Thank you David Letterman for coming up with the Top Ten List. Here’s my latest entry (in parentheses are the performers I associate with the songs; they may not be the composers):

10. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (Procol Harum)

I still don’t know what Procol Harum is referring to in the title of this song, but whatever it is, I see it on my face in the mirror.

9. "If Walls Could Talk" (Koko Taylor)

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many years ago, I had the unforgettable experience of seeing the great blues singer Koko Taylor perform this song in a small cabaret. Now, whenever someone says to me, “But you don’t look sick,” I imagine that the penalty is that he or she must listen to my walls talk about what life is like inside my house: the “stun gun” state (as I call it in How to Be Sick), when it’s hard for me to do anything but stare at the ceiling; the hours lying in bed, unable to get to sleep because of symptom overload; and the way I feel after I get home from the very outing where this ignorant but well-meaning person told me that I didn’t look sick. Ah, yes. If walls could talk.

8. "Heartbreak Hotel" (Elvis)

The first few years after becoming chronically ill—which includes chronic pain—I spent many a night in the Heartbreak Hotel, paying the bill with anger and self-recrimination. All this accomplished was to assure that my stay would be extended for another night. Then I realized it wasn’t my fault that I was sick and in pain—it could happen to anyone. That was the day I checked out of the Heartbreak Hotel, although I still spend the night there now and again when I have to miss something that’s really special to me.

7. "Ball and Chain" (Janis Joplin)

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1967, as I watched Janis mesmerize all of us at the Monterey Pop Festival with her heartbreaking rendition of this Big Mama Thornton tune, I had no idea that chronic illness would become my ball and chain. It dictates what I can do, where I can go, how long I can stay, when I sit, when I lie down. On a very bad day, that ball and chain can make me feel as if…

6. "I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’" (George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, Porgy and Bess)

Yes, chronic illness can make me feel as if I got plenty o’ nuttin.’ I felt that way for many years straight. Then I discovered that I still had plenty o’ sumtin.’ I began to find it when I started treating this illness and the limitations it imposes on me as my starting points in life. “Start where you are,” as Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön so wisely said.

5. "I Walk the Line" (Johnny Cash)

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Per the urban dictionary, “walk the line” means “to maintain a fragile balance between one extreme and another.” It feels as if I spend my life walking the line now. And that balance is extremely fragile, because I have almost no margin for error. People who are healthy can push their limits—go to an extreme—and the most they’ll feel is a bit tired the next day. If I push my limits, it takes me days to recover.

Even the phrase “push the limits” has a different meaning for the healthy and for the chronically ill. For the healthy, it can mean staying out all night. For me, it can mean staying out an hour longer than I can handle.

4. "Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ on My Head" (B.J. Thomas)

If I could string together a few days in a row when I’d do nothing but rest, it might alleviate my symptoms a bit or, at least, not exacerbate them. But every time I think I’ve planned things so that I can do this, life intervenes. The last time I thought I’d be able to rest uninterrupted for a few days, the water heater broke and I found myself hosting the plumber for an hour outside the house, adjacent to the “closet” that houses the water heater. With no place for me to sit down, I stood there while he explained in detail all the work they’d have to do to get the new one installed properly.

And why do house maintenance emergencies always arise when my husband is out of town? Oh that’s right: so that rain drops can keep fallin’ on my head!

3. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye)

Darned right I heard it through the grapevine, because I sure as heck am unlikely to hear it in person, confined as I am, to my house most of the time.

2. "You Can’t Always Get What You Want" (The Stones)

Healthy or not, everyone learns this lesson. It just feels as if it’s been hammered into the chronically ill a bit harshly. 

And the Number 1 song title that captures chronic pain and illness:

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons


© 2014 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010) 

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon,, and iTunes.

Visit for more information and buying options.

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