Context and culture matter

I found this Mind Hacks post (Seized by voodoo spirits) interesting on several levels. As someone who has epilepsy--though, fingers crossed, my seizures will remain in the past tense--I relate very much to the search for a "cause." Were my seizures because of the eating disorder? Because of medication? Something else? My seizures began suddenly and with absolutely no warning, coming and going seemingly at random.* Both my family and I were spooked and frightened.

So I read the report of the Haitian woman attributing her epilepsy to spirit possession with no small amount of compassion. And yet I scoffed a bit. As a lifelong skeptic (a cynic when I'm in a bad mood), I find the idea of spirit possession almost laughable. It's kind of like seeing the Virgin Mary in your toast- I mean, the trinity isn't the Father, the Son, and the Holy Toast, amen.

The exact logic and reasoning behind this woman's attributions aren't exactly the point of this post. What got me thinking was the last few lines written by Vaughan:

The cases are interesting as they highlight how easily the 'possession' theory fits with the unpredictable course of epilepsy and its effects when it seems to briefly 'take over' the body and mind of the affected person.

It raises the question of how much observations of epilepsy, a condition that affects approximately 1% of the population, have contributed to the idea of possession throughout the world.

Ideas of epilepsy-as-demon-possession were common in Europe in the Middle Ages and persisted into the nineteenth century. And it made some amount of sense. Human beings like to know "why." We just do. If we can't find an actual reason why rain falls and the sun rises and little Jimmy occasionally falls to the ground and starts twitching, we'll grab ahold of whatever's handy to try and explain it.

This kind of explanation is also common in eating disorders (you didn't really think I wouldn't mention EDs, did you?). When I read stories like this, that are subtitled "Anorexia teenager nearly died to look like Posh Spice Victoria Beckham," I realize how much culture makes a difference in how we interpret an illness.

I don't think this girl is "wrong," per se, because I'm not her and I don't know everything that motivated her. Demons could cause epilepsy- I can't say for sure that they don't, but I can say that there isn't any evidence of this. The same for an anorexic wanting to look like Posh Spice. It's her experience. It's valid. And it does make some amount of sense.

Just as the Haitian woman's beliefs affected her treatment (local medicine man vs. medication), I think our interpretations of eating disorders affect how they are treated. How much control over his/her own behaviors does the sufferer have? What should be the priority- stopping symptoms or more traditional psychotherapy? What causes eating disorders? What is the effect of culture? What about biology?

These are good questions to be answered. Although I have precious few answers, I do know this: EDs are far more complex than a Spice Girl Complex.

*Well, it didn't seem very random at the time as they came and went at about five month intervals, just short of the six month clean slate I needed to get my driver's licence back. Sigh. It does help explain my near-pristine driving record, however.

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Lisa and Jim said...

Another really interesting look at epilepsy in cultural context is a book titled The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Ann Fadiman. It follows a Hmong family's journey through American healthcare when their young daughter is diagnosed with epilepsy. It also impresses people when you watch Gran Turino and know more about the Hmong than your friends.

Carrie Arnold said...

I've had that book on my "to read" list for quite some time, now.

And I've also been meaning to watch Gran Torino- it was shot just a few blocks from where my mom grew up. Then again, so was 8 Mile!

Anonymous said...

Great post!
treating some condition without identifying the cause is allways less effective than otherwise. I don't know much about epilepsia, even in medical circles is this illness somehow "demonic", unpredictable and traditional at the same time. And like anorexia many types of epilepsias are even symptoms of something underlying than clearly defined condition, so there is no universal treatment. ANd I think it is good. Sure, the Spice Girl Complex is very schematic, but you're right - the patient's subjective and honest interpetation (though influenced by the illness) is big part of "truth" and they shouldn' t be underestimated. (I know some unique cases of eating disordeed girls for whom some really "unmedical" and rather voodooist-ish interpretations of eds and bizzare tretment methods worked really well.)

I hope your seizures stay in past tense forever and that in the future we will able to undestand both epilepsia and ed better. x

Shay said...

Great post... I just started following your blog and I really love/can relate to alot of your writing. I think it is so unfortunate how EDs are looked down upon with such stigma as if they are not a serious medical issue. Just as cancer used to be hush hush as if it were shameful, now depression, anxiety, and eating disorders are treated the same. In turn I think so many young girls would benefit from public education about these diseases so they would not be afraid to speak up and ask for help for fear of being judged.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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