By Julian Sheather in BMA Free For All Blog.
What do we mean by illness? What is a disease? How do we really know that another human being is suffering? What is the difference between mental and physical pain? And if there is a difference, does it matter?
For most of us these are academic questions. For Jennifer Brea, they are the stuff of life. In her mid-twenties she was felled by a mysterious illness. About to marry, studying for her PhD at Harvard, and poised, just as her childhood self had instructed her, “to swallow the world,” she was laid low by a succession of viral infections. And then came near catatonia. She fell into a condition of agonized, almost mitochondrial, depletion. She slid away into a persistent, room-bound twilight. Light was painful. To move she had to haul herself, elbow by elbow across the floor. Her life got up and left her.
She ran the predictable gauntlet of specialists: bemused endocrinologists, rheumatologists, cardiologists and psychiatrists. There were investigations, hypotheses, bewilderments. Some said it was psychogenic, the late dark flower of an early trauma (recall that before brain scans multiple sclerosis was labelled psychogenic and dubbed hysterical paralysis.) Some said it was her immune system. Others that it was dehydration or the stress of study.
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