Tag: Medical/Health

OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought

by David Adam

A blend of personal account, medical history and looking into how the brain is wired. What OCD feels like to the person afflicted by it. Why treatments in the past didn’t work (some sound quite horrific) and what new ones are far more promising. Have to remember that the things doctors tried that sound awful now, were groundbreaking for their time and turned into something others could build on later, to figure out what actually was effective. Doesn’t make it sound much better though. They just didn’t have enough understanding back then. The book is personal and clinical by turns, covering some of the wide variety of expression this disorder takes on. Making some things far more clear to me (it’s not the compulsions that are the issue) and others I still don’t really understand. It’s a book that merits a re-read in more familiar format, especially because now I’m struggling to recall enough to say something coherent here. I do note: it explained pretty adeptly how unwanted, random, odd and often downright offensive or frightening thoughts pop into everybody‘s head- it’s just that most people immediately forget or dismiss them. The person with OCD dwells on them, and the more they dwell on a particular thought, the more it gets repeated in a feedback loop that’s extremely difficult to escape. That’s the point at which compulsive behaviors come in, as an attempt to drive the thought away. Missing a lot here- the notes I took down after I finished this audiobook weeks ago, while puzzling soon after my injury, are rather scanty. I was very intrigued and did listen closely the whole time I assure you, even though it was quite lengthy compared to some of the other audiobooks I’ve done.

There was one section that talked in depth about two brothers who lived alone in a house full of stuff they hoarded- which I’d also read about in this other book. I immediately recognized them from some of the details, and it was pretty interesting to hear about their predicament from another viewpoint.

Borrowed from the public library. Audiobook, narrated by Daniel Philpott, 7 hours 53 min listening time. Completed on 1/11/24

Rating: 4/5
336 pages, 2016

by Abraham Verghese

I finished this sprawling tome yesterday, and it’s hard for me to find what to say about it. It’s not one I would have picked up on my own- my family is getting together for the holidays and we’re going to do a book discussion on it. This novel is about three generations of a family in southern India, an area inundated with water- canals, lakes, streams. We meet the family when the first main character (there appear to be several) marries into it, an arranged match to a much older man. I found that initial segment interesting, but just when I felt I was starting to get to know the young woman, her personality and the difficulties she faced, the extended family she was getting to know- it switches to a different character, a completely other viewpoint for the next dozen chapters or so. The narrative does this many times throughout, weaving a story of many various people, how they are related to or become part of this family, or touch it only seemingly from the edges but then become much involved later on. The story involves mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and acquaintances, people who work for the household and so on. It has many characters in the medical field- from midwives and nurses to general doctors and surgeons.

Some are admirable people and others not. Some do what is expected of them and no more, others break the strictures of society to try and help in ways that are frowned upon. There’s a leper colony. There’s an artist who feels constrained by her family duties (at least, that’s what you think at first- later on finding out her departure was for other -heartbreaking- reasons). There are layers and layers of hidden meanings and hushed secrets, in particular about this affliction shared by intermittent members of the family- they suffer from an aversion to water and an odd proclivity for drowning. My first guess was this must be some neurological disorder triggered by the sensation of water on the skin- I had no idea if such a condition exists though- and I wasn’t too far off. Those in the family with “the Condition” did their best to avoid traveling over or going into water (though one was oddly drawn to it) but at the very end, one individual trains to be a doctor in order to find out what the Condition actually is, and can they cure it. And she gets pretty darn close. It was all very interesting, and certainly well-written, and a lovely glimpse into the culture of this part of India, which I knew very little of before. The caste system, the beliefs and suspicions handed down, the elephant that visits the household! I just had trouble feeling invested in any one character because it moved through so many, though I found most of them intriguing and some quite easy to relate to. The differing story threads all connect in the end, though I do admit I had forgotten some of the earlier parts that were alluded to then, even with helpful reminders from the characters themselves.

I’ll probably come back here and relate more, after we have our discussion. Right now it’s hard to think what to put down about it all. It was kind of overwhelming! I appreciated that at the end, the author included an explanation of where some of the stories in the narrative came from- many out of her own family history- and names for some of the diseases and medical conditions suffered by characters in the book (when they had no name for it themselves).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
724 pages, 2023

Inside the Bizzare World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures

by Carl Zimmer

You’d think from the cover and subtitle that this is mostly about how creepy and icky and scary parasites are. And they are. But it’s also about how amazingly adaptive they can be, how influential on other animals (and plants) including humans, even how beautiful they are when viewed up close by someone appreciative (the author). Some parts of this book get really detailed about microbiology at the cellular level, which made me have to read every page a few times over because I just didn’t get it. Most is easily understandable and fascinating. Especially all the interconnections that I was never aware of. Parasites are complicated. Many of them still not very well understood, or even identified. Lots are very specific to their host, so if that host animal goes extinct, so do the numerous parasite species that live within it. I’d heard of the parasites that can control the actions of insects, or make rats unafraid of cats, in order to facilitate getting into their next host to continue their lifecycle. I had never before read about how parasites can make male crabs act like pregnant females, or do any other number of things that hold sway over the rise and fall of various animal populations. I loved the story about how an entomologist solved the problem of the cassava mealybug in Africa, that threatened to destroy the main food crop of 200 million people in the 1970’s. He thwarted that by introducing a very specific parasite, and the details of that were a great read. Unfortunately, there’s lots of other mentions on attempts to control pest species by introducing a parasite that went wrong. This book certainly made me feel creeped out and itchy at times, I’d have to put it aside for a bit. But it was also captivating. One I’ll probably want to read again someday.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
306 pages, 2000

by Lisa Genova

I saw this one as a film long before I read the book. The movie really resonated with me, I was surprised to learn that someone in their early fifties could get Alzheimer’s disease, and then saddened to watch the main character’s inevitable decline. Unfortunately, I didn’t get nearly as much feeling out of the book. While it had far more details and incidents reflecting what patients and families of those with early onset Alzheimer’s go through, it lacked a sense of emotion for me. The writing style is very straightforward tell-don’t-show, which often leaves me feeling bored and uninvested. It’s not just me- lots of reviewers were very moved by this book, but a few on LibraryThing felt the same way I did.
For what it is, though, I read the whole thing through, interested to learn but feeling at a distance from the whole thing. The novel is told from Alice’s point of view- a university professor at Harvard, specializing in linguistics. What a horrific thing, for a person so invested in and deeply understanding language, to be aware she’s going to loose it, to watch and feel it unravel from her mind day to day. At first she didn’t realize anything was wrong. Anybody will forget a word here or there, miss an appointment, loose their car keys, especially as they’re getting older. But then Alice forgets to get on a flight for an important conference. She can’t recall what she’s teaching in the middle of a class. She gets lost in her own neighborhood, doesn’t recognize her grown daughter, and more. The inconsistencies in her mind and moments of confusion become more frequent and alarming, so she seeks help and a diagnoses, and of course is shocked and appalled at being told she has Alzheimer’s. She’s supposed to have so much ahead of her still- research to finish, students to mentor, grandchildren on the way . . . The story is just as much about how it affects her family too, though it’s seen through Alice’s eyes and as the disease progresses her account becomes somewhat unreliable. The reader is able to see what’s going on even as Alice forgets who people are and what she’s doing.
The ending was sad, but also heartwarming, at least in my opinion. Even when Alice lost her ability to teach and had to be minded constantly by family and caretakers, she became more content in small daily pleasures, and her relationship with one of her daughters actually seemed to improve, as she no longer criticized and held her daughter up to a high standard, but just accepted things. The husband did not seem nearly as understanding and supportive as the reader would hope, but I bet it’s a realistic depiction of how some family members react. Very much worth reading, though honestly I just did not enjoy the book much. I see the author has written other novels about brain injury and illness (one about Huntington’s disease, another about a woman who suffers a car accident and can no longer perceive or feel anything on her left side) that look interesting, but being aware of the writing style, I’d really have to be in the right mood for them.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 3/5
294 pages, 2007

Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

When the co-authors wrote this book just over a decade ago, compulsive hoarding was little known and even less studied. They set out to learn more about why people become hoarders, what their feelings and thoughts about their belongings are, maybe how they got that way (many already had symptoms in childhood), how it affects family members, and finally what might assist them to clear out their clutter and overcome their compulsions. Much easier said than done. The authors were surprised at the overwhelming response when they sought subjects for their study- turns out hoarding isn’t as rare as they’d thought. Lots of people have difficulty letting go of cherished items, controlling desires to buy items they don’t really need, or saving junk that just might come be useful someday. The book delves into the nuances and reasons behind these problems and more. Problem being when the items collected or saved literally fill the living space- multiple cases they discuss had hoarders who simply moved into a new residence when their current one became unlivable! Others lost family members who became frustrated with the situation and left, or actually had their piles of stuff threaten their healthy and safety. Many times city officials had to get involved because of the physical safety hazard, but as the authors point out more than once, forced cleanouts do little to actually solve the problem, as hoarders will quickly fill their home again.

It was sometimes distressing and unsettling to read the description of some homes they visited, and I honestly felt bad for the people struggling with hoarding to such a degree. Some of them desperately wanted help for what they couldn’t seem to control, others denied that anything was a problem! Their reasons for hanging onto or collecting stuff were so varied and different than what I had assumed might be. Much of it appears to be pathological in nature- so I’d hope that now, so many years later, progress has been made in treatment using medications as well as the therapy, assisted organization and cleanout, and so on. I keep turning my mind back to the reasons that people became hoarders: because they felt guilty wasting anything (so couldn’t throw anything away), because they felt an intimate connection to each object, because they felt the object held their memories- literally were afraid of forgetting things the items represented if they were discarded, because they felt important or loved when taking in animals (the animal hoarding chapter was hard to read, but brief), because they saw endless opportunities or knowledge that things held (think stashes of years and years’ worth of newspapers, magazines, etc). It’s kind of scary to read all this and recognize little bits of yourself or your family members in the behavior and rationale of hoarders. At what point does my personal library (currently 1,873 books) or puzzle collection (157) become too much? I chuckled when the authors mentioned that one hoarder had hundreds of books in his house – well, I actually have a few thousand! I start to feel it’s getting overwhelming when they stack up on the floor because I’m out of shelf space . . . and then I just want to build more shelves. But really I need to whittle down the TBR pile- and this book really gives me the impulse to do so, and to seriously clean my house, and to clear out stuff the kids don’t use anymore, and just keep going . . .

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
290 pages, 2010

More opinions:
Reading is My Superpower
Book’d Out
anyone else?

by Paula Cocozza

This is one of the most interesting, strange and beautifully written books I have read in a long time. I found it very enthralling and unsettling at the same time. It’s about a woman living in London, going through the aftermath of a broken relationship. Interactions with her neighbors, who have a new baby and the mother is struggling. With her ex- at first just re-playing conversations and arguments with him in her head, then actual encounters when she suddenly finds out he’s living nearby. And most of all, with a bold fox that appears in her backyard. The fox is wary at first but then becomes accustomed to her presence. She gradually becomes more aware of its comings and goings, looks forward to its appearance, tries to follow it through the strip of woods crammed between two neighborhoods. The more her relationships with people unravel, the stronger her feeling of closeness grows with the fox, along with an increasing sense of alarm as her neighbors obviously don’t like foxes around and wish to get rid of them. So one day she swings her door open wide and lets the fox step into her house . . .

Meanwhile her ex is also coming around more frequently, proffering help, wanting to make sure she’s okay- but she finds his presence distressing to say the least. And then there’s something strange that happens with the neighbor’s baby, and the reader starts to wonder if this woman is an unreliable narrator- some of the incidents are unlikely- is she perceiving them differently than everyone else? or imagining things entirely? I’m still not sure. You have to read between the lines a lot, where meaning slides around. It was hard for me to tell if the ex meant well, or was being subtly manipulative, for example. I don’t think the main character ever actually realized that her neighbor was suffering from postpartum depression and struggling with the new baby, it’s hard to see around all the difficulties that are just in front of her, that she surrounds herself with and then convinces it’s perfectly normal to not show up for work days in a row, neglect her personal hygiene, crawl around in the shrubbery looking for the fox’s den, tape up her mail slot in the front door when people knocking appear threatening, and on and on. I really loved how the writer’s words made me picture things so clearly, yet in such a unique way. And then there’s the segments written from the fox’s point of view- in a manner very different from any animal perspective I’ve ever read, and so aptly done.

I thought of Lady Into Fox and A Man in the Zoo by David Garnett while reading this one (there’s even a scene here where the main character imagines she’s in a zoo, but on the wrong side of the enclosure, looking out at people), and especially of The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God by Michael Ventura – a book that hasn’t come to mind in years. Due to the slightly surreal encounters with animals, the very precise, pinpointed and delicately descriptive language. But most especially I kept think of the film The Fox and The Child. I want to see that all over again now. Paula Cocozza has published another title, Speak to Me– how I’d like to read that one!

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
278 pages, 2017

by Wendy Mass

Ever since getting teased about it in third grade, Mia has hidden her special ability, afraid of being called weird or accused of lying- because she sees colors in association with numbers and letters, sometimes also with sounds and other stimuli. But eventually some things become overwhelmingly difficult- especially math, as the number/color association interferes with her ability to combine and rearrange number units logically. She finally tells her family the issue- at first her parents are disbelieving, then they take her to the doctor, then to a psychiatrist. She veers between feeling that there’s something wrong with her that needs fixing, and reveling in the realization that other people have the same sensations. Meeting others with synesthesia at a conference is eye-opening. Now she’s so thrilled with her ability she finds ways to deliberately stimulate it- at the cost of paying attention to those around her, focusing on schoolwork, etc. There has to be a balance, but it takes a tragedy to shock her into finding it.

The main character’s synesthesia isn’t the only part of the plot, although of course it is her main focus. There’s other things going on in the background. Her older sister comes home from California with a new interest in healing herbs, yoga, and other things of a New Age vibe. Her brother teases her about boys, there’s ongoing ups and downs with both her best friend and other more casual friends at school, struggles with school projects, and an ongoing thread of grief. When the book opens her grandfather has just died, and she believes that part of his soul resides in her cat named Mango. Mango himself has an ongoing health issues, and at the end Mai has to face loss yet again. Yes, SPOILER the cat dies. The one detail in the family life I found a bit strange was that her dad owned a helicopter. Sure it made the ending a bit dramatic, but couldn’t they just as well have been getting ready to desperately drive somewhere in the car? I just found the helicopter thing a bit overkill when it didn’t really seem to have a reason to be in the story. And the whole thing about the acupuncturist also baffled me. I can’t imagine any kid nowadays being able to so easily arrange that kind of thing behind their parents’ backs. The results were really spectacular, though! (And according to another reviewer, a real phenomenon).

This was a really interesting book. I don’t think I ever read one about someone with synesthesia before, and I really appreciated the descriptions of what it is like, the different ways people experience it, and how they can learn to handle it (making the sensations less distracting or overwhelming). The book was written quite a while ago (apparent to me by the family computer situation, prevalence of chat sites and slow email communication, using the landline to call your friend and having a family member pick up on the line from another room- ha! I remember those days) so I do wonder if treatment or understanding of the condition is different now.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
270 pages, 2003

More opinions:
Bookfoolery
Bookshelves of Doom
Books Lists Life
anyone else?

My Month of Madness

by Susannah Cahalan

Like A Stitch of Time, this book is about the author’s experience with a health issue that severely affected her brain. There are some similarities and some stark differences. In the prior book, the onset was very sudden (an aneurysm). In this case, the onset was gradual and confusing, at first Cahalan thought she just had the flu. Then she started having problems with motor skills, visual perception and emotional control- breaking into sobs over nothing or displaying extreme aggression and suffering from vivid paranoia. Her behavior become so erratic she was finally convinced to see doctors but got different answers: alcohol abuse withdrawl, side effects from medications, a mental illness such a schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Her family got her checked into a hospital when she started having seizures. She was nearly at the catatonic stage when a different doctor was assigned to her case and finally came up with the answer- a rare infection had attacked her brain tissue. The rest of the story is about her treatment and recovery.

Again like the prior book, she describes struggling with language afterwards, but didn’t do any therapy sessions and doesn’t go into nearly as much detail about how loss of language and articulation temporarily affected her life. Her recovery was complete enough that she was able to return to work and of course, write this memoir, in the hopes that it would help others who suffered from the same frightening illness. That’s the part that struck me most, after reading this book. Not the alarming symptoms and interesting information about the brain, but how very narrowly she avoided being put in an institution for the rest of her life, misdiagnosed with a mental illness. A lot of her symptoms very closely resembled schizophrenia, her inarticulate vocalizations and stiff body movements in later stages were just like those depicted in horror films about people being “possessed”. And why do those films invariably depict young women? well guess what, this disease tends to afflict women under 18. It is horrifyingly sad to think how many hundreds of people in the past probably had the same illness and were condemned as being possessed by demons or shut up in mental hospitals. Nowadays it’s treatable but still only if it gets recognized quickly enough- the testing was not at all cheap, author was so very lucky to have affluent parents who didn’t give up on her and insisted on more answers. I can’t stop wondering how many other mental afflictions are due to pathological causes that could be treated if we just knew more about them.

I didn’t quite enjoy this book as much as the last one, though I did read through it pretty quickly. It’s not as articulate and introspective. The writing is a lot more straightforward, which I don’t mind. I admit I had some moments of disbelief, probably colored by finding out that Cahalan is a reporter for a tabloid newspaper. However all the things I’ve looked up since finishing the book, sound quite true enough. There was one scene where I was thrown out of the narrative by an unlikely choice of words: someone was described as nibbling on her yougurt. It just seemed odd to me. I think of nibbling as something done with crunchy food. Very minor detail to get hung up on, but still it stuck with me.

Rating: 3/5
266 pages, 2012

the Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life

by Lauren Marks

The author was only twenty seven when she collapsed during a karaoke performance in a bar, due to a ruptered aneurysm. Most people don’t survive this but she did- and woke up in the hospital afterwards with aphasia. The stroke had affected her use of language- she could no longer find words easily, had difficulty understanding what people said to her, and initially it took hours for her to write a few sentences or read just one page in a book. All this happening to a student who loved reading and was a theater performer, must have been devastating. You’d think. But strangely, she describes feeling an immense sense of calm and quietness inside, during the first period of recovery. Because she could not easily call up words, her very throught process and memory was affected, she simply could not think about certain things. She had no great sense of loss, because she couldn’t remember clearly what she’d lost. She knew people around her were dear and familiar, but had no sense of history with them- family vacations, inside jokes, past arguments- all just gone from her mind. So not only was her functionality in daily life affected, but also her relationships. The memoir is about her gradual recovery of language, her thoughts on how language use (and lack of it) shaped her thoughts and outlook on life, and how things went with the people around her- family support, friends she felt she didn’t quite know anymore, her boyfriend. Not really knowing the person she used to be, trying to become the person she was now. And all the things she learned about brain function and aneurysms in her quest to understand what had happened from her. Her surprise and insights when she finally met other survivors with aphasia, how different all their experiences were. I really enjoyed this book and now have a few more to add to my list, that she mentioned in the text.

Similar read: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
362 pages, 2017

the Conversation That Could Save Your Life

by Pamela A. Popper and Glen Merzer

Yeah, I don’t know about this book. Kind of like the other one I pulled at random off a shelf browsing in the library, I thought it would be in general about healthy eating, but it seems to go to extremes. It is obvious not too far in that this book is written by two staunch vegans. They not only eschew eating any animal products, but no oils or nuts either. It’s promoting a strict no-dairy, no meat, very low-fat plant-only diet. And it goes on and on about how this will make your body so healthy you never get or miraculously recover from, a wide variety of diseases. One of the authors stated she hadn’t see a doctor in seventeen years. They are very negative about the medical establishment. Saying that tests for almost everything from mammograms to bone density scans are more harmful or useless than good. Saying that doctors don’t know anything about nutrition. Sharing a lot of sounds-to-good-to-be-true anecdotal stories about people with serious conditions who got better after going on this diet. Weird thing is that this book is one long transcribed conversation between the two authors. Personally I found that very easy to read, but it didn’t give enough detail or context with most things to satisfy me that I was reading facts. Funny thing is that when I was browsing before starting the book, the one page I flipped it open to at random, they were talking about people who have to avoid gluten. But that’s the only part of the book that talks about that at all. There’s some recipes. I copied a few down, just to try. Nothing wrong with adding more dishes featuring vegetables into my repertoire. I might come back and comment on here after I’ve attempted them.

Part of the book that was really off-putting were two final chapters, one all about how food industries are corrupt and FDA advice is bad and pharmecutical companies are bad, etc. Another that gets into politics. The authors just kind of lost me on all those points.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5
240 pages, 2013

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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