by Patricia Furstenberg
Medical Symptoms named after literary characters sound a bit like what was first, the egg or the hen? Indeed. Fairy tales may be full of charm and enchantment but they certainly provide valuable lessons. Identifying oneself with heroes from literary works is a healthy stage in one’s childhood as children’s imagination is one of the ways in which Mother Nature protects them from the harsh realities of daily life.
The tricky part arises when adults find themselves tied up to literature, whether they like it or not, as several physical and mental disorders are named after literary characters. Here’s a look at five of them:
- Sleeping Beauty Syndrome
This classic fairy tale, first told by Charles Perrault (17th century), retold by the Brothers Grimm (18th century) and made popular by Disney, is much loved by one generation after the other. The medical condition is also known as Rip Van Winkle Syndrome, after the title of a short story written by Washington Irving (19th century).
Without even going into the symbolism hidden inside this story and leaving aside the medical and hygienic implications of a human body asleep for 100 years, let’s just look into the neurological syndrome named after it. Also known as the Kleine-Levin syndrome (KLS), named after the medical doctors to have first mentioned and studied it, its first known case was reported in 1862.
This condition is characterised by frequent episodes of hypersomnia and behavioural disturbances. Individual episodes last more than a week, but less than a month. A normal lifestyle is out of the question as these patients tend to be bedridden. Patients experience approximately 20 recurrent episodes during more than a decade. Unlike the fairy tale that borrowed its name, the condition seems to affect predominantly male patients (68 percent) worldwide. It is a very rare disease, occurring one in a million. The onset of the condition seems to follow a viral infection. There is no known cure yet.
2. Munchausen Syndrome
One of my favourite stories as a child was that of The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe (1785), based on the true stories of a real baron.
The medical condition itself has nothing to do with the social satire depicted in the fairy tale, but rather with a desperate call for sympathy. The patients suffering from Munchausen Syndrome are not sick, but fake the symptoms in front of family and doctors, often secretly injuring themselves to maintain the illusion of illness. The Munchausen Syndrome is a mental disorder caused by childhood trauma, poor self-esteem, emotional or personal disorders. More common in men than women, it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics because lying is very common with this illness.
3. Dorian Gray Syndrome (DGS)
This medical condition is named after the classical story by Oscar Wilde in which the main character sells his soul to keep his youthful appearance and beauty until the very last moment of his life. The patient suffering from this condition will be overly preoccupied with keeping his/her young look and a “perfect” appearance.
Dysmorphophobia, or excessive dislike of a part of one’s body, will often manifest, therefore these patients will abuse cosmetic surgery to the point where depression sets in. In addition, they will often abuse weight-loss products, mood enhancers and even their gym membership card. A sufferer of DGS shouldn’t be taken lightly. Although a lack of self-esteem or a narcissistic personality might be the cause, the syndrome itself often conducts to physical disorders as well as causing social and mental health issues (depression, even suicide).
4. Othello Syndrome
Named after the main character in the Shakespeare tragedy ‘Othello”, the patient affected by this malady lives with the constant obsession that their life partner is cheating on them. Psychiatrists John Todd and Kenneth Dewhurst were the first to name and study this mental disorder in 1955.
Within limits, jealousy is a normal human feeling. But when it leads to repeated interrogations of one’s partner, searches for nonexistent evidence, stalking, and even violence, it becomes a “dangerous form of psychosis” (Todd).
The Othello Syndrome is believed to be caused by a stroke, a tumour, or some other injury, especially to the right frontal lobe but also by substance abuse like dopamine prescribed in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Alcoholism and cocaine abuse can also lead to the onset of Othello Syndrome. Not to be taken lightly, this syndrome can affect both men and women and it can lead to disruption of marriage, homicide or suicide.
5. Peter Pan Syndrome
Named after the main character in the book with the same name by Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie, it was first made popular by Dr Dan Kiley in 1983. This syndrome defines men who refuse to act like grown-ups and assume responsibilities. They prefer to live in a juvenile world, are enthusiastic and like to have fun, but never settle down in a relationship because they dislike restrictions. They lack decision-making skills and the ability to assume responsibilities. To disguise this, they act overconfident and arrogant. Women found in the same situation are affected by the Wendy Syndrome.
These people, although having developed intellectually and having above average IQs, have not developed emotionally past adolescence. The main cause is, probably, a lack of affection during childhood. With the aid of psychotherapy, these people can learn to overcome their fears, to assume responsibilities and lead a fulfilled, grown-up life. However, this is not a mental disorder. The Peter Pan Syndrome is closely linked to Carl Jung’s theory of “Puer Aeternus” (eternal boy).
A similar syndrome is the Huckleberry Finn Syndrome, named after the main character in the Mark Twain novel. Developing in children due to a feeling of being rejected by their parents, feeling inferior in school or due to depression, it seems to be a defence mechanism. It manifests in a desire to do anything but go to school; these children will waste their time on the streets or playing computer games. Moving into the grown-up stage of life, these children might be at risk of frequent job changing and absenteeism.
Initially written and published in the Huffington Post UK on 28 June 2017