So no doubt by now you’ve probably heard the whole Belle Gibson (founder of ‘The Whole Pantry’ app) saga. And if you haven’t- what rock have you been living under? Can I come join you please? Anyways, to get you up to speed- see here. I’ll wait for you.
Read it? Shaking your head in disbelief? Welcome back. Bit cray, isn’t it?
On the surface it seems so incredibly outside of the realms of possibility to actually be true. Could someone spearhead such a huge deception? How could she live with herself? Is she just a cruel, manipulative person who has taken many for a ride? While understandably a lot of people are confused, hurt, and very angry at her, another question has been posed. Could she have Munchhausen Syndrome?
Munchhausen Syndrome is a mental health issue, whereby a person feigns illness in order to seek attention and affection. Also known as Factitious Disorder, it’s not for any financial or medical gain, it’s more a complex issue fueled by irrational and clearly unhealthy desire to get the sympathies and focus of others. It’s not about some jerk egomaniac who wants to hog the spotlight, or some evil person who loves to manipulate others. They tend to believe their own lies, or the payoff for telling such lies simply fuels them to go further. In a way, Munchhausen is a form of self-mutilation. Pulling oneself down, sometimes even hurting oneself, to make the appearance of being sick ‘realistic’.
How the hell do people believe their stories? I hear you ask. I know. Seems hard, right? But they’re convincing. So, so convincing. Often convincing themselves also. They can go to great lengths to ‘prove’ their story. It becomes their obsession.
What does it look like? Often it looks like a long history of medical issues, a range of symptoms that may not necessarily all fit together, the issues get bigger and bigger (as happened in Belle Gibson’s case). Although they play out a solid case, there’s never any conclusive evidence to back up their claims. They’ll normally have a history of ‘doctor shopping’. If a doctor gets too close to the truth, a Munchhausen person will jump ship and find someone new to try their stories on. Their knowledge of medical issues is both impressive and alarming all at the same time. And a big clue? Despite all the evidence based treatments thrown at them, they seem to never recover or improve from their illness.
Why does this happen? Well that’s a tricky one to answer. There can be a neglectful and/or traumatic background, the experience of a chronic illness when young or watching someone else go through a chronic illness, disruptions to development, major self-esteem issues, and other issues can combine to form Munchhausen. It’s tough. It’s even tougher to diagnose, because often the person moves doctors before conclusive evidence can be pulled together. Sometimes for a diagnosis to occur, there needs to be both a constellation of symptoms that ring alarm bells and also the views of those close to the person are needed to confirm that the story doesn’t add up.
An off-shoot of Munchhausen is Munchhausen by-proxy, whereby someone feigns illness in another person to serve their own needs and gain attention. Usually occurring between parents and children. Of course very sadly this has come to light recently, with blogger Lacey Spears sentenced to 20 years jail for killing her son by feeding him salt, while blogging about his illnesses. Did you hear about it? The story is here. Her son’s health issues were a direct result of her actions. She’d gained quite a following and garnered a lot of sympathy. Having a child who is seriously ill? Every Mother’s worst nightmare. People were drawn to such a sad story, and desperately wanted to show their care and support. As you do. The resulting outcome is horrific. For everyone involved. A very sick Mum and a dead child. How do you grapple with that?
The hard part of Munchhausen (and by proxy) is that we take it personally. We think the person has set out to dupe us and is laughing that evil cackle (think Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget) when they suck us in. But the reality is it’s not about us at all. In fact, they don’t even think about us. They’re thinking about them. And the rush they get from their ‘illnesses’. It’s a compulsion in a way. They get something out of it. Upsetting people isn’t on their agenda at all. But it’s a very real, and very sad by-product of their actions.
I need to be very clear that I’m not sticking up for Belle Gibson in any way, shape or form. And I’m not excusing the behaviour of her at all. To be honest, we have no clue what’s really gone down and why. We can only go on what’s been fed to us by the media. Could she have Munchhausen? Very possibly. But we don’t have all the facts to piece it together. But if she does, we need to be mindful that she is indeed not well. Perhaps not with cancer that she originally proposed, but she’s sick at the moment all the same.
For a bit more reading on Munchhausen go here. There’s a neat article on it here too. And Dr. Phil, being the total dude that he is, did a show on it a couple of years ago. If you’re after info on Munchausen by-proxy, there’s some info on this site. If you’re looking for an amazing book to read that details life as a child of a parent with Munchausen by-proxy, check out Sickened. It’s chilling.
What’s your take on the whole Belle Gibson story? Mental health issues at play? Or just plain nasty shit going down?