By Altagrace L. Gustave
While visiting Southwood Middle School in 2004 for a chair massage event intended to relax teachers after the stabbing death of a student by a fellow classmate, Don Shetterly, a licensed massage therapist, could never have imagined his life would be the one changed from that day on.
Dr. Paul Canali, Doctor of Chiropractic at the Evolutionary Healing Institute in South Miami, was giving a lecture that same day at the same school about the effects of psychological trauma on the body.“
I was listening to him and going, ‘Wow, he’s talking a language my body understands,’” said Shetterly, 49, from Iowa, who has been living in Deltona, Fla., a city approximately 266 miles from Miami, in Volusia County, since 2007.
From the age of 5 until he was 21, Shetterly was the victim of perpetual sexual abuse at the hands of two family members, who, due to the expiration of the statute of limitations, cannot be named or have their relationship to Shetterly revealed.
Four years after the abuse had ended, Shetterly’s then-unconscious psychological trauma resulted in a nearly month-long paralysis of most of his body. Shetterly was suffering from what mental health professionals refer to as conversion disorder.“
I don’t think, at the time, the medical doctors even knew where to begin,” said Shetterly, who underwent countless medical tests, such as MRIs, extensive blood work and expensive neurological examinations, in order to find out what biological malfunction was responsible for his paralysis.
But it wasn’t biological.
The revised, fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM-IV-TR, defines the disorder as a “mental disorder whose central feature is the appearance of symptoms affecting the patient’s senses or voluntary movements that suggest a neurological or general medical disease or condition.”
The DSM-IV-TR also states that the lifetime prevalence of conversion disorder is not known with certainty, given how difficult it is to diagnose. It estimates that anywhere from 0.01 to 0.5 percent of the general population has the disorder, which is more common in females, with female to male ratios ranging from 2-to-1 up to 10-to-1.
Typical symptoms include tremors, deafness, blindness and paralysis.
“Conversion disorder is probably one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses out there,” said Dr. Canali, 58, a chiropractor for more than 25 years and the founder of what is called Unified Therapy, practiced at the Evolutionary Healing Institute, where different areas of medicine, such as psychotherapy, somatic therapy, alternative therapy, neuroscience and physical therapy are combined for the sake of having what is known as a consilience.
Consilience occurs when different disciplines come together by finding common ground, which, in this case, allows the mind and body to become one.
Anxiety and chronic pain, according to Dr. Canali’s work and past psychological literature, share common structures in the brain, which could explain why physical abnormalities manifest from stressful and traumatic situations.
Shawn Anderson, 45, from Muskegon, Mich., is all too familiar with this connection, given what happened to her now-24-year-old daughter, Brandi, when she was a child.
For most of her childhood, Brandi, a registered nurse, was sexually abused by her father, Darrell Vela, who, in 2000, was sentenced to 5-15 years in prison for the crime of second-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Vela served 13 years and was released on Feb. 10, 2013, on Brandi’s birthday.
“I just saw it all as a little ironic,” said Anderson about the release date, adding that Vela abused his daughter for so long and from such a young age that Brandi accepted it as if it were a common behavior.“
She had thought all daddies did this to their little girls,” said Anderson.
But they didn’t, and not too long after news of the abuse had come to light, back in October 1998, Anderson, already divorced from Vela, changed her daughter’s last name to hers.
Some of Brandi’s conversion symptoms developed during early adulthood. They included heart-attack-like symptoms, lumps in her legs and paralysis.
Several medical doctors thought it could either be lupus or multiple sclerosis.
“We didn’t know what else to do,” said Anderson. “They just kept sending her back home.”
It was not until Feb. 1, 2012, when she was watching a taping of Dr. Drew’s show featuring Don Shetterly as a special guest, that Anderson realized what was wrong with her daughter.
Shetterly described his experience with abuse and the symptoms that followed.
“I could not believe it,” Anderson said. “This was my daughter.”
Anderson and Shetterly soon met in Miami, where he introduced her to Dr. Canali, who, understanding the severity of Brandi’s problems, saw her for free almost every day for two weeks.
“It was like he was breaking through layers of walls that she didn’t even know she had,” said Anderson about Dr. Canali, whose techniques and treatment methods vary from patient to patient, depending on what they are going through and whether or not they have suffered from a traumatic experience.
Brandi, who almost never talks about what happened to her, still doesn’t feel strong enough to discuss that part of her life without running the risk of regressing to her former, traumatized condition.
“She is so smart, but she is stuck emotionally in a trap her father set for her in the most crucial years of her life,” said Anderson about her daughter, adding that she wished they could afford more sessions with Dr. Canali to continue Brandi’s treatment.
“Financially, it’s hard to go down to Florida from Michigan,” said Anderson. “It just kills me not being able to take her to see Dr. Canali.”
*Note: Altagrace L. Gustave is Word and Action's Communication Coordinator
*Credit: Brandi Anderson, 24, in the middle, poses with her two sisters, her baby girl and son. Photo by Mike Slootmaker, courtesy of Shawn Anderson.