The Downward Arrow
A therapist discovers what it's like to be a patient
BY FRANK DATTILIO
In my decades of sometimes tedious work as a cognitive therapist, I've encountered scores of people--some of them gravely ill or dying--who seemed immune to my suggestions that they embrace their difficulties and try thinking and behaving in a more hopeful and empowered way. But none of them was as challenging as the despairing and arrogant man I encountered one summer morning 10 years ago--me.
Out of the blue on a Monday just shy of my 44th birthday, I'd woken up, stroked my hand over the sheets, and realized that my fingertips were numb. At first I assumed I'd pinched a nerve or contracted some goofy circulation problem that I didn't have time to worry about. I got up and went to the office as usual to see my patients. The next day, I awoke to discover that the numbness and tingling had spread to my arms and legs--as though they'd fallen asleep and had pins and needles that couldn't be shaken away. On Wednesday, I got out of bed and fell flat on my face. Now I realized that something was seriously wrong. Not being one to waste time, I staggered up, somehow got myself to work, and went down the hall to my doctor's office. When the lab tests came back, my doctor told me that I had "an acute nonspecific polyneuritis," possibly caused by a viral infection, but he couldn't say much more than that. The hours went by and I continued to lose sensation. My balance grew more tenuous. By Friday, I could no longer walk without help and my wife had to drive me to the local emergency room.
After an examination, I was wheeled on a gurney up to the fifth floor and given the news: I had Guillain-Barre´ Syndrome--a term I'd eventually learn to say as smoothly as "Charles Boyer." I knew somewhere in my heart that anything named after a couple of dead Parisian neurologists couldn't be good, and it wasn't.
The facts were these: my body, for reasons still unknown, was manufacturing antibodies that were infiltrating and attacking the tissues surrounding my nerves. In essence, my immune system, perhaps in response to a virus, was manufacturing cells that were destroying my nervous system. The good news, I was told, was that a majority of people who contract Guillain-Barre´ recover most, if not all, of their functions. The bad news was that some didn't, and nobody could tell me how long I'd remain paralyzed, nor how much of my normal functioning I'd ever regain.
By then it was early evening. My entire body was paralyzed and I could feel only my head and chest. Orderlies moved my limbs around like blocks of wood. Even the tip of my tongue was numb. All my life I'd expected to be able to simply get up and walk without giving it a second thought. Now, that luxury was gone.
My neurologist told me that I might have to be placed on a ventilator should the intercostal muscles in my chest fail. If the virus traveled to my head (which I was sure it already had, given my numb tongue), I could become permanently paralyzed, blind, or unable to speak. All I could do was wait and see.
As I listened, I half-heartedly hoped my doctor would recant with "naaah . . . only kidding." But this was no joke. I remembered a movie scene in which a gladiator had said, "Death smiles at us all. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to smile back at it." I had sometimes given that kind of advice to my own clients. But trying to smile at my affliction was an insurmountable task. …