Showing 1 - 10 of 736 Nonfiction annotations

Hidden Valley Road

Kolker, Robert

Last Updated: Jun-15-2020
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

The Galvins of Hidden Valley Road, just outside Colorado Springs, appear to be the kind of wholesome, all-American family that others might envy.  The tragic fact is that six of the twelve children go on to develop schizophrenia, a situation that is practically unprecedented.  In Hidden Valley Road, journalist Robert Kolker gives us the tale of the deterioration of six afflicted children and the traumatization of six healthy ones in an improbable, bucolic setting.  As one after the other reaches young adulthood in this “funhouse-mirror reflection of the American dream” (p. xxi) and inexorably succumbs to madness, the family struggles to cope.   

In their search for answers, the Galvins’s extraordinary circumstances come to the attention of researchers.  Ultimately, although there is no cure, the family makes a contribution through their genes to our understanding of schizophrenia, as a mutation is discovered that is shared by the afflicted children.   

Hidden Valley Road follows the travails of this “multiplex schizophrenia” family over so many years that there is a sea change in our understanding of the disease’s origins.  At first, it is taken for granted to be the result of a faulty upbringing at the hands of “schizophrenogenic” parents.  Later, biological explanations prevail.  Finally, a more balanced view is attained, with nature and nurture each thought to play a role.  

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Pain Studies

Olstein, Lisa

Last Updated: Jun-10-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

“All pain is simple” reads the opening sentence of this unusual and striking book. The next sentence reads, “And all pain is complex.” These two sentences foreshadow many puzzles to come: how do we live between chaos and control? Why can’t doctors figure migraines out? Why don’t they agree on a treatment for a particular patient? Olstein is a poet and long-term migraine sufferer. Her book offers many observations about pain, and her attempts to define it, describe it, and plumb its nature through language. There is no linear narrative or argument, rather 38 very brief chapters—usually three to five pages—and many of these could be read in a different order. 

Olstein uses the terms “studies” and “research” for her efforts to capture pain, to explain it, and to understand the cause(s) of her disease. Her mother had migraines; women have three times the rate of men; she had a childhood head injury. Do any of these factors explain her disease? No. And what treatments work? She lists some 50 drugs/supplements/activities she has tried to deal with her illness. None of these have worked in a definitive way. Further, she lists some 30 side-effects she has experienced from these various treatments (pp. 74-75). She has had multiple migraines, one lasting three months, but she also says drugs keep pain at bay: “mostly the medication does work” (p 90).

Some disparate figures help her focus her inquiry: Joan of Arc (possibly a migraine sufferer), the TV character Dr. Gregory House (racked with chronic pain, he is an opioid addict), Virginia Woolf, and Hildegard of Bingen (possibly a migraine sufferer). Also ancient writers such as Lucretius, Pliny the Elder, and Antiphon the Sophist, and contemporaries from different fields, such as mathematics and neurology. Also she refers to poems by Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and C. D. Wright, as well as to an article on gendered literature by Siri Hustvedt. 

Largely written during a writing residency, these are incisive notes plus associations as she plumbs not only her illness but also her responses—as poet, as thinker, as searcher for healing—to the bizarre, long, difficult path of her migraines. (We have only brief mentions of her personal and family life.) While she refers to some scientific literature, it is more often that her insights come from artistic fields such a literature, sculpture, drama, and popular music. She writes that her work with a therapist over a dozen years has been helpful to her.

There is no conclusion…nor can there be. Her illness, treatment, and writing are all works in progress. Patients are different; doctors are different; science evolves. In their many forms and presentations, migraines are mysterious and complex, as this book creatively and powerfully shows. Olstein writes, “The beauty, the love, is in what we perceive” (p. 144). We may take this observation as the guiding principle for the book.   

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Maybe You Should Talk to Someone:  A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed is a memoir that takes the reader behind the closed doors of therapists’ offices and into the relationships that are formed between therapists and their patients.  The author and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, most familiar to readers as the writer of The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” column, explores the science, the role, and the goals of psychotherapy through her first-person narration.  The memoir is written chronologically with occasional flashbacks and is broken up into four parts, each progressively exposing more about Gottlieb’s and her patients’ experiences.

Though written by a therapist, the book approaches the therapeutic relationship from all angles.  Just as we see Gottlieb in her role as a therapist in Los Angeles, we also see her on the other side of the couch as a patient.  Coming to therapy in the midst of a breakup, she details her own struggles and relationships.  Interspersed between her sessions with Wendell, a therapist she deftly describes as one from “Therapist Central Casting,” and her own appointments with patients is Gottlieb’s long journey to becoming a therapist (including brief stops in Hollywood and in medical school) and how she came to understand the power of interpersonal relationships. 

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Elizabeth Siegel Watkins reports on the use of estrogen alone and in combination with progestin for women during menopause and after menopause from the 1890s until the book was published in 2007. She concentrates on the sixty years between 1942 and 2002. The event Watkins uses to mark 1942 as an important moment is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for the estrogen product Premarin as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in women with menopause symptoms. The event she uses to mark 2002 is the release Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) findings that showed estrogen is not the “elixir of life” that many thought it was then.  

Watkins builds her story off the trajectory of estrogen use during this sixty-year period, which spanned two peaks followed by two crashes. The estrogens for HRT first crested in the early 1970s before its use dropped dramatically in 1975 on uterine cancer fears. Estrogen use began to rise in the early 1980s on regained confidence from combined use with progestin to reduce uterine cancer risk and from hopes that bone loss could be prevented and even reversed. This resurrection continued through the 1990s as estrogen use during and after menopause became “associated with reduced risk of colon cancer, prevention of tooth loss, lower incidence of osteoarthritis, increase in bone mass, reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and lower rates of death from all causes” (p. 241). 
 

Based on surveys of prescribers and prescription data during this time, Watkins concludes that “physicians who saw menopausal women as patients were…enthusiastic prescribers of HRT” (p. 244). They remained enthusiastic, making Premarin the most prescribed pharmaceutical product through much of the 1990s and until 2002 when the WHI trial was stopped three years early because it showed that HRT failed to produce the expected benefits, and even worse.
Women who took the estrogen–progestin pills, as compared with those in the control group who took placebo pills, increased their risk of breast cancer by 26 percent (relative risk of 1.26), coronary heart disease by 29 percent (1.29), stroke by 41 percent (1.41), and pulmonary embolism (blood clot) by 213 percent (2.13). (p. 271)
The investigators advised clinicians based on these results, that HRT “should not be initiated or continued for the primary prevention of coronary heart disease” (p. 271). Watkins quotes an editorial from the Journal of the American Medical Association that went further in saying that the trial “provides an important health answer for generations of health postmenopausal women to come—do not use estrogen / progestin to prevent chronic disease” (p. 273). HRT prescriptions plummeted.  

These clinical inputs into the trajectory of estrogen are just the bare bones of estrogen history. Watkins fills in the story: 
The story of estrogen is woven from several strands: blind faith in the ability of science and technology to solve a broad range of health and social problems, social and cultural stigmatization of aging, shifting meanings and interpretations of femininity and female identity, and the pitfalls of medical hubris in the twentieth century. (p. 1)
Watkins weaves these strands into the story of estrogen, which she tells in a chronological fashion, often as the subjects of individual chapters. Some include: the implications of rising feminism; pharmaceutical company promotional activities; the roles of patient advocacy organizations; FDA requirements for patient information about prescription drugs; generational differences in views of menopause; evolving research methods and evidence standards; and cultural shifts and mainstream media influences. 

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Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction — Secondary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

In Death is But a Dream, Christopher Kerr, MD, PhD, the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Medical Officer of Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo, shares his patients’ end-of-life dreams and visions. The content and intensity of these dreams vary, but often center on patients’ transient meetings with predeceased loved ones, offering a deeply spiritual sense of peace during periods of physical suffering. 

Using patient interviews, Kerr’s book does not fetishize dream events as ghostly commotions or in terms of pseudo-mysticism, or insist on using a religious framework for their interpretation, explaining rather that bearing witness to and legitimizing end-of-life dream experiences constitute a new ethical imperative in the practice of palliative care: “A true holistic approach to patient care must also honor and facilitate patients’ subjective experiences and allow them to transform the dying process from a story of mere physical decline to one of spiritual ascension” (Kerr 28). Case after case, his research documents that because end-of-life dreams provide patients with a singular emotional and psychological comfort that no palliative medication can simulate, hospice professionals need to validate patient dreams by listening carefully and compassionately. 

With this in mind, end-of-life dreams serve as a kind of counter-narrative to dominant cultural understandings and representations of human experiences in hospice, specifically stereotypes of terminally ill individuals as being incapable of meaningful communication, creativity, and understanding. Kerr’s patients’ narratives reveal that end-of-life dreams and visions are not trauma-inducing experiences or instances of religious prophecy, but “help reframe dying in a way that is not about last words and lost love but about strengthened selves and unbreakable bonds across lives” (142). 

Death is But a Dream 
upends medical research, or certain “limitations of science,” that oversimplifies end-of-life dreams by attributing them to neurological deterioration, oxygen deprivation, and the side effects of pain management medication (11). The general lack of rigorous, serious-minded research in end-of-life dream experiences is inseparable, in part, from institutionalized medicine’s “inability to see dying as anything but a failure” which has produced a healthcare system that “reflects a limited view of the totality of the dying experience” (7). The patient accounts that Kerr documents, however, reveal an undeniable dimension of human experience at life’s end whose complexities may be well beyond the reaches of full scientific understanding. End-of-life dreams seem to be part of an elaborate system of compensation (to borrow a term used by Siddhartha Mukherjee), as the mind works overtime to activate and animate certain memories to diminish the physical realities of dying. “There is an adaptation—substantive, spiritual yet cognitively meaningful,” writes Kerr, “a mechanism through which the patient can emerge from the dying process with a positive psychological change” (69). Indeed, the mystery of end-of-life dreams—their visions of loved ones; of seeking forgiveness, healing, and understanding within weeks, sometimes days, of one’s death; of comforting apparitions and visitations—points to a miraculous capacity within the human heart that eases the life-to-death transition.

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A dramatic prologue depicts Joan Kleinman screaming and hitting her husband Arthur in bed. She is ill with Alzheimer’s disease and does not, for that moment, recognize him. The following chapters provide a long flashback, beginning with Arthur’s family background, his youth as a tough street kid in Brooklyn, his medical education, and his marriage to Joan. We learn of their work in China, travels, and professional success. Arthur gradually realizes that the US health care system has become “a rapidly fragmenting and increasingly chaotic and dysfunctional non-system” (p. 126). Further, he sees a reductive focus on patients as mere biological entities, ignoring their personal, familial, and cultural natures. As a result, “Caregiving in medicine has gone from bad to worse.”

Joan suffers from an atypical kind of Alzheimer’s that increased over “that dismal ten years” (p. 156) with Arthur providing care to her, at cost to himself. There is no home health aide, no team approach with doctors, indeed no wider interest in her care other than the state of her diseased brain. Kleinman vividly describes the toll on her and on him.

Kleinman is aware of the privilege he has as a Harvard doctor, well known for his psychiatric work, his teaching and writing, and his wealth—in contrast to other patients and families. Some patients go bankrupt from medical bills.

Visits to nursing homes reveal a wide range of social conditions, contexts, and levels of care; the best have a sense of “moral care” (p. 200). Joan’s final days are hard. Supportive family members agree to her living will and healthcare proxy for morphine pain control only. She dies, apparently “at peace” (p. 232).

In the last pages Kleinman introduces the notion of “soul” as “essential human interactions” (p. 238). He discusses some of the limits of medicine (see paradoxes below) but also praises local efforts to improve humane care, such as team approaches, uses of narrative medicine, and medical/health humanities programs.  

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The Edge of Every Day

Sardy, Marin

Last Updated: Jan-25-2020
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The Edge of Every Day is the memoir of a woman who comes from a “multiplex” family, in which schizophrenia is manifested in successive generations.  

The book consists of a series of essays.  Some, on topics ranging from gymnastics to building altars, were first published independently and do not appear (at least at first glance) to be linked. The choppy effect this produces speaks to the disorganized thinking that psychotic persons experience.  Other essays propel the tragic narrative of family members slipping into psychosis. At the age of ten, the author Marin Sardy, watches as the “shapeless thief” of schizophrenia steals her mother’s personality away.  Later, as she reaches her thirties, she witnesses her younger brother succumb to an even more pernicious illness.   

Despite Sardy’s mother’s conspicuous symptoms, (she advises her daughter to move to Pluto and informs her that her father has been swept away in a tsunami and replaced by another man), she functions just well enough to avoid being compelled to accept treatment. Thus, no one can stop her from going through a large inheritance and becoming destitute.  

Sardy’s brother Tom suffers his first psychotic break in his 20’s and then rapidly deteriorates.  He repeatedly “cheeks” his meds and falls through the cracks of Anchorage’s mental health system. The author and her family scour the streets, hoping to lure him inside for a shower or hot meal. As the weather worsens, they can only hope he will land in prison if it means not being exposed to the Alaskan elements.  Ultimately, the young man, who once sailed through college with A’s, commits suicide in the bathroom of a psychiatric facility. 

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Journal

Summary:

Nicolas Diat is a French journalist who, over the course of many months, traveled throughout France visiting a number of monasteries.  Because monks live their lives in many ways preparing for death, for eternity, Diat wondered if they had special insights about our final days on earth. "A Time To Die" contains a foreword by Robert Cardinal Sarah; comments by the author ("Extraordinary Stories); eight chapters, each the story of a particular monastery and particular monks; an epilogue; and closing remarks by the author.

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Michael Pollan, a journalist who is known for his work on food, takes on mind-altering drugs, or more specifically, psychedelics. According to Pollan, “after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance” (p. 3). His aim is to tell “the story of this renaissance” (p. 4). 

Pollan pegs the beginning of the renaissance to three events in 2006. The first was the symposium surrounding the one–hundredth birthday celebration of Albert Hoffman, who is credited with discovering LSD (he was in attendance and lived for another two years). The symposium put a spotlight on a few studies of psychedelics that inspired other researchers and practitioners to enter or stay in the field. The second event was a U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting importation of a banned psychedelic substance for religious purposes, which effectively reanimated federal government recognition of psychedelic drugs. The third event was the publication of a well-received study showing the psychological effects of certain psychedelic drugs, and in so doing, conferred some credibility and encouragement for further study (and use). Psychedelics were beginning to inch their way from counterculture to mainstream culture.

Before Pollan picks up on what happens after the eventful year of 2006, he goes back to the early 1950s when psychedelics first attracted attention as treatment for “addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and end-of life anxiety” (p. 141). He quotes researcher Stephen Ross, who asserts that during this time, “there had been forty thousand research participants and more than a thousand clinical papers!…Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding” (pp. 142-143). The trajectory towards therapeutic uses would come to an end in the 1960s when “a moral panic about LSD engulfed America, and virtually all psychedelic research and therapy were either halted or driven underground” (p. 185). Pollan identifies several contributing factors to the precipitous reversal in the status of psychedelics. Among them were their associations with Timothy Leary (“Turn on, tune in, drop out”) and with counterculture movements that were seen as threats to mainstream society in general. The era ends in 1970 when psychedelics were made illegal in the U.S., after which they were largely forgotten. They began to reappear in the 1990s, which rekindled an interest in them that would reach an inflection point in 2006.

Bridging the mid-twentieth-century history Pollan provides and the era commencing in 2006 he describes in detail later, is a chapter reporting on his own experiences with psychedelics. Pollan arranged three separate “trips” with three individual psychedelics: psilocybin, LSD, and the little-known 5-MeO-DMT, or “The Toad.” He carefully chose a tour guide for each one. Pollan experienced what he interpreted as a dissolution of his ego, which made more room for his consciousness: “I was present to reality but as something other than my self” (p. 264). He also reported spiritual and mystical experiences, which surprised him because he is not religious in much of any way, and he found others who had similar experiences.  
Even the most secular among them come away from their journeys convinced there exists something that transcends a material understanding of reality: some sort of a ‘Beyond.’ (p. 85)  
The term “spiritual” for Pollan became “a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced” (p. 288). 

In another chapter bridging the past and the present, Pollan covers the neuroscience of psychedelics and the current understanding of how the brain works. The chapter will appeal mostly to neuroscientists, pharmacologists, and clinicians. It’s not required to appreciate what the book offers on the whole. 

Pollan devotes a chapter to ongoing investigations into clinical uses for psychedelics in near death, addiction, and depression. These investigations had moved into mainstream biomedical research institutions. Results were encouraging enough to generate additional studies, expand treatment programs, and motivate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to push researchers for more information on depression in particular. Pollan also reports that “dozens of medical schools have asked to participate in future trials, and funders have stepped forward to underwrite those trials” (p. 350). 
 

In the final chapter, Pollan recognizes that despite the momentum behind mainstream biomedicine interest in psychedelics, established clinical and regulatory frameworks pose daunting challenges for broad-based adoption anytime soon. That aside, Pollan argues for the use of psychedelics in situations that are not limited to health problems per se, but also for “the betterment of well people,” which was also an interest of early researchers. To Pollan, the betterment comes from the effect of psychedelics to expand consciousness. 
Most of the time, it is normal waking consciousness that best serves the interests of survival—and is not adaptive. But there are moments in the life of an individual or a community when the imaginative novelties proposed by altered states of consciousness introduce exactly the sort off variation that can send a life, or a culture, down a new path. (p. 407) 
His conclusion is that without the assistance of psychedelics, the vastness of the mind and the mysteries of the world can never be known. Psychedelics for everyone! 

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Responding to a shortage of doctors in rural areas in 2013, Dr. Virji, a Muslim, moved from the urban East coast to a small town in Minnesota.  Welcomed at first, he and his family began, after Trump's election in 2016, to experience withdrawal, suspicion, and outright racism in his own and neighboring towns, despite having established solid, trusting relationships with patients.  His children were being ostracized in school.  Discouraged, he took steps to accept a job in Dubai, but changed his mind after a local pastor invited him to speak in her church to correct common misconceptions about Muslims and to engage his neighbors in deeper dialogue about their differences and commonalities.  The lecture was so successful, he took it further into other towns and parts of the country.  He has stayed in Minnesota and witnessed change because of this invitation and his candid, open-hearted response. 

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