Stiff by Mary Roach

“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 303 pages.
Read from May 3, 2019 to May 6, 2019.

I don’t really understand how anyone could be offended in talking about dead bodies or their various uses in science, though I appreciate that it is a sensitive subject, death is a reality of life. I think it’s not that people are uncomfortable with the dead bodies themselves but of their own perceptions of death. Many people can’t fathom being a corpse or if it was their loved ones, regardless of what happens to us when we die.

“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”

Mary Roach personalises her experience and interest in death as she shares her own intimate experience with the passing of her own mother. Death may be an uncomfortable reality but it is an experience we all have in common. Mary Roach approaches cadavers in a very entertaining, informative and tactful manner. She observes and interviews the intricate lives of those doing the less-than-glamorous work with corpses while also exploring the strategies they use in order to cope and maintain their humanity with the surreal nature of their jobs.

Anything you ever wanted to know about how a body decays Mary details in her interviews with forensic pathologists that do studies on real corpses to help crime investigators in gruesome murder cases.  If you’ve ever wanted to know where your body goes after you donated it to the medical sciences, Mary can tell you, and it’s often not what you would expect. Mary also discusses how many of our scientific advancements are owed to the illegalities of body snatching through history.

“Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is.”

This book requires a healthy amount curiosity about death and a slightly open mind on the topic, especially if you’re not interested in how a maggot might sound eating human flesh during one of the many dynamic stages of decay. It also discusses the donation of cadavers to science and some very specific uses which many may not be comfortable with, as well as the sensitivities surrounding organ donation and its importance.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.”

Mary also discusses the feelings and respect that we give our dead regardless of what use a corpse has after death. Whatever scientific purpose a cadaver has there is something sacred in keeping our humanity and due respect in its treatment, in that a dead body, while no longer occupied, was once a person who was loved and had a life like anyone else.

I loved this book. It’s my kind of book. Weird, interesting, factual, personal, and well-written. However, I could see it not being for everyone. For those who are science-minded and comfortable discussing the gruesome details of the body, this book is definitely for you. If thinking about the specific details of an organ transplant and knowing what a still beating heart looks like in an open chest cavity makes you queasy, you might want to pass on this one.

Perfectly Hidden Depression by Margaret Robinson Rutherford

No one knows the real you because you never let them in. You’re not comfortable with the reality of you so you pretend it doesn’t exist.  If this sounds all too familiar to you, then you need this book.

5/5 stars.
ARC, ebook, 232 pages.
Read from May 29, 2019 to May 31, 2019.

You always meet your deadlines regardless of how you’re feeling, you push forward through difficult circumstances and hide behind a facade in order to keep an appearance of having it all together. All because you don’t want to be perceived as incompetent or weak, yet inside you’re constantly battling with yourself, your feelings, and your self-worth. You’ve tried to line yourself up with the standard definitions of depression yet you never fully fit it due to your heightened sense of responsibility, your inability to recognise or share your feelings, and the high sense of control you constantly try to implement in your life. No one knows the real you because you never let them in. You’re not comfortable with the reality of you so you pretend it doesn’t exist.  If this sounds all too familiar to you, then you need this book.

After some harrowing experiences with patients, the author of this book noticed a pattern and began to put together the shape of this unique type of depression that often goes unnoticed and undiagnosed. Coined by the author, Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD) can be the result of a variety of factors such as upbringing, ingrained beliefs, and personality traits. The author states that there isn’t anything in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM) on this type of depression but that this is an acknowledgement and an observation from her own professional experiences (which she details and provides resources for). The author believes PHD is a subset of depression that many practitioners miss because it doesn’t present the way the DSM has listed. The author gives this list of defining features that make up someone with PHD:

  • Are highly perfectionistic and have a constant, critical,
    and shaming inner voice
  • Demonstrate a heightened or excessive sense of
    responsibility
  • Detach from painful emotions by staying in your head
    and actively shutting them off
  • Worry and need to control yourself and your
    environment
  • Intensely focus on tasks, using accomplishment to feel
    valuable
  • Focus on the well-being of others but don’t allow them
    into your inner world
  • Discount personal hurt or sorrow and struggle with
    self-compassion
  • May have an accompanying mental health issue, such
    as an eating disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or addiction
  • Believe strongly in counting your blessings as the foundation of well-being
  • May enjoy success within a professional structure but
    struggle with emotional intimacy in relationships

Think of some of the shocking celebrity suicides that have happened recently, Anthony Bourdain, for example. Everyone thought he has this dream life and that he seemed like a generally happy and satisfied person. What if Anthony was the epitome of PHD? In that, he felt his personal value was only in his accomplishments, driven by how grateful he thought he should feel, and then feeling burdened and overwhelmed by the mask of achievement and perfection that he felt he had to wear. He also had addiction problems. If we knew more about people that presented with this perfectly masked depression we could provide them with better treatment and save them and those around them an immense amount of suffering.

“Anthony Bourdain was apparently not physically ill, not financially destitute, not concerned about getting his next meal, and not lacking in fame. In fact, he remarked he had “the greatest job in the world.”” – Toronto Sun, July 7, 2018

It’s hard not to get personal in reviewing this book as I picked it up from Netgalley out of my own personal interest. After reading The Gifts of Imperfection eight years ago I worked through my own PHD, which at the time was just learning to be vulnerable again. I started talking and writing about my issues and the condition, dermatillomania, that still plagues me, something that would have been unthinkable before. I made steep headway with Brené Brown’s book but it wasn’t enough. This book feels like the acknowledgement and the validation I need to press forward in my own personal growth and happiness in terms of the regressions I have made at this point in my life.

The author of this book is shedding light on an area of depression that requires some serious attention. Her writing is personable, concise, insightful, informative, resourceful and clinical. I have already recommended this book to at least three people I know and I anxiously await its publication as I look forward to adding this to my permanent bookshelf.  At this time, I have not done the reflections recommended in the book as I was excited and anxious to get through all the content because of how alarmingly relevant I found it. I am now looking forward to re-reading the book and diligently doing the reflections which I believe will be immensely valuable. I’ve already started recommending this book which is due to be published on November 1, 2019. I highly recommended this book to anyone who feels they fit this description, and if you do, chances are you’re reluctant to reach out for help, so start with this book, no one has to know.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky

“A large percentage of what we think of when we talk about stress-related diseases are disorders of excessive stress-responses.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback,560 pages.
Read from March 27, 2019 to April 24, 2019.

When this book was recommended to me I thought it was a self-help book for whatever reason. It’s not. Not really. And for that, I’m grateful as it’s one the most clever, accessible, and engaging science reads I’ve come across.

Sapolsky is a professor of biological sciences, neurology and neurological sciences and based on his candid writing style, is exactly the kind of prof you would go out of your way to take a class with. He writes about the science he is passionate about and includes funny personal anecdotes and relevant studies to his work. If you don’t read the footnotes in this book you’re really going to miss out as it was one of my favourite aspects of this book. Seriously, hilarious.

Sapolsky’s book opens with some biology basics that is a nice refresher on high school content. It may feel technical at first, but as Sapolsky points out, he uses the lingo so much through the book and explains it in such simple terms that it’s easy to progress through the chapters. He takes you through how stress affects every single aspect of our body. It’s actually deeply unnerving to read and, dare I say it, stressful! The funny footnotes and candid comments that Sapolsky makes throughout the book are necessary to counterbalance the anxiety-inducing facts he is laying on you about prolonged stress and disease. Sapolsky also discusses why our stress response is different than that of all the other species in the worlds and how our modern world doesn’t do our stress responses any favours. The also talks about why our stress response is essential, despite some of its faults.

In a way, what Sapolsky is stating isn’t anything we didn’t really already know it’s just nice (scary) to have the science behind it. He also explores the social and political aspects of stress as well and how it plays in with the science of stress. For example, being poor gives you a higher chance of having stress-related diseases. Of course, this makes sense when you have trouble meeting your basic needs which are the number one cause of major stress in any species. Additionally, he also explores how relationships and religion can play a part in easing or exasperating stress and stress-related diseases.

“Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine on a large scale.”

The book concludes with a short chapter on what you can do to help combat prolonged stress to reduce your chances of getting a stress-related disease. I was actually hoping there would be more in this chapter after all the anxiety-inducing stress facts Sapolsky loads you with, especially considering some major stress factors are from uncontrollable circumstances. I genuinely enjoyed reading this book and I think it would be a good read for anyone interested in an engaging science read on our modern lifestyles. However, this book may not be the best book for excessive worriers or hypochondriacs, probably best to stick to self-help books on stress if you consider yourself one of these types.