It happened over a year ago: Melissa Huckaby, a quiet Sunday-school teacher in Tracy, California, was accused of murdering 8-year-old Sandra Cantu. Now Huckaby has been sentenced to life in prison ... and clues as to how Cantu -- a friend of Huckaby's own daughter -- was killed have come to light.
According to a prosecutor in the case, Huckaby may have suffered from Munchausen by proxy syndrome (MBPS), a condition wherein a caregiver -- usually a mom -- deliberately makes a child (most often a preschooler) ill in order to gain attention for herself. The mother will take her "sick" child to the doctor, often asking the medical provider to run tests, try different medications or even hospitalize the child in order to diagnose what's "wrong" -- when actually, nothing is.
To find out more about this mysterious mental ailment, we interviewed someone who has been personally affected by it. Here is her story.
Guest blogger Jennifer Tillman: I guess you could say that my mom's obsession with illness came to her rather naturally. As the oldest of six children, she spent her junior high years bathing and nursing her emaciated, cancer-ridden mother until her death, which occurred when my mom was only 14. To this day, illness dominates every e-mail and phone conversation she has. Take this excerpt, for example: "Brenda Fox's dad is fighting for his life at a cancer center in Tulsa, Okla., and her mom had a stroke in April while her brother just finished six months' worth of chemo and both her brother and parents lost everything in the tornado." That's four tragedies in one sentence!
When a guest at my parents' Easter party this year fell ill with mysterious intestinal symptoms, everyone joked that my mom had poisoned the pâté. In the back of my mind, though, I honestly wondered if she had. I wouldn't put it past her. You see, my mother has a textbook case of Munchhausen by proxy, wherein a mother makes her child sick to gain sympathy and attention. So I grew up with a ton of made-up health issues. My childhood was a miserable parade of unnecessary hospital visits and medications.
In a nutshell, I was rushed to the ER for a cough (borderline pneumonia!) or a stomachache (life-threatening food allergy!). The list of foods that caused my rheumatoid arthritis and lupus -- neither of which I have ever had a real symptom of -- included wheat, chocolate, peanuts, barley, oats, beef, gluten ... basically anything besides rice, potatoes and a handful of vegetables. I was really fun at birthday parties! When I asked my mom what would happen if I ate something I was allergic to, she told me rather bluntly, "You could die." I guess my fear of mortality was lying dormant, because I constantly snuck all of the things on the list whenever I could and shoved them down my gullet. I never even got a rash -- and no, I didn't die.
Last year, when I got pregnant for the first time, I was far too aware of the threat of Munchhausen to ever repeat the pattern. But after trying to get knocked up for nine months, I found myself having moments where I was unable to enjoy being pregnant because I was so concerned that something would go wrong.
If it's any indication, I recognize that my pets are all pretty healthy. A small part of me, however, is afraid of being paranoid about their health. I'm a little afraid of overcompensating for the Munchhausen and overlooking it if they were to truly have problems. And if I'm paranoid that I am paranoid about my dogs being sick, how am I going to walk the line of making sure my child is healthy without becoming either antipathetic or obsessive?
Of course, expectant mothers everywhere worry, but I don't think many of them have to worry that their worrying is overboard. And while most women can say, "I just want a healthy baby," I couldn't. I knew that my vigilance against passing the torch of Munchhausen was what would stop it in its tracks. I wanted a healthy baby and the wherewithal to relax and realize that my baby was healthy.