A neurologist's insightful and compassionate look into the misunderstood world of psychosomatic disorders, told through individual case histories
It's happened to all of us: our cheeks flush red when we say the wrong thing, or our hearts skip a beat when a certain someone walks by. But few of us realize how much more dramatic and extreme our bodies' reactions to emotions can be. Many people who see their doctor have medically unexplained symptoms, and in the vast majority of these cases, a psychosomatic cause is suspected. And yet, the diagnosis of a psychosomatic disorder can make a patient feel dismissed as a hypochondriac, a faker, or just plain crazy.
In IS IT ALL IN YOUR HEAD? neurologist Suzanne O'Sullivan, MD, takes us on a journey through the world of psychosomatic illness, where we meet patients such as Rachel, a promising young dancer now housebound by chronic fatigue syndrome, and Mary, whose memory loss may be her mind's way of protecting her from remembering her husband's abuse. O'Sullivan reveals the hidden stresses behind their mysterious symptoms, approaching a sensitive topic with patience and understanding. She addresses the taboos surrounding psychosomatic disorders, teaching us that "it's all in your head" doesn't mean that something isn't real, as the body is often the stand-in for the mind when the latter doesn't possess the tools to put words to its sorrow. She encourages us to look with compassion at the ways in which our brains act out, and to question our failure to credit the intimate connection between mind and body.
By altering the conventional discussion surrounding psychosomatic illnesses, O'Sullivan helps laypeople recognize the reality of a problem that is often treated dismissively, in and outside of the medical field. A consultant in neurology, she is most interested in diseases that occupy the unconscious, their symptoms unmeasurable and their causes unknown conditions that might be revealed by technologies like MRI but remain essentially mysterious. Each chapter of this book presents a case study, lending vivid life to patients with psychosomatic disorders, along with extensive context for everything including the bygone diagnosis of "hysteria" and the dawn of neurology as a medical profession. Seizures, still difficult to account for and treat, receive extensive attention. And this study is not just about the patients, but the intricacies, the inevitable challenges, of the doctor-patient encounter. Given repeated emphasis is the stigma of diagnosis a stigma that O'Sullivan combats through her dedication to the individual stories she tells. If empathy is bolstered by understanding, then this book will bring such sentiments to a rarely understood condition. It will engage readers' heads, but also quite possibly enter their hearts.