The signs of an ever-approaching Halloween are everywhere. Stores are packed with all sorts of candy, kids and adults alike are picking out costumes, and our televisions are airing classics on various levels of scary, from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown to the absolutely spine-chilling The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. I never watched those last two–didn’t have to. The previews were more than enough, thanks very much.
I’ve never enjoyed being scared. But I do love to be intrigued, and sometimes, a dash of fright comes with that. For example, as an armchair psychologist, I sometimes like to delve into what we call “abnormal psychology.” This involves mental illness and rare disorders, among other phenomena. Just yesterday, I caught an hour-long documentary dedicated to four rare psychological/psychiatric disorders, entitled Broken Minds. The featured disorders included a condition in which vision is psychologically affected (Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, where the person feels objects around him or her are perpetually distorted), Cotard Syndrome (a condition in which the person believes he or she is fading from existence or even dead), and a condition in which people literally lose years of their lives from amnesia, without ever experiencing amnesia-inducing trauma.
All these conditions are both intriguing and scary, in a “What would I do if this were me’ sort of way. But the one that intrigued me most is called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). I had never heard of it to that point. Basically, it is a condition in which a person believes that one of his or her four main limbs does not belong to them. According to biid.org, it is almost as if the limb is “alien.” Therefore, the person doesn’t want it. He or she believes that in order to feel “whole” or “right,” the offending limb must be removed. Broken Minds provides the profile of a physician, Robert D., who believed this about his left leg. Since the age of seven, he had believed he was meant to be a left-leg amputee. After a long comprehensive psychological evaluation, plus years of thought and meditation, Robert concluded he must have his leg amputated to feel whole. Unfortunately, as with most, if not all, cases of BIID, Robert’s limb was healthy. No doctor in the U.S. would, or even legally could, perform an amputation without a valid medical reason. Robert had to travel to the Third World to have the leg removed.
When I looked up BIID on biid.org, I also found that even though most people with this condition desire to be amputees, the disorder can “extend to a desire to be blind, deaf, or [have] any other disability.” Some people will purposely injure themselves so they medically need an amputation. I don’t know what one does if his or her BIID results in a desire to be blind or deaf, or have another disability. But the whole phenomenon of this disorder made me think of a host of new things. The first thought that occurred to me was: Wow. In a society that shuns and marginalizes people with disabilities as “abnormal” or “broken,” there are people who actually want disabilities! Furthermore, they’ll go to great, self-injuring lengths to obtain them.
After the “wow” factor wore off–after all, these people seemed to think in a radically different way than most of us–I had to deal with other thoughts. Thoughts such as, Well, if I personally believe disability is natural, and want other people to see it as such, should I applaud those with BIID? Should I encourage the mental health community to leave these people alone, because they see disability as not only normal, but desirable? This turned into, No, wait a minute. This is different. The people with BIID don’t have disabilities in a “natural” way–they weren’t born with them, nor did they acquire them in ways that might “naturally” lead to disability, such as losing a limb, an appendage, or a sense in combat. These people hurt themselves, on purpose, to get what they want, and isn’t that selfish?
Then I thought of how my stance on the BIID issue could affect my stance on other issues. For example, as a Christian, I love homosexuals and feel compassion for them, as well as anyone else who has conflict with sexual or gender identity. But my faith will not allow me to condone LGBT sexual behavior. So, I wondered, would it make me a hypocrite to “condone” BIID, just because I am a woman with a disability? And, if disability is a civil rights issue, which I also believe, what’s so different about wanting a disability from say, wanting a different skin color? Wanting to convert to a new faith? Even wanting a new gender identity–because there are those who do trample on rights of the LGBT community–the rights to live in dignity, without fear of being abused, and the right to live in society without having the LGBT label define them as people.
As you can tell, this BIID question had my brain in a knot. On the one hand, I so wanted to condone the actions of the people who have it, because as I said, they view disability as desirable, not just normal. But on the other, we don’t always get what we want, and sometimes, having what we want can be harmful for us. There’s the rub, as Hamlet would say (another Halloween nod, since the Danish prince’s troubles began with seeing his father’s ghost).
So, what conclusions did I come to? What conclusions can the community of people with disabilities come to? What can we learn from this? I’m going to share with you, but as one of my favorite Bible teachers, Beth Moore, says, please write my opinions down in pencil, not permanent ink. Meaning, these are opinions, not truths set in stone. Here we go:
- BIID is a psychological/psychiatric disorder. Therefore, in its own way, BIID is its own kind of disability. Remember, the person with BIID does not come by disability by “natural” means. The fact that they would choose to put their bodies and health at risk qualifies BIID as a psychological disability, like OCD or bipolar disorder, that can benefit from treatment so the person can cope with the desire to have a disability.
- The person with BIID, just like anybody else with a disability of any kind, deserves to be treated with respect. They should be defined as a person, not as a label. They should receive treatment in a “natural” form–that is, they shouldn’t be forced to keep their disorder secret because others would shame them. They shouldn’t be consigned to mental facilities unless they are a violent danger to themselves or others (i.e., trying to run themselves over with vehicles, trying to gouge eyes out, whatever). Even then, I don’t believe these people should be institutionalized permanently, shut away from society. Why? Because we usually don’t do that to people with other disorders and disabilities! The fact that the person with BIID will hurt him or herself to obtain a disability is not strictly natural. The fact that this person has a disability, or even desires one, can be called natural.
- The idea that someone would want a disability is not “insane.” At least, it shouldn’t be. The mainstream culture would look at someone with BIID and say, “That’s insane,” because they see how amputees and people with other disabilities often live. Their lives are monitored, they are shut out from activities they want to do, they are seen as “other,” or pitiable–who wants that? Nobody–but that says less about the person with BIID than it does about disability and how we view it. If we could view disability as natural, maybe we would stop viewing the desire for one as slightly, or even wholly, insane. See the rest of the blog for details. (Note: sometimes the desire for a disability can come from other psychological issues, such as a belief that having a disability would result in love and care from family or other loved ones. In that case, the person with BIID needs even more compassion and understanding, and perhaps a different “angle” of treatment).
- People with BIID can teach us about disability in a new way. As I said, someone who desires a disability thinks much differently than the mainstream culture does, and that can be a good thing. I believe people with this condition can teach us a lot–the things detailed in #3, for instance. But they can also teach us that behind every disability is a person, reaching out for not only our help, but also our friendship, acceptance, or respect.
People with BIID, other disorders, and other disabilities are all around us, saying, “Please see behind this mask. Don’t be scared of me.” This Halloween, instead of running scared, let’s invite people with all kinds of disabilities to the party.