Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain Book Review

Full disclosure: I was given a free advance reader copy of this book by Books Forward in exchange for an honest review.

As with many of the books that I’ve reviewed on this website, I’ve come across ones that discuss certain walks of life. This includes last week’s subject Lifeline to a Soul, which covered prison life, albeit from an outsider’s perspective. For this week, I’ll look at a book called Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain. Written by Francesca Grossman, it paints a realistic, but hopeful picture of what it is like to have constant pain.

Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain is a memoir that strives to understand what chronic pain sufferers go through. After thyroid cancer, Crohn’s disease, and other autoimmune conditions that raided her body in her 20s and 30s, Francesca felt alone in dealing with her chronic pain. It affected her whole life from intimacy to mental health. And yet, it was invisible, which made Francesca feel alone. After 20 something years of living, she realized that if she was living with this pain, then others would be too. As a result, she set out to interview women with similar conditions. At first, it wasn’t easy because she was surrounded by women also battling in silence. However, the more she spoke to people, the more she found common themes and experiences. This proved that her stories of her pain as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation weren’t unique. Liberated by this discovery, Francesca realized that even though she couldn’t alleviate others’ pain, she could share their stories to make them as well as herself feel less alone.

For the record, the only experiences that I’ve had with chronic pain was through other people. For example, while studying abroad in Ireland, I had a roommate who had Crohn’s disease. She limited herself in what she could eat to lessen the inflammation. There were also times where she couldn’t do a whole lot when her intestines swelled up. In addition, my dad has had arthritis in his hands for a while now. How I read this book is going to come from interactions like the ones I just described. 

Each one of the chapters details an aspect that is affected by chronic pain. These include shame, addiction, mental illness, being fat, intimacy, motherhood, wellness, and kindness. Grossman would first describe how these elements were involved in her life, utilize various resources to justify her reasoning, and reveal what the interviewees had to say about them. These are about 10-20 pages long. She succinctly explained her arguments in a way that would make readers understand where she’s coming from even if they didn’t have chronic pain themselves. 

The most impactful were the ones on silencing, mental illness, kindness, and acceptance. The silencing section involves why Grossman and many of the other interviewees had a hard time getting treatment because they were often dismissed by doctors, so they silenced themselves in regards to their pain. One woman named Kate who was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called trigeminal neuralgia (TN) went to an Ears, Nose, and Throat specialist after experiencing chronic sinus infections. When a medical fellow came in and asked her why Kate was there. After Kate gave her preface on TN using medical terms, the fellow put her hand up and said, “I’m sorry…[a]re you a physician?”

Kate replied no, and the fellow told her to show her where it hurt. Kate felt so embarrassed that she didn’t want to speak another word to that professional (p.23-24). I was furious to read that part because of how condescending the specialist was. It doesn’t help that studies have shown that it’s harder for women to get treatment for certain ailments because medical professionals have a tendency to dismiss their concerns as overreacting. No wonder why these women felt ashamed in revealing their conditions.

The chapter on mental illness was eye-opening. Grossman talked about her time in a mental hospital and why she felt depressed. She made it clear that depression is not sadness. To her, it was “feeling nothing connected with feeling everything” (p.65). 

In other words, she felt so much that it made it impossible for her to do stuff. The thing that stood out to me the most about that chapter was the discussion revolving around empathy. She cites new evidence that the “areas of the brain that are connected to physical pain and are also the origins of empathy” (p. 71).

To her, this made sense since she and the interviewees had a heightened sense of empathy. One of them, Sheree, who was in a car accident that left her spine twisted, remarked, “I know it sounds insane, but I have always felt like I knew what people around me were feeling before they did” (p. 73).

I too am empathetic to a fault. When my mom was having pain in her leg because of a tumor that was pressing on her sciatica nerve, I would go over to her house every weekend just to see how she was doing and to help her out. Afterwards, I experienced an ache in my hip and leg. I wouldn’t be shocked if my body mimicked the symptoms of having sciatica after seeing what my mom went through. The fact that the body is emotionally and physically connected should make doctors reconsider how to treat people with chronic pain and for those patients to see a therapist.

After criticizing the health care system, Grossman delivers hope that it could change. This is important for a book like this because without it, it may read as taking an anti-doctor stance, and that’s clearly not her intention. For every practitioner that dismissed and ignored her ailments, there were more than were attentive and kind to her. Grossman recalls a time in which she had lost control of her bowels, and she was not able to make it to the bathroom on time. At the gym she went to, a staff member noticed her and helped her wash her clothes without any explanation. Grossman pointed out that she didn’t need to do this, but she cleaned her outfit without any judgment (p. 35-36 and p. 129). In another instance, when she was at a hospital overnight, she had a nurse named Cherylanne. Cherylanne was able to save her from falling on the floor after Grossman woozily got up to go to the bathroom. The nurse hugged her tightly and sang her “Blackbird” (p. 132-134). It’s in moments like these that gives Grossman and other patients to keep going and voice their pain.

The strongest argument that Grossman postulates is about acceptance. In the chapter regarding that aspect, she proclaims that acceptance is not surrender. Specifically, she said the following:

“Acceptance contains hope – hope that things will not get worse; and hope that our lives can be lived with humor and happiness, acknowledging some days will be worse than others. It contains hope we can do things that bring us success – in our work, families, and lives; hope we can love and be loved; and hope we can continue to hope” (p. 145).

Acceptance is the strength to carry on despite the constant pain. Although not every interviewee agreed with that sentiment, they were allowed to give their opinions regarding acceptance. For example, Dolores, who has fibromyalgia, proclaimed, “I’ve accepted it. What choice do I have? If you accept, you can move forward. I’m just too tired to fight it anymore…That’s not defeat, by the way. Maybe it’s calm or something?” (p. 152).

This reinforces the notion that acceptance is the strength to carry on, especially in the awareness of the physical and emotional pain and that no one is alone in suffering from them.

All in all, Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain by Francesca Grossman is a part memoir/part journalism book that successfully sets out to show what living with constant sores and aches is really like. It paints a realistic picture, especially what many of the interviewees experienced when it came to getting a diagnosis and eventually treatment. However, I stress again that this isn’t an anti-medical-help book. It offers hope with stories of kindness offered by people like friends, relatives, and medical professionals. Above all, the idea that acceptance is not defeat, but of carrying on despite the circumstances is a powerful one. I would recommend this to those who love stories about dealing with chronic pain, the medical field, and those involving the notion that no one is alone. After all, no one should be left to suffer in silence. The book is out now, so go get it wherever you can!

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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