Liz was an artistic type, very bright, with a flair for the dramatic. She made no secret of her emotional state, whatever it happened to be at the time. Happy events made her bounce off the walls with joy. Setbacks were cause for much handwringing and gnashing of teeth.
At some point during our freshman year, Liz developed an odd health problem. I don't remember all the details, but one of the symptoms involved numbness down one side of her body. Understandably concerned, she went to see a doctor.
After her appointment she reported the doctor's diagnosis: her symptoms were psychosomatic. She seemed content with this explanation. I accepted it as well, and life continued on as normal.
Fast-forward a month or so. My high school friend Larry visited, and he and Liz were hanging out in my dorm room. Liz made some mention of physical discomfort. Larry offered her a backrub. She said yes, and Larry went to work. After about a minute, Liz cheerfully informed him that she couldn't feel anything he was doing. Larry kneaded harder. No dice.
Later, after Liz had left the room, Larry turned to me, baffled.
"I should have been hurting her," he said.
For the first time, I gave some actual thought to Liz's diagnosis. I had a solid layman's understanding of what psychosomatic disorders were. I knew that the symptoms, though caused by emotional disturbances, were supposed to feel real—that the patients weren't faking. Still ... If Liz's "psychosomatic" numbness was so real that my big, very strong friend couldn't penetrate it, what did psychosomatic mean?
* * *
Lily Cooper recently wrote a very interesting article about the history of psychosomatic illnesses, aka somatoform disorders, aka conversion disorders, aka hysteria. If you have ever given credence to the idea that emotions can manifest as physical symptoms, give it a read. A couple of choice excerpts:
The idea that physical illnesses were manifestations of feelings and thoughts started with Charcot in the 1880's ... For instance, a man knocked unconscious for 5 days by a carriage was unable to speak, walk or remember the accident when he regained consciousness. Charcot diagnosed him as being hysterical because of the psychological trauma of the event.
After brain scans of patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome were shown to an expert scan reader in 1984, he said the punctate lesions he saw looked like the scans of AIDS patients. Months later the CDC issued its verdict. The town of Incline Village NV [where the epidemic had occurred] was suffering from mass hysteria.
From multiple sclerosis (once dismissed as "hysterical paralysis") to myalgic encephalomyelitis (still derisively referred to as "chronic fatigue syndrome"), the psychologizing of biomedical diseases has a long, if not exactly proud history. The question is why. In the absence of a mechanism—an explanation for how people can think themselves sick—where is the evidence?
* * *
Mental health professionals who believe psychosomatic illnesses exist make the case that patients benefit from secondary gains. Here's a rundown from Wendy Beall, who titles herself "Change Meister":
When you call in sick to work and escape the whole onerous day without being accused of deliberately shirking your duties, you are enjoying a secondary gain of illness ... When someone waits on you tenderly and takes care of all the chores as you languish in bed, you are enjoying a secondary gain. When a child escapes a day at school by claiming a stomachache or sore throat, this is a secondary gain—and often escalates to blatant manipulation when paired with an overly protective parent.
... if you are not getting well despite attempts to heal, you ought to consider how your symptoms benefit you. Remember, we all use illness to get what we believe we can't get comfortably by direct means.
So apparently if you have unexplained symptoms and benefit from them in any way, shape, or form, the conclusion is inescapable. Your disease must be all in your head.
* * *
Patients with psychologized chronic illnesses will tell you that the advantages of being sick are highly overrated. They miss their careers. They miss the financial stability work gave them. Rather than attracting sympathy, they discover that most of their friends disbelieve and disappear. This suggests that if we are to accept secondary gains as indirect evidence, we should consider the other side as well. What are the secondary gains of assigning a psychological diagnosis to a biomedical disease?
If patients are to blame for their own suffering ...
- We don't have to feel sorry for them. We can give a knowing smile and say they need to get over themselves. Self-righteous indignation and condescending pity are far less distressing than compassion.
- We don't have to entertain notions of an unjust universe, or be angry that sometimes bad things happen to good people.
- Physicians who can't immediately identify a disease don't have to admit it. Instead they can tell their patients it doesn't really exist.
- Insurance companies that don't cover mental illnesses can deny claims.
* * *
Why did I so readily accept my friend Liz's diagnosis all those years ago? As I mentioned, Liz was artistic, highly emotional, and dramatic. She had the requisite troubled childhood. On some level I'd assumed that Liz was the kind of person who would get a psychosomatic illness. The explanation made sense, and things that made sense made me happy.
Only years later did it occur to me to wonder. How long did Liz sit in that doctor's office before he made his assessment? Did he put any real time and effort into exploring other possibilities?
Or did it simply make his job easier to assume she was the type?