it “pain shaming”.
The other day I cried after ringing the doctor.
Well, that’s not entirely correct.
You see, because I am on antidepressants it’s impossible for me to cry so my eyes were wet, and in a wave of fury I rang my mother. This is my version of crying.
She answered FaceTime with her usual big smile and I could barely talk.
She knew something was wrong.
I told her I had just made that dreaded call to the surgery for another script.
The stuff the government prescribes for “severe and disabling pain” (their own words) but that ultimately makes us feel like worthless human beings.
The chirpy receptionist had sized me up and down yet again and today was the wrong day.
My period had hit me like a sledgehammer and the dogs next door were getting themselves into a pretzel over a full moon which was part of some crazy, retrograde cosmic twist.
Yep, I was pissed.
“It’s only been a few days since your last script”, Chirpy Receptionist had told me with hesitation, “The 25th actually, almost a week, but not quite.”
Through gritted teeth and desperate composure I had to reply: “I have had chronic pain for five years; the doctor has written this for me before.”
My heart was now beating so low in my chest I felt like I was going to birth it right then while Chirpy Receptionist talked me through heart labour.
After I had hung up I imagined her sitting there in her comfy office chair with the heating on, just waiting to go home to the smells of her slow cooker.
‘Probably lamb shanks,’ I had thought.
Meanwhile for dinner at my house I’d organised braised nothing with a side of not much else.
“I will be sitting up all night writing stories to make a crap amount of money to pay for our food with a back that feels like a 74-year-old, but I’m only 34!” I wailed to Mum.
Poor Mum, she lives away and feels helpless, so I don’t like to tell her too much about the reality of my day to day.
But on this day I’d had enough.
I told Mum about the enlarged eyes that the women behind the counter get when they realise just how much medication I’m actually taking, and that I’m still alive to tell the tale.
I told her that even my doctor was suss and I somehow now had a guilty conscience every time I saw him.
Once a script went missing and all hell broke loose.
There were phone calls to some government ‘person in the sky’ who was trying desperately to retrace every step the script had made.
After 20 minutes of a “CSI” investigation it was revealed that my chemist had not given me the required amount.
The tension that was released from the air was palpable, and now my doctor was free from having to help the Federal Police shove my kicking legs into the back of a paddy wagon.
I was suddenly back to being “nice mummy with a bob” who just needed something for her chronic pain.
Back to being that well-spoken journalist, with a sensible satchel and nicely-dressed kids.
But I get it.
I know it’s incredibly difficult differentiating between a functioning drug addict and someone with an invisible illness such as chronic pain.
But I am 1 in 5 Australian adults in pain and many of us who require medication deal with this relentless conjecture on a daily basis.
I do not take drugs for shits and giggles.
OK I will admit I once though it was hilarious to score drugs at the back of night clubs while living in London when I was 21 (and it kinda was), but right now I couldn’t be more contrary to that person.
I’m trialling a vegan diet and I save alcohol for special occasions.
I practice yoga and meditation, and I’m exploring a spiritual path. I even like crystals and salt lamps!
Because I have had to stare a lifetime of pain square in the face and the only way I can deal with that is to do the best I can do with what I have left.
Isn’t it funny that we have chaplains working tirelessly to stamp out bullying in the schoolyard, yet in the workplace it’s expected for us to just harden up?
When I took my toddlers to get their vaccinations I watched them get jelly beans as nurses jumped around in front of them blowing bubbles.
But when you are an adult getting your annual prick you are told to look away and cough.
Why does the kids’ hospital ward always have colourful walls with adult entertainers making bulldozers and Disney castles out of balloons?
Where’s my Patch Adams?
We give children love, care and laughter when they are unhappy.
Throw them parties, give them cake.
But those of us adulting or dealing with sicknesses or diseases just have to get on with it.
There are certainly no school chaplains asking us if we are OK.
No goodie bag for the drive home after a colonoscopy.
Empathy is not something you can write a script for.
It comes from your husband bringing you a cuppa in the morning when he knows you are at your sorest; a friend who shares her lunch break with you because she knows you have a lot going on; or a neighbour who offers you their stand-up desk to borrow so you can see if it will be good for your back.
We’re not asking for much.
Just some acknowledgement that we’re going through a shitty time.
And less Nancy-Drew-Sherlock-Holmes-eyeballing for the majority of us doing the right thing.
Oh, and a letter from the local member saying ‘how can I help?’ with a voucher for a free neck massage thrown in for good measure – that would be fantastic.
And maybe a lollipop, too.
That would be nice.