Books · Illness · Reading · Uncategorized

Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s All In Your Head, Stories From the Frontline of Psychosomatic Illness – Review


This book was an impulse buy for me. I was wandering the isles in my favourite bookstore Waterstones, killing time before I had to leave to catch my next bus to university. I don’t know what made me pick it up; I’d found myself in the psychology section, absent-mindedly running my fingertips over the hand-picked books that are laid out on the tables. The front cover intrigued me, so I picked it up and read the back. What I had just read was a little relatable to me in the illnesses I’ve experienced, and it’s something I’ve never seen in a book. Before I knew it, I had flipped open the book to the first chapter and had started reading, unaware I was still in a bookstore.

In the first chapter she introduces us to a few disorders, one of them being psychosomatic disorders, which she defines as ‘conditions in which a person suffers from significant physical symptoms – causing real distress and disability – out of proportion to that which can be explained by medical tests or physical examination.’ She explains how they have no rules and can affect any part of the body. This is the basis for this book.

Each chapter in the book are named after one of O’Sullivan’s patients (under different names for confidentiality reasons of course), and they each start off detailing those patients story and history, why they have been referred to Doctor O’Sullivan. Pauline’s story was the first in the book, and it was the one I related to the most. She was struck down with one illness and problem one after the other, and it began to negatively impact her social and academic life. Boy did that seem familiar!

Coming towards the end of the book,  was Rachel’s chapter, where IBS is very briefly talked about. O’Sullivan describes it as ‘poorly understood’, which I do agree with, because whilst I myself was in the process of being diagnosed with it, my doctors couldn’t give me proper answers for it and even seemed unsure of it. My IBS is more triggered off by certain foods, but when I do get particularly stressed or anxious that can also trigger it off, making it psychosomatic, and that is something I don’t have a problem with, unlike some of the patients talked about in the book.

Overall, this book started off strong for me, but the more I read, the more it lost me along the way.  I was intrigued, and I think that’s because I went out of my comfort zone with this book. As well as talking about her patients, she talks about the history of certain illnesses, and certain psychologists and scientists, but it doesn’t really flow that well for me. At parts when she switches from patient to history in a snap, it get’s a little clunky in my personal opinion. When she does go off on the long, historical tangents and comes back to the patient, I found myself not even remembering anything to do with the patient that the chapter was supposed to be about. But that can also be because of the kind of book it is, so I can’t really judge the author on it.  Another thing that didn’t really sit with me was the introduction of several other different people during a chapter. When the chapters are names solely on one person, I expect to just hear about that one person, the use of other people seems a little insensitive to me and more like filler.

However, that said, I still did enjoy branching out and reading something that I wouldn’t usually, and learning a little about these illnesses and disorders. I do think she makes a good point though, that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge and/or dismiss an illness when you can’t physically see it/ it’s not presented in tests, but even the author herself is guilty of doing so as she admits at some point. It isn’t my favourite book I’ll admit, and at times it felt like a chore to read and get through.


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