It’s All In Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness – Suzanne O’Sullivan

Published September 22, 2018 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

‘Even if medical tests cannot explain your pain or tiredness or disability, it does not lessen your suffering. The pain of medically unexplained illness is every bit as real as any other and, if anything, is multiplied by the lack of understanding.

Most of us accept the way our heart flutters when we set eyes on the one we secretly admire, or the sweat on our brow as we start the presentation we do not want to give. But few of us are fully aware of how dramatic our body’s reactions to emotions can sometimes be.

Take Pauline, who first became ill when she was fifteen. What seemed at first to be a urinary infection became joint pain, then food intolerances, then life-threatening appendicitis. And then one day, after a routine operation, Pauline lost all the strength in her legs. Shortly after that her convulsions started. But Pauline’s tests are normal; her symptoms seem to have no physical cause whatsoever.

Pauline may be an extreme case, but she is by no means alone. As many as a third of men and women visiting their GP have symptoms that are medically unexplained. In most, an emotional root is suspected and yet, when it comes to a diagnosis, this is the very last thing we want to hear, and the last thing doctors want to say.

In It’s All in Your Head consultant neurologist Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan takes us on a journey through the very real world of psychosomatic illness. She takes us from the extreme — from paralysis, seizures and blindness — to more everyday problems such as tiredness and pain. Meeting her patients, she encourages us to look deep inside the human condition. There we find the secrets we are all capable of keeping from ourselves, and our age-old failure to credit the intimate and extraordinary connection between mind and body.

What did I think?:

Oh, the thoughts. Oh, the feelings. Let me try and start at the beginning and I’m hoping my words make some sort of coherent sense. If not, I apologise. I have a couple of non fiction shelves at home (which you’ll see in due course if you enjoy my Shelfie by Shelfie book tag), and never seem to get round to reading them until this year, I began a new venture where I read three books at once – a current “main” read, a non-fiction read and a re-read of an old favourite. I’ve been eagerly anticipating many of my non-fiction reads, well….apart from this one. Let me explain. I’m a sucker for an interesting title, cover and synopsis and I don’t shy away from potentially controversial subject matters if it means I can educate myself about particular topics but I really wasn’t sure whether this book might hit a little too close to home, even for me.

Neurologist and author, Suzanne O’Sullivan who won The Wellcome Trust Prize in 2016 with It’s All In Your Head.

If you’ve been following me for a while now, you might have seen in a previous review/post that I’ve been struggling for the past eight years with a chronic illness. Basically, my diagnosis is fibromyalgia with chronic fatigue syndrome and hypermobility. It’s got to the point in my life now where I’m managing to cope really well with it. I still have my bad days of course, and at the end of the week, it’s still a mission to keep myself standing upright but I’m absolutely determined  to stay positive and that it’s not going to take my life away from me. This is why I still continue to work full-time, even if it is quite a struggle at times, I have to be honest. If you want to read more about my story, I wrote a personal post HERE.

As I was FINALLY picking up this book, I felt nervous and excited in equal measure. I didn’t know whether this book was going to make me feel horribly angry or completely vindicated about my own chronic health issues. I posted a picture of the book on Instagram and had some amazing and very interesting responses, many of whom were reacting the same way as I did when I first saw that title. Of course, a title like It’s All In Your Head seems to have been deliberately chosen to be controversial and raise a few hackles and, job done, my hackles were well and truly primed. Nobody with chronic illness likes to be told “it’s all in your head,” especially considering the amount of pain, suffering, physical and emotional turmoil we go through on a daily basis. There is literally nothing else my doctor can do for me and how to manage my pain myself has been one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn.

However, as I soon came to realise as I made my way through this fascinating and insightful book is that we don’t have to take that title literally and assume the author is saying something she is clearly not. As I’ve learned myself through my chronic illness journey, sadly a lot of my condition is psychological but a) that does not mean I’m going crazy, b) that does NOT mean I’m imagining it, c) my pain IS real and will probably always be there and d) I have to find the best way to cope with it (with the help and support of my loved ones) that will mean I have a fulfilling and enjoyable life. The author does briefly touch on illnesses like fibromyalgia and like she confirms, there is no definitive test for diagnosing it which makes it hard for both the patient and the doctor to ensure that the treatment offered is correct. Obviously more research desperately needs to be done and is ongoing but various studies have shown that although the pain is felt physically in different regions of the body, one theory is that the actual problem may lie in the pain receptors of the brain. In this sense, when you take the phrase “it’s all in your head,” might not mean what I initially assumed it to mean when I looked at the cover of the book and was instantly offended!

In this book, O’Sullivan follows a number of different patients, all with medically unexplained symptoms ranging from tiredness and pain to numbness, paralysis and even violent seizures and when nothing is discovered in blood tests, scans etc, suggests that there may be an emotional connection to the terrifying (and often debilitating) symptoms they are experiencing. She explores some intriguing ideas, including the age-old question – when did it become such a stigma to be psychologically unwell? As a society, we have an undeniable determination to pin everything down with physical evidence of malaise, only accepting cold, hard figures and scientific facts to prove that we are genuinely unwell. However, the individuals she talks about are truly exhibiting physical signs of illness and even if there isn’t a test yet that can decipher exactly what’s going on, O’Sullivan is simply suggesting all possible avenues, even psychiatric ones should be explored so that the patient can get the most appropriate, effective and individual treatment for them alone.

I’m so glad I read this book. Not only was it an absorbing and informative read but personally, I felt like it made me look at my own health problems in a whole new light. I came to this book determined to be angry with it and sceptical of the author’s own thoughts and feelings. However, at the end I felt slightly ashamed when I realised that they were perfectly sound and sensitive, particularly in her reactions to people who are genuinely suffering. Of course there are always going to be “those” people who are attempting to cheat the system and fake illness which is a real shame for those of us who are in very real pain and torment but I loved that O’Sullivan takes each one of her patient’s ailments seriously and compassionately, ensuring all the relevant boxes are ticked before suggesting that there might be an alternative explanation for their symptoms.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

It’s All In Your Head: True Stories Of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan was the forty-sixth book in my quest to conquer Mount Everest in the Mount TBR Challenge 2018!

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21 comments on “It’s All In Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness – Suzanne O’Sullivan

  • Lovely, heartfelt review, Beth. ♥️ I did not know about your chronic illness, and even though we are friends far apart, with all you do for your blog and others, your busy work life, etc., and you are always upbeat and loving attitude, I am even more in awe of you. This book really surprised you, and I loved that. How wonderful that the author has the same compassionate heart you do! Xoxo

    • 😊😊😊😌😌😌 so sorry for the delay in responding Jen but I was just overwhelmed by your lovely comment and needed time to think about what I wanted so say. Your kind words and support even if it’s from afar mean the world to me and makes me feel so much happier and positive in myself so that the bad times are much more bearable. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart. 😍😘 xx

  • This sounds interesting, and thanks for sharing your personal story too. I’ve been having a lot of symptoms for a while now, the worst being pains and weakness all over, but nothing was found to be wrong (the doctor suggested it was due to recovering from 2 pregnancies close together). So I’ve been wondering if that’s all in my head….

    • If you’ve been having symptoms for a while I would say definitely NOT. Is there another doctor you can get a second opinion from? They need to do bloods first to rule out some stuff but keep pushing them for an answer, especially if you’re feeling so rubbish ☹️ Finding a sympathetic doctor was the best thing for me and I really hope you find someone who takes your symptoms seriously and does something about it. 😘😘😘

  • I hadn’t heard of this one but it’s timely given all the doctors who told me that over the last three years in particular. Luckily I had two doctors who didn’t give up on me. So I will certainly be reading this one. And I am in awe of yer strengths and fortitude in yer own struggle. Arrr!
    x The Captain

  • What a fantastic review, ESPECIALLY given that it’s informed by your own experiences – hats off to you, doll, really great work ❤ I've always hated the phrase "it's all in your head", mostly because ALL pain and discomfort is experiential, the result of a specific set of neurons firing in specific ways in the brain – the pain you experience when you break your leg falling off a roof is just as much "in your head" as pain experienced without a clear, linear, physical cause. I can understand why she chose the book title – it's certainly a phrase with which we're all familiar and it evokes strong feelings, one way or the other – and it sounds like she manages to turn it into a wry knowing wink at the readership, more so than using its colloquial meaning as a dig, which is great. I'd be really interested to give this one a read; it's been years since I studied psychology at uni, and I feel like my knowledge on these subjects is beyond rusty. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!! ❤

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment. You’re totally right. The way we all experience pain IS all in our head because that’s the way our brain communicates to us that we are in pain! That statement though has been taken to mean something terrible by so many people (including myself!) and I just wanted to write this review to reassure people that the author isn’t meaning anything derogatory at all. 😊

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