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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Awakenings

Awakenings

Oliver Sacks

In the Internet Age, paranoia runs rampant.  The wealth of self-service medical information available gives the average person incredibly broad abilities to diagnose — and mis-diagnose — illness.  Pick any possible symptom, run it through a search engine, and you can convince yourself that you have any number of life-threatening illnesses.  You can find a dozen different message boards to confirm your suspicions, and even self-medicate to a large extent thanks to all sorts of half-baked half-expert advice.

All of which makes it terrifying to read medical nonfiction in the Internet Age.  One of the effects of reading Awakenings is the realization of just how fragile a normal life can be.  One encephalitic infection, and you’re in a state hospital for the rest of your life, unable to do so much as walk across the room or write your own name.  Was that a twitch or a tremor?  Are my hands shaking because I’m developing Parkinson’s, or have I just had too much coffee?  Do I stutter more than I used to?  Who will visit me in the hospital?

Of course, that’s not really the story of Awakenings.  The stories in Awakenings are about individuals — individuals locked inside the cages of their own bodies for decades, released (if only partially and temporarily) by L-DOPA — and how they do or don’t cope with their imprisonment, release, and re-imprisonment.  Some accept it with grace; others cannot.  Some remain creative, vibrant humans; others go mad.  The stories that Sacks shares are not merely the stories of their illnesses, but of their humanity in the face of their illnesses.  They aren’t humans for whom the illness is some foreign body; their illness is their body, and an inseparable part of their humanity.  Awakenings, as a chapter in medical history, is very much about the impossibility of treating the disease without treating the person.  That will almost certainly be its legacy.

And I suppose modern medical practitioners would do well to keep that in mind in the current world of over-mis-informed “health care consumers”.  You have to treat the paranoia along with the symptom, I think.  Because while one might go away easily, the other will not.