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  • Eli Stuart (they/them)

Good Representation of Chronic Pain ("Cursed")

[Cover Image Description: The cover of the book Cursed is there, with a black background and a series of faces that go from smiling (light green) to pain and upsetness (red) on the bottome left corner the word "cursed" is seen in red lettering. End of Image Description.]


I first read Cursed by Karol Ruth Silverstein about two years ago. During that time, my chronic pain got worse, yet I had no diagnosis and my doctor was unwilling to refer me to a rheumatologist. Reading Cursed then made me feel heard and seen. A teenager dealing with chronic pain is something not seen often in the media. People like to dismiss chronic pain in younger people, something I was experiencing firsthand.


Reading it again now is a little different. I now have a diagnosis (fibromyalgia) and it makes talking about my pain easier since I have more concrete proof that this is a real thing that is happening. However, I still connect with the experiences of the main character, and the things I don’t personally connect with are still well-done and address misconceptions when it comes to chronic pain and chronic illness.


The main character Erica, who goes by Ricky, has Juvenile Arthritis (JA). Her JA forces her to move schools and live with her dad (her parents are recently divorced, and her mom’s house has stairs as the only way to get to the bathroom and stairs are hard for her). She ends up skipping school, leading to her having to make up work if she wants to pass 9th grade on time.


One thing that she deals with is that her friends from her old school abandoned her once she developed JA. This unfortunately can happen often to people who are or become chronically ill. It may look more subtle than just ghosting the person. It can look like complaining about last-minute cancellations, lack of energy, or needing some accommodation to be around them. This may cause slower ghosting. Over time, old friends may stop inviting them to events or hanging out with them.


Cursed has a brief, but a pretty insightful moment in discussing how different illnesses/health issues are seen. Oliver, someone who befriends Ricky and previously had cancer says “With diseases and medical conditions, there’s this thing called a dazzle factor. It’s based on the number of people affected, cost of treatment, and how much awareness and interest there is” (Silverstein 199). He says the dazzle factor can change who gets the best resources such as fundraising.


The part that I relate to the most is the widespread pain and having pain constantly, even when there are better days. It’s one of those things that people without chronic pain can’t really understand. When talking about her first time trying out ankle braces, she says “it’s not like my feet don’t hurt at all. It’s just that the pain feels contained,” (387). Since chronic illnesses don’t have cures, the goal is to reduce the symptoms to improve quality of life. Recently, I saw a new doctor who specializes in fibromyaglia. He was upfront that the medication and any other treatment I’m trying is meant to reduce pain and fatigue by 50%. My last rheumatologist tried to say cardio could lead to remission, despite current studies not supporting that bold of a statement.


This brings me to the second most relatable part: doctors. With a chronic illness, you see more doctors and see doctors more often, so the relationship with them is important. While Ricky’s previous doctor was exaggerated (something the author said herself in her author’s note) in not talking to her, but focusing on her mom only. But it is common that doctors will dismiss minors. I’ve had some doctors who would ask my mom about my symptoms, which is not a fair measure as some symptoms are not very visible, so even if I have those symptoms my mom may not be able to attest to that.


Ricky’s new doctor is seen to listen to her and work with her, not against her. The lack of a partnership with the doctor makes it hard to be honest and get proper treatment. In trying to get a referral to the rheumatologist from my general partitioner (GP), it felt like an uphill battle. I had to gather detailed data about my pain for over a month plus any other possible symptoms. And she still dismissed me.


On a more positive note, Cursed addresses the difficulty in asking for help and the importance of asking anyway. In giving her speech for her public speaking class, she acknowledges that she must speak "the words I need to say even if they make me uncomfortable. 'Help' is a biggie for me" (715). That comes with the second part of that which is "when someone offers me help, I need to say 'yes'"(716). Earlier in the novel, she lied about being in pain or downplayed it. This is something I've also dealt with. I often feel l am unable to as for help, especially as I don't look disabled. A few weeks back, I was filling out forms by hand, when my hands were cramping up and being worse due to my fibromyalgia. My mom offrred to do the rest of the writing. I was hesitant at first but realized I should accept her offer to prevent further pain and fatigue in my hands. Asking for and accepting help is hard. There is the fear of being a burden to others, something that is supported when loved ones abandons or treat us differently because of our chronic illness.


All in all, I really like and recommend this book, especially if you are looking for a chronically ill main character.


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