The Phoenix

Thursday, February 01, 2007

To Beg For Amputation

I read this article in The Guardian, and it shocked me. At first, I felt that "Susan Smith" was just a selfish woman. However, after reading about her life and why she wants her legs amputated, I realized that she has a real illness.

Science is not even close to figuring out why people suffer from what's being called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). I think before you can understand the biology and/or psychology behind this terrible sickness, you need to understand a sufferer's struggles.

Below are some exceprts from Susan Smith's article:

I was six when I first became aware of my desire to lose my legs. I don't remember what started it - there was no specific trigger. Most people want to change something about themselves, and the image I have of myself has always been one without legs.

As a teenager, in the privacy of my own home, I used to play by myself at being an amputee. I would pretend I had one leg, strapping the other one up behind me and wearing oversize trousers so there was no shape.

Two years ago, I told [my husband] that now was the time and I was going to remove my left leg. My first attempt was in March 2005. Of course I was scared of dying, but I had got to a point in my life where I could no longer fight it.

First I needed to freeze and kill the leg so that surgeons would amputate it afterwards. I ordered dry ic
e pellets. I put on layers of pantyhose, because you do not want it sticking to you, spread it in the back of the car and sat with my leg immersed in it for one hour. The pain was indescribable: it hurt so much I passed out a few times. I was scared, but more so of failure.

I had not damaged the leg enough to have it amputated in hospital, so the following September I made a second attempt, and this time I stayed in the dry ice for four hours. My husband drove me to hospital, but they refused to amputate. Incredibly, they said the wounds were superficial and that I would be walking within a few months.

I slowly recovered my strength back at home. But the leg became so infected that there was a danger of the bacteria getting into the bloodstream and killing me. After nine months of agony, I told my GP that if I didn't see someone fast, I would take off the leg myself. Within two days I had an appointment with a different surgeon.

The amputation, last June, went without a problem, and my left leg was removed from just above the knee. I felt better as soon as I came round.

I already feel more complete now that one leg is off. I have always been an outgoing kind of person, but my confidence is much higher now as my body is more like I want it to be.
Removing the next leg will not be any easier than the first; the pain will be horrendous. But I have no regrets about the path I have chosen. In fact, if I regret anything, it is that I didn't do this sooner. For the first time in my life, I can get on with being the real me.

Susan's experience carries the typical BIID symptoms. This seems to begin in childhood, around 5 or 6 years old. There are several theories as to the cause of BIID, but this is such a relatively new mental illness and modern medicine doesn't have all the answers. The three prevailing theories are:

1. A child sees an amputee and somehow, that transfers to the child's mind that this is the ideal body image.

2. A child sees the attention and sympathy an amputee receives and longs for that as well. This soon becomes a strong desire to become an amputee.

3. Finally, there's a some sort of short-circuit in the brain's cerebral cortex that's in control of a child's limbs.

There are no official treatments for BIID. A person with this illness will simply try to figure out a way to have their limbs removed. Some will beg a surgeon to do it, others will become so desperate like Susan, they hurt themselves so that a doctor will have no choice but to amputate.

But there's a personal liberty issue involved with this. Is the desire to amputate a limb much diffreent than any other form of self-mutilation like getting a tatoo or any body piercing? Many would suggest that it's a person's right to have an arm or leg amputated if that makes the person happy and feel complete.

Regardless, hopefully modern medicine can begin to unravel this disorder and provide more help to its sufferers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that amputees can feel phantom pains where their limbs used to be. The brain is a remarkable thing. Why can't someone's brain think their limb doesn't belong where it currently is?

I had seen this on TV already. I know some have been helped with therapy. But I think it's a brain disorder, not a mental one. Although I do think that therapy can help these people control their terrible, terrible urges.

2/01/2007 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Bruce said...

I just cannot wrap my brain around this. Maybe it's because I've never had four normal, healthy limbs because of my cerebral palsy. I'd give anything to be "normal" physically.

2/01/2007 11:21 AM  
Blogger Curare_Z said...

What I want to know is how her husband feels about all of this. I mean, he basically condoned her hurting herself in order to have the leg amputated. I'd love to hear his side of the story....

2/01/2007 12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seriously, I never desired to have any of my limbs removed but I used to long for four arms.

2/01/2007 1:18 PM  
Blogger vani said...

that is just crazy!

2/01/2007 1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They did an episode on Nip/Tuck about this. It is very fascinating. I mean people have the right to make their own choices and if it is not going to harm anyone else then I guess they should have that right. But it is just weird.

2/01/2007 1:52 PM  
Blogger The Phoenix said...

brianalt, those phantom pains show how the brain and body is connected alright. I'm going to do a post on "alien hand syndrome" next, actually.

bruce, From your perspective, I see how such a desire would seem unfathomable. Heck, from anybody's perspective it feels like that.

curare, The full article discusses it briefly. The husband had no idea for many years. This isn't uncommon. The sick person can hide it indefinitely.

tim, I want a tail.

vani, I agree. It's a real mental illness.

mr. shife, I heard about that episode. I just wonder where that line is, when you talk about people mutilating their own bodies and personal liberties. I guess if you want to hack your legs off, you have the right to do it. Just don't go after my legs.

2/01/2007 2:29 PM  
Anonymous delmer said...

Oh man ...

2/01/2007 3:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wutt? Crazy ppl!


2/01/2007 7:36 PM  
Blogger Mimi said...

Wow. I do not get this one. I think people would see the attention etc an amputee gets is so not worth it.

The only thing that comes to mind (and this sounds even cookier than the disorder itself) is that in a past life they were amputees and got so used to living that way that the feeling kind of carried on into the next lifetime.

2/01/2007 9:11 PM  
Blogger Big Pissy said...

I've heard about this before....still shocks me, though.

I guess this is yet another example of how desperate mental illness and/or disorders can make a person...

2/01/2007 10:16 PM  
Blogger goldennib said...

I guess this really isn't any different than someone who has multiple plastic surguries.

I remember as a teenager wishing I had a limp because then people would feel sorry for me.

2/02/2007 6:17 AM  
Blogger kim said...

I'd heard about this before. Prolly on something educational, like CSI. I wonder how widespread this is. But man I feel for her husband. I can't imagine how I'd feel if my husband told me one day that he needed to do this to himself.

2/02/2007 7:10 AM  
Blogger BrianAlt said...

How come my post says anonymous now? (It's the first one.)

2/02/2007 7:34 AM  
Blogger Stacy The Peanut Queen said...

I heard about that on the radio the other day. I just COULD NOT believe it. The PK would probably try and have me locked up if I were to tell hm..."Honey, I think I want my leg amputated."

Hell, I'm not very graceful with TWO legs...I'd be a complete mess with just one!

2/02/2007 7:50 AM  
Blogger Amie said...

I have heard about this before. I understand it is an actual illness but I think it is sick. Sick and disgusting. I guess I just think that people don't realize what they have. Imagine someone who has lost limbs, they would probably do anything to have them back... It is insane to want to give them away willingly.

2/02/2007 9:06 AM  
Blogger Amie said...

I would be curious to know about her dreams. Before the amputation when she was asleep did she dream of being an amputee? Does she now dream of having the leg? Someone who I know who is confined to a wheelchair still dreams he can walk. I'm not sure why, but I'd be curious to know how these people see themselves when they are dreaming.

2/02/2007 9:08 AM  
Blogger David Amulet said...

It must be an awful feeling to "know" that your limbs don't belong there. The constant discomfort of having limbs, the torture of thinking the only way out is to cut them off ... I'm sure it's torture.

I'd give an arm and a leg not to feel like that.

-- david

2/02/2007 9:13 AM  
Anonymous the amoeba said...

There have been some scholarly papers published on this subject. A link to them is here.

The difficulty in studying anything neurological (there's no difference between "brain" and "mental" disorders) is that, in so many cases, it's not known what's normal. Not too many folks have a clue how it is we recognize any part of our bodies as "ours". Tough to turn on a switch when you don't know where it is.

2/02/2007 9:28 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

It's hard for most people to understand her desires, but it's not so different from other people who alter their bodies with surgery, and society seems pretty accepting of that.

2/02/2007 11:08 AM  
Blogger angel, jr. said...

I saw a segment of a show about this. I don't know how to comment about this.

2/02/2007 11:22 AM  
Blogger KC said...

I'm not sure how to respond to this one. What a terrible problem to have. I feel sorry for her and am sickened by her at the same time. I need to feel more compassion. I'll work on it.

2/02/2007 1:28 PM  
Anonymous stephanie said...

Read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

2/02/2007 2:44 PM  
Anonymous vida said...

wow, the mental holes we can fall in. i'd never heard of this, but not so far off from wanting to change your sex. they also feel it so strnogly. anyhow, they are sick, and mental illnesses are the most difficult to treat/understand.
if she had really gone through some real challenge in her life do u think she'd still be this messed up? it sounds as some weakness in her mind also. maybe just lack of meaning or something to do with her life?

i believe in freedom, but to allow someone to do something like this might wrong, what if they regret it for the rest of their lives? i would go any distance to try and heal her mind first. regressions, hypnotists, even extreme measures such as putting her in some real challenge, something like the movie the game, if i was her spouse i would really do anything before letting cut her leg. very tough situation.

2/02/2007 4:10 PM  
Anonymous the weirdgirl said...

I think there is a BIG difference between this and plastic surgery in our society, primarily because the government partially supports those who are disabled. If she maims herself does she now qualify for SSI? If someone else purposely hurts themselves so they can collect workman's comp or SSI don't we consider that fraud?

I know there is a difference between someone trying to work the system and this, a verifiable mental illness. But i think there is also a difference between one woman wanting a boob job and another one wanting her legs cut off, both from a financial perspective and a moral one. We have a lot of laws around to protect people from self-destructive behavior, i.e. drug and alcohol laws, suicide being illegal, etc. So what and what not do we allow?

2/02/2007 7:09 PM  
Blogger Jamie Dawn said...

I saw a TV special of this disorder a couple of years ago. It was filmed in Britain. People has gone so far as to lay on railroad tracks to have a train cut off a limb. I had never heard of such a thing before I saw this show. I'm still shocked by it.
I think this has a similar connection to people who want a sex change. They see themselves as something they currently are not and want surgery to make them fit the image they have in their mind. Once they've had a sex change, they say they are relieved to be who and what they feel they should be. That is what this lady said, and she is longing for the second leg to be removed in order for her to feel she is in the body she desires.

I read Bruce's comment about his desire for four normal limbs, and it makes my heart break to know that there are people with this disorder who want to toss their normal limbs away.

You added a new look to your page.
It looks great!

2/02/2007 10:54 PM  
Blogger White Forest said...

what ??

ya crazy ?

2/03/2007 12:34 PM  
Blogger Phats said...

My great grandma had her leg amputated, but it was due to cancer.

2/03/2007 11:19 PM  
Blogger Grafs said...

I'm sorry to bring it up this way, but a person does not have a right to destroy their body if it means that the rest of us will have to financially support him/her for the rest of all time as a result.

2/04/2007 11:06 AM  
Blogger DaBich said...

Blogger ate my comment again...
This is wrong. People who are sick should get HELP, not mutilated. Even if they "want" it.

2/05/2007 3:38 AM  
Blogger phred said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/05/2007 5:36 AM  
Blogger goldennib said...

I love the new look.

2/05/2007 9:58 AM  
Blogger BrianAlt said...

Agree about the new look. Where did you get wallpaper of baseball cards with scientists on it? Brilliant!

Reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where the philosophers are playing soccer.

2/05/2007 10:09 AM  
Blogger The Phoenix said...

The scientist cards are actually individually styled after a real baseball card.

I'll have to get the link where I found these.

2/07/2007 10:28 AM  

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Welcome to the blog that aims to examine the lighter side of science. From the paranormal to wacky inventions, to strange mysteries and goofy experiments, I cover it all. Thanks for stoping by science is always stranger than fiction


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