Podcast of the Week: On Drugs – Pain

Geoff Turner’s entertaining, informative show, from CBC Radio, looks at the drugs we take and why we take them

Geoff Turner, presenter of CBC’s podcast On Drugs

Geoff Turner, presenter of CBC’s podcast On Drugs

 

Hosted by Geoff Turner, the weekly On Drugs, a podcast from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio, looks close and hard at the kinds of drugs we use, why we use them, and the cultural reality we use them in.

The first episode of the show, billed as Pain, On Drugs – which you can listen to here – takes apart painkillers, beginning with an anecdote from Turner that feels foreboding, almost like a parable: he is prescribed an opiate painkiller after a bout of meningitis to aid his recovery. It is told the way one might have a story solemnly shared in the kitchen at a house party. This casual approach to something so personal – a brush with prescription opiate addiction – is a really excellent level at which to begin a documentary about painkillers.

The episode moves through conversations with three different kinds of pain experts – because there’s no way to talk about painkillers without addressing society’s historical, cultural and political relationship with chronic pain. Questions are left hanging for us to consider as listeners: why is it that fewer women are treated for chronic pain than men? Why do they take longer to be seen by specialists? Why is it that for years and years after painkillers and anaesthetics were developed by doctors, the church opposed their use during surgery?

Great mysteries

The insights of historian Prof Joanna Burke, author of The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers, are particularly fascinating. When we talk about painkillers we absolutely have to talk about pain: how it somehow remains one of the great mysteries of life. This could be because it is a subjective experience: how amorphous pain is, how impossible to measure, how largely invisible. A moment in the podcast that is almost breathtaking in its reveal is that for nearly 100 years it was presumed that infants were incapable of feeling pain – so surgeries, including amputations, would be performed on infants without any sort of anaesthetic. This continued up until the 1960s.

The instigation here of a conversation around purity and pain is a really interesting one, and an angle I hadn’t heard discussed in regards to the culture of painkillers until now. This is not an alarmist documentary warning us off taking a Solpadeine for a hangover; rather, it interrogates how we should treat pain, how pain has been perceived throughout history.

Editing failures

Unfortunately – and this could be down to the fact that this is the pilot episode of the podcast – there are moments when the editing fails in ways that are almost enough to make me switch off. The interview portion with a man who Turner refers to only as Jack, who suffers from chronic pain acquired from a series of labour-related injuries, is edited in such a strange way that it is almost disorienting. Jack is an empathic subject in terms of the discussion around managing pain safely, and where painkillers are in fact necessary for folks with certain kinds of permanent injuries. But the manner in which this segment is edited makes for unsettling listening.

There are a few hastily used audio-archive segments that don’t quite work – a quote from the film Baby Mama featuring a doula with a speech impediment actually undermines the importance of a conversation about purity and childbirth without pain support, as opposed to lightening the tone.

However, these minor stumbling blocks aside, this makes for a really great listen, and illuminates some aspects of contemporary and historical medicine that get culturally overlooked. It is respectful of addiction, and contains no undue stressors about how we consume painkillers or experience pain as a culture. Other episodes that are absolutely worth a listen are Music, On Drugs and season two’s Caffeine: A Buzzed History

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