Book Review. It’s All in Your Head (true stories of imaginary illness) by Suzanne O’Sullivan

I was interested to read this book as it was the winner of the Wellcome Book Prize 2016.  I’d been keeping an eye on this particular prize as The Outrun by Amy Liptrot was in the final six and I was keen to see how her book faired. (I’ve reviewed it on the blog before, I’ll attach a link to the bottom)

It’s All in Your Head is Suzanne’s first book and she shares with us stories of her career as a neurologist, where she has encountered patients suffering very debilitating illnesses with no medical explanation.

As the author explains early on, our bodies can often have a physical reaction to an emotion.  For example when we are nervous we may sweat, shake and need the loo. The book shows us much more severe cases when patients present maybe in a wheelchair, or blind; and yet all clinical tests show nothing.

There is the story of Matthew who was convinced he had MS and was in a wheelchair unable to move his limbs, yet repeated tests confirmed he didn’t have MS. Following a referral to a psychiatrist, he begins to understand his struggle with his over achieving family and eventually makes a recovery.

There was also Camilla, a successful lawyer whose life was blighted by frequent seizures.  Years before, she’d suffered a terrible trauma when her first child had rolled in front of  car in a buggy and died.  Camilla had buried this trauma and this was the cause of her seizures years later. 

There are many case studies covered and tying them together is the history of psychosomatic illness and societies approach to this taboo subject.  Telling patients that their illness is rooted in something other than much hoped for test results is news often not well received.  Many patients visit several doctors, put in complaints and request more and more tests.  Stigma plays a part in the acceptance of psychosomatic illness and Suzanne looks at how diagnosis of certain conditions evolve and change over the years.

Conditions such as ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome can be a sensitive area and I’m sure the book has been much debated in certain circles.  But for me the overwhelming thread which weaved through each chapter was the author’s compassion that she both wrote  and investigated with.  Whether a condition is rooted in something physical or emotional it is still a problem that needs addressing for the patient to make steps to recover and lead a full life.  In often cases there was something happening deep in the subconscious causing the person’s physical symptoms.  They were not putting it on or faking it but nevertheless when tests provide nothing, answers need to be sought elsewhere.

Overall I found this a thoroughly interesting read.  For someone with no medical training I found it easy to keep up with and Suzanne O’Sullivan a caring and sympathetic person, who was keen to help each person as an individual, and was willing to learn from mistakes along the way. Verdict: Thumbs up, worth a read.

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Book review of The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is here


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