Showing 261 - 270 of 274 annotations tagged with the keyword "Chronic Illness/Chronic Disease"

Summary:

One day in the 1920’s, a newspaper reporter walked into the laboratory of Russian psychologist A. R. Luria and asked him to test his memory, which he recently had been told was unusual. It was not unusual. It was uniquely and astoundingly retentive. Luria gave him very long strings of numbers, words, nonsense syllables and could not detect any limit to his ability to recall them, generally without mistake, even years later. (Luria studied S., as he identifies him, for thirty years.)

Luria discovers that the man had some interesting characteristics to his memory. He experienced synesthesia, i.e., the blending of sensations: a voice was a "crumbly, yellow voice." (p.24) S.’s memory was highly eidetic, i.e., visual, a characteristic not unique to him but which he used as a technique to memorize lists and details. (He had become a performing mnemonist.) It was also auditory. He had trouble remembering a word if its sound did not fit its meaning. The remainder of the section on his memory involves fascinating aspects of his having to learn how to forget and his methods of problem solving.

The remainder of the book is equally interesting since it relates the epiphenomena of S.’s prodigious memory: how he mentally saw everything in his past memory; how he was virtually paralyzed when it came to understanding poetry since metaphorical thinking was almost impossible for him, a mnemonist who lived in a world of unique particulars! As Luria wrote, "S. found that when he tried to read poetry the obstacles to his understanding were overwhelming: each expression gave rise to an image; this, in turn, would conflict with another image that had been evoked." (p. 120)

S. could control his vital signs by his memory and, last but not least, this human experiment of nature had such a vivid imagination that, probably more than the most creative of us, he engaged in "magical thinking": "To me there’s no great difference between the things I imagine and what exists in reality. Often, if I imagine something is going to happen, it does. Take the time I began arguing with a friend that the cashier in the store was sure to give me too much change. I imagined it to myself in detail, and she actually did give me too much--change of 20 rubles instead of 10. Of course I realize it’s just chance, coincidence, but deep down I also think it’s because I saw it that way." (p. 146)

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Skunk Hour

Lowell, Robert

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

Skunk Hour is the penultimate poem in Lowell’s 1959 volume of poetry, Life Studies. It is composed of 8 sestets with an internal rhyming scheme in each sestet that can only be called irregular from sestet to sestet. The poem moves slowly, beginning with a descriptive tone that is somber ("she buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall."), progresses to frankly pessimistic ("the season’s ill") and ultimately becomes confessional and egoistically relational ("I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, / they lay together, hull to hull, / where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . . / My mind’s not right.")

The poem opens with a series of portraits of people and phenomena that comprise the poet’s current landscape: "Nautilus Island’s hermit heiress" who is "in her dotage"; the "summer millionaire" whose nine-knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen"; the decorator who brightens his shop but appears as hopeless as the narrator, who draws yet another contrast between appearance and reality, remarking that the decorator knows "there is no money in his work, / he’d rather marry."

The fifth sestet marks a turning point and, to signal it, Lowell takes as his first line the famous "Una noche oscura" of St. John of the Cross, another dour poet/mystic: "One dark night". (In a collection of essays cited on the Internet (reference 1) Lowell writes, "Then all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existentialist night.") This line begins the first of two consecutive sestets that are concerned with corporal love, bracketing a middle line that announces, to no reader’s surprise, "My mind’s not right."

The second of these sestets moves from a maudlin song refrain to a frankly depressive, almost suicidal pose: "I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat. . . ." and ends with "I myself am hell; / nobody’s here --", which, as James E. B. Breslin reminds us, is a quotation from Satan in Book IV of Paradise Lost. (ref.1)

Enter the titular skunks: as a parenthetical predicate to the final line of the preceding sestet ("nobody’s here --"), the poet corrects the apparently psychological meaning of "nobody’s here --" to refer to physical presence, noting that in fact there is someone here, namely a family of skunks.

The final two sestets are among the most visually powerful images in poetry with the paradoxically high drama one would not expect from skunks. The hungry skunks "march on their soles up Main Street" in search of food with fiery red eyes as the poet, in response to their upward march, stands "on top / of our back steps" and takes a deep breath of the "rich air", watching the mother skunk jab her head into a cup of sour cream--a mother skunk who, in a fitting yet curiously ambiguous final line, "will not scare."

reference 1. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/lowell/skunk.htm accessed January 5, 2005.

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Banishing Verona

Livesey, Margot

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Banishing Verona concerns a 22-year-old house painter living in London. One soon realizes that Zeke Cafarelli is not normal. He has had a nervous breakdown a few years earlier; collects clocks--he has nine at the beginning of the novel and adds two more by novel's end--which he takes apart and restores; he has basic questions about interpersonal relations that, were it not for his illness, mentioned once, briefly and vaguely (24), one would describe as childlike naiveté.

For example, he wonders why people lie. Or, why is it so easy to identify vegetables (his parents are greengrocers) but not people each time one encounters them in even slightly different settings? Several times the author describes Zeke's mother or father (whom Zeke calls Gwen and Don, respectively) while their son is trying to confirm their identity as his parents.

Quite early in the narrative, like a dea ex machina, Verona MacIntyre enters Zeke's life. Or perhaps Venus on the half shell would be a more specific identification of the dea, since Verona is pregnant, and soon becomes as naked as Venus in the famous painting by Botticelli, to whose paintings Zeke is likened with his angelic appearance and lustrous hair. The two become oceanic--if not star-crossed--lovers-at-first-sight since Verona has to traipse off to Boston to help bail her sociopathic brother out of yet another financial and amorous mess of his own making. Despite the appearances of Jigger (Verona and Henry's grandfather in the persona of a long letter to Verona), and Toby (a mutual lover-friend of Verona and Henry), and Maurice (Gwen's lover), the plot does not seem unwieldy.

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The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

Jensen, Liz

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy living in France with his stay at home mother and Air France pilot father. Such an apparently normal family description is the merest tissue of appearances. The father is probably an alcoholic and unfaithful; the son is "accident-prone" (a nearly fatal episode of SIDS at two weeks of age, a near fatal electrocution at age 6 after falling on the tracks of the métro in Lyon; salmonella, tetanus, botulism, meningitis, etc. [or, as Louis is fond of saying, "blah, blah, blah."]) and the mother has issues that only emerge as one becomes more deeply involved in what is a mystery story.

Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or Janet Lewis’s superb The Trial of Søren Qvist, one knows the ending early on (page 16 in Louis Drax), but not the details. The why and the how are the stuff of the novelist’s art in all three books.

With premonition of more danger, Louis goes on a family picnic (see below for the author’s biographical basis for this tale) and winds up at the bottom of a ravine, dead. Drowned and dead. A few hours later, in the morgue, he is found to be alive. Comatose and in a persistent vegetative state but alive. He is therefore transferred to the care of a neurologist specializing in comatose patients at the Clinique de l’Horizon (formerly l’Hôpital des Incurables).

It is here that the mystery unfolds. The questions are: How did Louis end up at the bottom of the ravine? Did his father, now missing, push him as his distraught mother alleges? What role does the clearly neurotic mother play in this tragedy? And who exactly is Louis Drax? Lastly, how do the mysterious letters allegedly from him, written while still in a coma, come to be?

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

This chapbook of 26 poems traces the author's interactions with her mother, a woman lost in the morass of Alzheimer's disease. In the first poem, "The Loss" (1), the author takes us into her mother's home--a disorganized mess of stained thrift shop clothes folded and refolded into piles. The daughter tricks her mother into moving in with her "for a trial" which becomes permanent.

In the last poem, "At Least This" (26), the poet stoops "to pull the diaper / up around my mother's / waist, my temple / near her breasts." As the daughter leans into this task, the mother caresses her hair, embraces her. This hug, beautifully and simply portrayed, is the poet's fragile reward for all the struggles, mercies and difficult moments examined in the poems between.

These poems are both beautiful and unfailingly honest, addressing with humor and charity the difficulties of caring for a parent with this disease. In one poem, "The Battle" (5), the mother slathers herself with Vaseline. In another poem, "The Bath" (7), the mother lies in the bathtub, her flaccid skin smoothed by water's illusion, her body suddenly as lovely as Bonnard's painting of a woman bathing. "This is the mother I battled / when young: the mother / who beat my defiance; / the one I hit back," the poet writes in "A Late Blessing" (6), and in another poem, "Intellectual Opiate" (10), she speaks of her mother's love for words she no longer understands.

But these poems are more than poignant narratives about a daughter's relationship with a once-difficult, now dependent mother. They address the "seeds of her disease" (11), exposing the flaws of this relationship without dishonor or blame. In these poems, Slatkin's mother appears vibrant and whole, not ravaged by disease. Rarely have the difficulties and possibilities of Alzheimer's disease been presented in poetry with such insight and respect.

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In 1997, the author’s 14-year-old son, Ike, began a puzzling, progressive degenerative illness. Slowly, this undiagnosed disease claimed Ike’s ability to walk, to study, to participate in normal adolescent activities and, finally, to reason. Going from physician to physician, seeking if not a cure than at least a working diagnosis, the author became a self-taught expert in all things neurological.

As her son’s condition worsened, she also became an expert in grief and despair. In Blue Peninsula, her first book, McKeithen relates how she became, as well, a poetry addict--reading, devouring, tearing poems out of journals, buying volumes that she could carry to office or hospital, hiding poems in her purse or pocket. Using poems or pieces of poems--sometimes she could not bear to read a final stanza, one that perhaps ended in death or unrelenting despair--she cobbled together a survival plan.

Indeed, in this small book of short, to-the-point chapters (with titles such as "Crying in the Car," Open to It," Acquiring Losses," Sifting Questions," "Naming," "Shipwreck," and "Shelving Selves"), she reveals how she used poems to grieve, to question, to celebrate, to maintain, to curse, and to endure. The story of Ike’s illness, treatment and slow decline are interwoven with these poems and the author’s often surprising commentary on how she mined the poet’s metaphors. If a poem could put suffering into words, the author suggests, she needed that poem to survive.

The author’s choice of poems and poets is far-reaching, and her interpretations of what they mean and how they helped her along the path of her son’s illness are intimate, gritty and insightful. A brief listing of poets includes Emily Dickinson (whose poem "Blue Peninsula" supplied the book’s title), Billy Collins, Elizabeth Bishop, Diane Ackerman, Zbiginew Herbert, The Rolling Stones, Paul Celan, Molly Peacock, David Whyte and many others, known and lesser known.

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The Line of Beauty

Hollinghurst, Alan

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Hollinghurst's Booker Prize winning novel begins in 1983, just as Nick Guest has graduated from university. A young middle class gay man, he has secured for himself a rather cozy spot in the posh Notting Hill mansion of the wealthy Fedden family, based on his friendship at Oxford with the family scion, Toby, and partly earning his keep by looking after the daughter, Catherine, whose manic depression is marked by mood swings, lability, suicidal thoughts, and self-mutilation.

Gerald Fedden, the imposing paterfamilias has recently been elected a Tory MP (Member of Parliament), rising to power on the coattails of Margaret Thatcher's dominance of British politics in the 1980s. The story follows Nick through the mid-1980s, between Thatcher's two re-elections, chronicling his relationships with the Fedden family, his parents and his lovers, as his own fortunes and opportunities swell and then burst.

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The Echo Maker

Powers, Richard

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Mark Schluter, a 27 year old beef-processing plant worker, becomes involved in a car crash outside Kearney, Nebraska, the locus of this novel. The car crash---on February 2, 2002, a date that the author wishes to impress the reader as one that seems too numerically mystical (02/02/02) to be co-incidental--clearly has mysterious elements about it since it occurred far outside town on desolate flat country roads and amidst the tire tracks of another car. Too, just after Mark is hospitalized, there appears an undecipherable note of anonymous provenance:

I am No One
but Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else.

Mark has an initially troublesome route to recovery, including a temporary ventriculostomy to relieve the pressure in his head. Meanwhile his only sibling, Karin, 31, rushes to his side from Sioux City, a move that becomes permanent and costs her her job. Mark eventually awakens but with an unusual mis-identification syndrome, called the Capgras syndrome (more commonly encountered in patients with psychiatric condition), in which the patient fails to recognize those closest to him as such. For a Capgras patient, there is a disconnect between the visual ability to recognize their faces and emotional response to them as close relatives or friends. He recognizes the visual similarity but considers the significant other an impostor.

This rupture in the usual see-sister's-face-acknowledge-as-sister apparently occurs, in the Capgras syndrome, in connections between one's "primitive" or "reptilian" brain, including the amygdala, and the cortex. Much is made of this failure of neuronal circuits to connect, and reminds one of the parable in His Brother's Keeper (see database) about the Chinese Emperor and the failure of the transmission of a message to explain the pathophysiology of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. As Karin remembers the neurologic explanation, " 'His amygdala, she remembered. His amygdala can't talk with his cortex" [original italics] (80). This amygdala-cortex dichotomy becomes, in behavioral terms, feeling versus reason. As discussed by the two neurologists involved in Mark's case, "But no emotional ratification. Getting all the associations for a face without that gut feeling of familiarity. Pushed to a choice, cortex has to defer to amygdala"; "So it's not what you think you feel that wins out, it's what you feel you think" (131).

Out of desperation, Karin emails a request to Gerald Weber, a famous cognitive neurologist-author modeled primarily after Oliver Sacks but with a little A. R. Luria, whose "To find the soul it is necessary to lose it" is the epigraph of the novel. From the time Weber meets Mark and Karin, the book becomes an intricately entangled design of various metaphysical threads all of which, directly or indirectly, revolve around Mark's syndrome and identity--in fact the identity of all the characters. Karin becomes involved-- re-involved-- with two men from her earlier days in Kearney, Robert Karsh, a developer, and Daniel Riegel, a conservationist. Later the two men become ideologically more opposed than ever when Karsh tries to develop the annual nesting grounds of the cranes, Grus canadensis, who return to Kearney, thousands of them, every February. Barbara Gillespie, a guardian angel to Mark at the extended care rehab center, and Gerald Weber, until then a man happily married to a prototypically liberal intellectual woman, Sylvie Bolan, become romantically drawn to each other. Weber's own doubts about his work and his public image after unprecedentedly critical reviews of his latest book torment him and lead to concerns about his own identity as a physician who may be using, rather than trying to understand, his patients.

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Summary:

Poets on Prozac contains sixteen essays written by poets about their individual struggles with a variety of psychiatric disorders. The editor, physician and poet Richard Berlin, has gathered these essays in order to examine, and shatter, the long-standing notion that madness, particularly madness in poets, enhances creativity---we need only think of the myths surrounding writers such as Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas to understand how the relationship between madness and creativity might foster both fear and longing in novice writers.

In his informative and comprehensive introduction, Berlin poses these, and other, questions: "Do poets need to be mentally ill to produce great work? What is the influence of substance use/abuse? Does a person have to be 'crazy' to write good poetry? What do poets themselves define as crucial elements in their creative process?" (p. 2). He goes on to site current evidence that madness actually impedes creativity, as well as evidence that "some forms of mental illness may enhance, or at least coexist, with creativity" (pp. 4-5); he reviews the findings of researchers who have looked at "The Myth of Inspiration" and "The Myth of Very Special Talent" in creative persons (pp 6-7).

But it is in the wonderful essays themselves that we take a privileged peek into the lives, the often tortured lives, of successful poets (Berlin only considered the essays of poets who had published at least one book). Reading the essays is somewhat like eavesdropping on the therapy sessions of highly articulate and self-aware patients. Clearly Berlin has created a safe place for these writers to look again at their creative lives and how those lives intertwine with, and sometimes have been overgrown by, mental illness. All the essays, happily, come to a place of resolution; the writers find, in various degrees, that understanding or relieving their emotional distress results in the possibility of increased creativity. Along the way, they give us writing alive with metaphors, images and intelligent musings on art, poetry, life and suffering.

In the first essay, "Dark Gifts," Gwyneth Lewis writes about her depression: "I became Woman in a Dressing Gown. At my worst, the duvet on my bed looked like a body bag and I was the corpse inside it" (p. 13). Finally she concludes, "I've learned that depression is one of the most reliable guardians of my life as a poet. It's like a fuse in a house with suspect wiring" (p. 22). In his essay, Andrew Hudgins describes cortisone psychosis this way: "I was a fire station in which the alarm bells seldom stopped clanging and the firemen were exhausted and indifferent" (p. 163). In "The Desire to Think Clearly," J. D. Smith says, "Being a poet in despair does not necessarily make one a poet of despair" (p. 23). As most of the poets do, Denise Duhamel uses examples of poems within her essay to demonstrate how her illness, in this case bulimia, variously inhibited or influenced her writing. The rawness of illness shows up, again and again, in her ability to be brave and resolute in her poems: "I'm still working it out, as they say, as therapists say, as my friends say, / as I guess I'm saying now in this poem" (p. 37).

Many of the poets approach their illness histories with wry humor or pointed irony. Caterina Eppolito states that "Poetic form is an anorexic form of writing. So instead of restricting calories, I was restricting words" (p. 118). Ren Powell asks, "Maybe when it's all over I can ask my children if they think the days of dancing in the kitchen were worth the days I spent shut away in the bedroom" (p. 52). Powell, like most of the authors in this anthology, honors hard work at the craft as the measure of success, and says, "If I have any success at all as a writer it is as much despite my disorder as because of it" (p. 57). Other writers admit wondering, sometimes, if their writing success might be due to their disorders. Jesse Millner writes, "After all, wasn't it the melancholy that led me to write?" (p. 67). Most writers agree that abusing substances did not enhance but sidetracked their poetic energies, while prescribed medications often, as Jack Coulehan says, helped: "The obsessive traits softened, so I felt free to approach life in a more flexible manner. Despite this new experience of freedom, my productivity did not suffer; in fact, it increased" (p. 101).

The chemical basis for some mental disorders is acknowledged in many of the essays. In her discussion of postpartum depression, Martha Silano notes, "I'd simply woken up in a foreign country without a map, without a dictionary, with no way to understand this strange place" (p. 142). Silano, like others in this collection, found that once the chemical imbalance was corrected, something good happened to the writing---she moved from writing about her own personal experience to writing that reached beyond her fears: "Now I was writing poems with a more universal, all-encompassing vision" (p. 146). Liza Porter says it this way: "Voice comes from safety. Silence becomes words. The truth can be told" (p. 153). But the downside of medication is admitted as well. Chase Twitchell laments the loss of "metaphor-making," and compares it---in quite a fine metaphor---to someone turning "off the spigot" (p. 176). "It takes longer and requires far more doggedness than it did before medications" (p. 176). But medications also give many of these poets what Vanessa Haley names "the emotional insight and stamina to write" (p. 76). If these excellent essays are any indication, they are, and will continue to be, writing extraordinarily well.

 

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Summary:

This volume belongs in the category of cross-cultural studies of medicine and the humanities. Its main audience is scholars of nineteenth-century American psychiatry and culture. The author divides his study into six chapters, each with a topic, including the simultaneous emergence of nineteenth-century public debate about improving the treatment of insanity and the movement to abolish slavery; cultural activities in asylums directed toward humanizing the patients; bardolatry in British and American medical circles; discussions of Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville in the context of their literary and personal relationship with madness; a chapter on captivity narratives and popular novels by former female and male patients; and an epilogue.

Unlike today, "In mid-nineteenth-century America, the condition of the mentally ill seemed to demand-and to a large degree received-national attention and the full creative energy of a group of dedicated reformers" (p. 2). Reformers linked the emancipation of slaves with curing the delusions of the insane. Slaves and the mentally ill had in common deprivation of their civil liberties; however, the difference was that white mental patients could be expected to grow up eventually, whereas black slaves would always remain children, and hence could not be trusted with the right to vote, own property, or sign contracts.Some causes of insanity were deemed to be the individual's reaction to the stress of modern life, too much freedom and choice, religious fervor, masturbation, or excessive study. In their aggressive attempts to remake patients into proper gentlemen and ladies, the new asylums promoted cultural activities such as reading selected texts, theater performances and writing.

Most asylums housed males and females in approximately equal numbers; cultural activities for females stressed piety, fashion, and domestic activity while men could comment on politics, the temperance movement, and opposition to women's rights. Reiss refers to the French model of using cultural activities in asylums, f.ex., Philippe Pinel's staging of plays to educate patients, and Marquis de Sade's theater performances at Charenton. He ends with a discussion of patient narratives that depict some horrific abuses tolerated in nineteenth-century asylums; the degree of these abuses is familiar to us from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (see film annotation).

The work includes a few illustrations, the most important being an engraving from a painting by Tony Robert-Fleury titled: Pinel Freeing the Insane (1876). (Yale University). Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) was a French pioneer in the humane treatment of mentally ill patients. A Director of Bicêtre Hospital in Paris, he is depicted as a heroic physician, liberating, mostly female, patients there. However, scholars have shown that only 10 of the 270 patients were chained, and that Pinel '"accepted the traditional use of chains to restrain the violent insane as a matter of course"' (p. 160). Reiss's point is that the revolutionary nature of Pinel's treatment of the insane has been exaggerated.

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