Remember the first time you saw Alice fall down the rabbit hole? Or Prince Charming place the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot? The wonderful world of Disney allows children (and adults) to indulge in make-believe and fantasy.
While the characters in Disney tales may be purely fictional, these psychological conditions named after them are very real.
Quian Quian (not her real name), a 12-year-old girl in China, was mysteriously losing her hair and wasting away. Fearing the worst, Quian’s mother took her daughter to the doctor after discovering a lump in her stomach.
What doctors found in Quian’s stomach was shocking.
A scan showed that the lump in Quian’s stomach was a massive hairball, weighing approximately one pound.
Quian had been munching her own hair for months, and although her mother had seen her put her hair in her mouth occasionally, she “thought she was just playing and didn’t think much about it.”
Quian suffers from a rare psychological disorder called Rapunzel syndrome. People with Rapunzel syndrome don’t have absurdly long hair. Instead, they compulsively pull and eat their own hair. Over time, the hair forms a solid mass in the stomach, with a “tail” much like Rapunzel’s storied locks leading into the intestines.
The medical term for Rapunzel syndrome is trichophagia. The disorder is thought to be similar to other obsessive–compulsive disorders. If diagnosed early, patients are treated with antidepressants and psychotherapy. But if left undiagnosed, patients can develop deadly trichobezoars, the giant hairballs that form inside the stomach.
Rapunzel syndrome is rare, and with treatment, patients can fully recover from the physical side effects of the disorder. But as with most obsessive–compulsive disorders, management of the underlying psychological issues can require lifelong treatment.
Sleeping Beauty Syndrome
Beth Goodier, a seemingly healthy teenager, was just 16 when she began to find it a constant struggle to stay awake.
At first, Beth had trouble staying awake in class, a common problem for many tired teens. Her mother became frightened when Beth fell asleep after school one day and couldn’t be awakened. When Beth finally woke up, it was as if she’d reverted back to being a small child again.
After many months of inconclusive medical treatment, she was finally diagnosed with Kleine-Levin syndrome (KLS), also known as Sleeping Beauty syndrome.
KLS is a rare neurological disorder that generally strikes teens and young adults like Beth. KLS sufferers will often sleep for months at a time, waking for only a few moments a day. During an episode, KLS patients often act like small children and are unable to make sense of the world around them.
Unfortunately, kisses from princes do not cure Sleeping Beauty syndrome. There are no treatments available for KLS, but the good news is that patients typically recover from the disorder within about 10 years.
Alice in Wonderland Syndrome
When Helene Stapinski was a child, she often saw normal-size objects become very small, “as if everything in the room were at the wrong end of a telescope.” As Helene aged, the episodes grew infrequent and faded as she became an adult.
Once, right before bedtime, Helene’s daughter Paulina told her mother that everything suddenly looked very small. Helene knew exactly what her daughter meant and assured her she understood.
It turns out Helene and Paulina Stapinski have a rare neurological disorder known as Alice in Wonderland syndrome.
Also called Todd’s syndrome (for Dr. James Todd, the first to write about the disorder), Alice in Wonderland syndrome is a condition in which people believe they’ve become very small or very large in comparison to their surroundings.
Anyone can develop Alice in Wonderland syndrome, but it’s thought that people who get migraines experience the condition most often. Other triggers can include infection, stress, and cough medicines.
Much like Alice’s experience in Wonderland, the syndrome doesn’t last long and isn’t associated with any negative enduring effects.
Mad Hatter Disease
When I was 2 years old, I bit the end off a thermometer and tried to swallow the mercury inside. My mother immediately called poison control, who advised that although I probably had not swallowed enough mercury (if any) to cause lasting harm, she should probably induce vomiting anyway.
Turns out, if I’d succeeded in my mercury-tasting goal, I might have shared something in common with the Mad Hatter.
The Mad Hatter is an excitable, forgetful, and all around silly fellow. But inspiration for the character was based on a very serious medical condition caused by mercury toxicity.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many hats were made of felt. In the felting process, hat makers were exposed to high levels of mercury vapor, a neurotoxin. This prolonged exposure to mercury caused a condition known as erethism, which can trigger personality and behavioral changes.
Sufferers of the malady appeared to be a little nutty, hence the colloquial phrase “mad as a hatter.”
In the 20th century, as hats fell out of fashion, so did Mad Hatter disease. Additionally, the process of felting that used mercury vapor was banned in the United States in 1941. Although Mad Hatter disease can still occur, it is incredibly rare in the 21st century.
Earlier in 2017, a girl was found living with monkeys in the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India. She made worldwide headlines and was dubbed the “Mowgli girl,” named after the main character in Disney’s beloved film The Jungle Book.
Originally a story by Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli, a small boy raised by wolves.
He goes on to be taken in by villagers and learns to interact with humans again.
Mowgli syndrome is loosely used as a term to describe feral children, who have so little human contact that they do not learn social behaviors and language.
Although many of the children with Mowgli syndrome have it as a result of serious neglect, with therapy and treatment, most go on to learn to speak and socialize normally.
Peter Pan Syndrome
Lisa Brinkworth loved her husband, Joe, but after eight years of marriage, she realized she was “playing mother to a Peter Pan, albeit an adorable one.”
Exasperated with Joe’s irresponsible, carefree antics, Lisa finally gave him an ultimatum: Grow up or get out. After that, Joe decided he’d rather be a grown-up with his wife and children and finally hung up his metaphorical Peter Pan tights.
Joe Brinkman’s experience is not uncommon. Although grown men who continue to act like teenagers are anecdotally associated with the boy who refused to grow up, both men and women are susceptible to developing Peter Pan syndrome.
At its core, Peter Pan syndrome is an individual’s refusal to take on adult responsibilities. Although it’s not technically recognized as a formal disorder, most psychologists recognize Peter Pan syndrome as a very real condition.
One theory holds that overprotective parenting can lead to children developing Peter Pan syndrome. In addition, people with Peter Pan syndrome blame others for their failures in life, refusing to take responsibility for their own actions.
Fortunately, men and women who show signs of Peter Pan syndrome can be easily cured: Counseling, therapy, and a little tough love are all prescribed treatments.