Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lea's Health

Lea's health was clearly a major issue in the unfolding of Therafield's history. Grant speaks of her diabetes and the mental deterioration that resulted from its ravages toward the end of the 1970s and early 1980s. Her health problems were more complex than simply diabetes, however, and must be regarded in their mental, physical, and psychological components and the interactions of these. By the mid-1960s Lea's health and energy were noticably dimishing. When Sharon came to see her in October, 1965, she saw immediately that "she was so unwell that you couldn't miss it. Her skin was white. She was given to wearing dark glasses as she had diabetes and her eyes were sensitive. I couldn't work with see someone suffering like that -- it seemed indecent to start talking about yourself." Though Lea carried on with her practice, taking on even more responsibilities, by 1967 she feared for her life. In a Tuesday-Friday group rather than initiating work with someone, she brought out a dream of her own, asking the more experienced members like DJ, Annie Miller, and others to help with its interpretation. She believed that the dream was a warning about her own impending death. The mood in the group was somber. For those of us still quite new, this departure was both surprising and sobering. It felt like hearing or over-hearing information about the difficulties of your parents that were hitherto unknown, even unimagined. Lea was in her mid-fifties and in the groups to this point had been energetic and even dynamic. It was about this time that she decided to admit herself to the clinic in North Carolina that specialized in Type-II diabetes, a condition which had been diagnosed earlier.

At the clinic Lea was put on a regimen of diet and exercise, the usual treatment for her condition, and it was successful. She lost weight and got her blood sugar levels under control. What made her situation difficult though, was not simply this illness. Over time it's control was stymied by problems that Lea already had relating more to her psychological and mental health. Lea's father had been hospitalized for years before his death after "descending into madness." The nature of that "madness" was never spelled out but he had clearly been psychotic. When a young woman Lea feared that a similar fate could await herself. She asked Mike, her therapist in England, if she could inherit some aspect of her father's disturbance. He assured her that such ideas were just old wives tales. But in truth the greater the degree of consanguinity with a person with a mental health condition, the greater is the likelihood of developing it. In that era psychoanalysts were attempting to understand all forms of mental or psychological disorders as stemming from one's family history, from the "nurture" side of the nature/nurture dyad. Little was known at the time about the interactions of one's genetic inheritance and one's psychological history.

Lea openly spoke about periods of profound depression that she had suffered as a child and as a young woman. Again, this condition was not understood as a complex syndrome involving cognitive, physiological, and mood disorder symptoms. Depression of this nature is triggered by a genetic pre-disposition as well as by damage done to brain function by extreme stress in early childhood. When others spoke in groups of depression she would tell stories of her own experiences. No one has suffered from depression as deeply as I have, she would assert. She would sometimes encourage a period of intensive therapy for the sufferer to try to connect with the events or conditions that had "caused" the depression. Other times she would simply state that her own depressions usually passed with time. In the meantime she had found that being with friends and sharing a drink would help to cheer her.

Lea also had periods of hypo-mania during which she would feel elation, enormous energy and confidence, and periods of sleeplessness. It was possibly during periods of this kind that she would take on larger and larger loads which once that phase passed would leave her feeling overloaded and exhausted. Dan was aware of these cycles from early days. Lea would "speak of going up into a manic phase," he said. "She loved the euphoria, the ascending, but it always pushed her over the edge. When she went to North Carolina (these cycles) were coming more to the fore. Her attempt was to deal with their effects while hiding from them through focussing on her physical problems. The condition came obvious more and more as she got older and the pressures of the community came to bear on her. By the time she came to do her writing in the mid-1970s it was completely unmanageable."

In 1973 or 1974 Lea began to talk in marathon groups about two personality types: the cyclothymic and the schitzoid. A few years earlier another great divide at the fore of her consciousness was the paranoid and the paranee. Here was a new framework on which to judge or be judged. (There is an old joke that goes like this: There are two kinds of people in the world -- those who catagorize everyone into two groups, and those who don't). At any rate there was endless discussion about this typology, the characteristics of each personality, and which it was more desirable to be. It seemed that being cyclothymic gave one a leg up on the schitzoid type. Lea identified herself as cyclothymic, a personality expansive and creative. The poor little schitzoid, by comparison, was a plodder, a dray, a boring but diligent person who could be depended upon to complete the large tasks envisioned by his or her cyclothymic counterpart. Ouch!! Just as one did not want to be labelled a paranee, the idea of being schitzoid was dreadful. There wasn't any sense of humour about these designations either. Lea was seriously trying to understand elements in herself that she was all too aware of. In the process though many others were scourged by the sense of being diminished and thus not respected or valued.

Without the impact of her mental health and psychological difficulties Lea might have been more able to deal with her diabetes in a consistent and grounded fashion. A woman who travelled with her from the late 1960s says that, "In North Carolina Lea learned a lot about Type-II diabetes. At Duke University they were at the forefront of work with that illness. She knew what it was and what to do about it but she didn't do it. I know others who are doing well on the regime -- basically just diet and exercise. But Lea had a lot of food compulsions. She could have been quite well if she had followed their directions. But instead she chased one fad after another. She'd believe the most god-awful ridiculous things. It was saviour-hunting rather than simply getting down to taking proper care of herself. I think I've met most of the quacks in the western world."

Throughout the 1970s Lea followed a succession of programs in the name of health but at root were a way of distracting herself from issues that she was not prepared or able to deal with. Macro-biotics and fasting would alternate with periods of bingeing. Nutritionists and healers of many stripes would be consulted and their ideas incorporated into her practices and those of the people who most closely followed her. In the process Lea certainly undermined her own health and compromised that of several others. One man died after imitating Lea on an extended fast from which he never recovered. Another was significantly weakened by his lengthy fast and succumbed to the swirling waters of a river in which he was swimming with friends.

By the mid-1970s Lea was clearly losing it though in public she maintained the demeanour of the woman in charge. It was about this time that she began to write her autobiographical novels. Over the next several years her mood swings and behaviour became more erratic. In Florida her companions would gather up the mountain of things that she had purchased that day and return them to the stores. The phases of mania became more pronounced and she became more difficult to control. No one though was willing to bite the bullet and declare that she was no longer fully responsible for her behaviour. People living with her and others who visited or who were kept informed with events remained intimidated or perhaps still in thrall with her and were unable to restrain or to contain her. One of her caregivers recalls: "Part ofthe difficulty with Lea was that even in an irrational state, she was still in charge. It became clear to me how many people were still in a transferential dream with her. People were treating her as sane even though she was crazy, so alot of the damage that she inflicted on herself continued."

Lea had preached a quite anti-medical model position from the late 1960s. Earlier she had been proud to state that her uncle had been a doctor. She also claimed to have been trained as a nurse at Great Ormond St Hospital. Influenced by the writing of Robert Lindner and likely because of her own insecurity about education and credentials, she gradually became more distainful of medical, especially psychiatric, approaches. This bias remained a legacy within Therafields for many years and likely continues with some of its former members. Because of this it was never possible to have a dispassionate look at the bipolar condition which was more and more taking her over. Her caretaker continued: "I have never conceptualized her ultimate break down as a manic-depressive condition but that could certainly summarize it. She was a powerful person and in many ways the power came from rising up above the depression -- that was, at first. Then she became more and more obsessive in her activities, especially her health activities. She would fast with intensity. She was always going for the intense activitiy. She didn't recognize that those experiences were wearing out her physical body as well."

In the early 1980s Lea suffered through an outright psychotic period and was hospitalized. Though diagnosed with a psychosis triggered by her bipolar condition, a not uncommon event for someone untreated, many people around her could not stomach the idea that this was the cause of her condition. Over a decade later Tom O was furious with me when I mentionned her state during that period. He clearly believed that to say Lea suffered from a manic-depressive condition was to insult her. To acknowledge a mental health issue in an important other was to styigmatize them. It was part of Lea's own legacy of anti-medical theory and practice that prevented her receiving help at a stage when her health might have been salvaged and her life have been more productive and happy.

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