Showing 291 - 297 of 297 annotations tagged with the keyword "Chronic Illness/Chronic Disease"

The Echo Maker

Powers, Richard

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

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


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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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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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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Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Collection (Essays)


Subitled, Invisible Wounds of War. Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery, this monograph features 27 contributing researchers. Published by the RAND Corporation, it is funded by a grant from the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund. The study was conducted under the joint auspices of the Center for Military Health Policy Research, a RAND Health Center, and the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the National Security Research Division of the RAND Corporation.
The work deserves our full attention as it delineates and explains the economic, human, medical, political, public health, and social consequences of injuries suffered by returning veterans of US involvement in 8 years of continuous conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. The introduction defines the three kinds of invisible wounds affecting thousands of the 1.64 million American troops deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) since 2001. These combat related injuries are post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Upwards of 26% of returning troops may have mental health concerns, including drug and alcohol dependency, homelessness, and suicide.

The monograph analyses numerous studies of these issues, both governmental and non-governmental, and RAND has conducted its own study. The data collection is recent: from April 2007 to January 2008. RAND estimates that approximately 300.000 persons currently suffer from PTSD or major depression; in addition, 320,000 veterans may have experienced TBI during deployment.

The recommendations include evidence based care at the VA level, the state and community level, and on site in Afghanistan and Iraq. Adequate care would pay for itself and save money in the long run by improving productivity and reducing medical and mortality costs for members of the US armed forces.

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Annotated by:
Jones, Therese

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film


The 2005 documentary film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, tells the story of Daniel Johnston, a mentally ill artist whose drawings have been exhibited and sold worldwide; whose music has been recorded by Beck, Wilco, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Pearl Jam; and whose fans include the actor, Johnny Depp and Simpsons creator, Matt Groening.  Diagnosed with manic depression complicated by delusions of grandeur, Daniel has spent the last three decades of his life in and out of mental hospitals.  His wild fluctuations, downward spirals, and periodic respites are chronicled in the film through compelling interviews, home movies, recorded tapes, and performance footage.  The title is an allusion to Johnston's intense Christian beliefs and his spiritual war with Satan.   

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This anthology frames a rich selection of fiction and nonfiction with astute and helpful introductions to issues in nineteenth-century medicine and the larger culture in which it participated. The fiction is comprised of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Steel Windpipe in its entirety; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, "The Doctors of Hoyland" from Round the Red Lamp; and selections from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Sarah Orne Jewett’s A Country Doctor, Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, W. Somserset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, George Moore’s Esther Waters, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, and Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne [the full-length versions of many of the above have been annotated in this database]. The nonfiction consists of two versions of the Hippocratic Oath, two American Medical Association statements of ethics, and selections from Daniel W. Cathell’s The Physician Himself (1905).

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Last Updated: Nov-11-2002
Annotated by:
Holmes, Martha Stoddard

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play


En route to the way to the Trojan War, warrior Philoctetes, wielder of the bow of Heracles, is bitten by a poisonous snake at the shrine of the goddess Chryse. The infected wound becomes so painful that Philoctetes’s screams of agony repel the Greek commanders, who order Odysseus to leave him on the island of Lemnos. Ten years later (the time of the play’s opening scene), Odysseus returns to Lemnos with Neoptolemus, son of the now-dead Achilles, to retrieve Philoctetes’s bow. It has been prophesied that only with this bow can Troy be conquered.

Promising him glory and honor, Odysseus convinces Neoptolemus to win Philoctetes’s trust and take the bow. Philoctetes, delighted to see any human and especially another Greek, shares his story with Neoptolemus, begs him to take him back to Greece, and entrusts him with the bow when he is overcome by a spasm of pain.

Deeply moved by witnessing Philoctetes’s misery firsthand, Neoptolemus confesses the truth to him, but tries to persuade Philoctetes to accompany him to Troy. When Odysseus appears, Neoptolemus returns the bow, declaring that only with Philoctetes himself wielding it will the prophesy be fulfilled. He asks forgiveness, and invites Philoctetes to come back with him to be healed and then on to Troy to contribute to the battle. The only thing that ends Philoctetes’s refusal is the sudden appearance of Heracles, who announces that Philoctetes and Neoptolemus must join together to take Troy.

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