I’ve had hypochondriac tendencies (more officially known as “illness anxiety disorder”) for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure who or what to blame and the source of the disorder is irrelevant; it’s the cure I’m after.
Has your foot ever fallen asleep? How about just your pinky toe? How long will you let your pinky toe feel numb before googling it? Or will you even notice at all? I’m perpetually amazed at how we exist in a world where people could carry a pregnancy unknowingly alongside people like me who notice a pin-prick size bite or a new freckle emerge among millions. I swear to feel my egg drop each month and I promise I can feel it traveling down my fallopian tube. I’m not claiming it’s painful; I’m simply acknowledging I feel it and I am hyper-aware of it. This hypersensitivity is called body vigilance. It means I feel any little thing even if it’s just my body being alive, and I take it to the extreme.
My brain engages in a civil war. The fear team versus the logic team. Even though my logic team is armed with more data than my fear team, the latter plays dirty by shooting out deadly ‘what if’ arrows into the ring, completely leveling the field. For every logical comment my brain uses to assuage the fear, the ‘what-ifs’ throw something in to make me doubt myself. What if just this time it is a heart attack? What if just this time it is a blood clot in my lungs? What if just this time that little lip twitch is an early indicator of Multiple Sclerosis? Or Muscular Dystrophy? (I always confused them, but am terrified of both equally.)
Keep in mind, I am a smart, educated person who understands, appreciates and is fascinated by biology (my favorite science). When my grandfather was diagnosed with throat cancer, I scoured the Internet for everything there was to know about the disease, the treatment, and the recovery. When my grandmother was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, she asked how long it had been there and they told her they had no idea, probably years. She said, “If I’ve been walking around with it for years, I’ll continue to walk around with it.” I am not that person. I would think of nothing other than that growing blood clot pushing on my brain. I would not sleep because I would be sure it would pop in my sleep or when I coughed or screamed or yelled.
I have a bunch of theories about where my hypochondria came from. For example, throughout my childhood, my mother perpetually complained of a bad heart and threatened to faint, falling back on her stash of smelling salts in her purse. The best birthday present I ever got was the Merck Medical Manual, which I read cover to cover like a gripping mystery novel. The internet has only made it worse — type in a symptom and it’ll provide evidence to substantiate any cancer diagnosis, or MS or blood clot or an aneurysm de jour. And I’ve always been haunted by the tragic stories which make you feel powerless and helpless. The healthy marathon runner who never smoked a day in his life with no family history and plagued with lung cancer.
For years, I thought the momentary sharp pain I got “under my breast” was a heart attack warning. I thought back to my mother grabbing her chest and yelling out in Russian, “koleet,” which translates to “it’s piercing.” She’d gasp for breath and occasionally ask for the smelling salts but the pain was always gone soon after with no real repercussion or follow up. She never went to a cardiologist but told me the story about how she had scarlet fever as a child and it has lasting effects on her heart. She had us all convinced she had a bad heart, but now I realize she just had gas. She also spewed the rhetoric how her “B” blood type was a lower caliber blood, secondary to “A” blood type. “I have the weaker blood type,” she would tell me, “not like your father. Thank goodness you have A positive like him.” Turns out we both have O positive.
When I take things to the extreme, I know I’m trying to gain control because ultimately fear is controlling my hypochondriac symptoms. Somehow my brain believes if I discover it early enough, if I prepare well enough, if I get to the hospital fast enough, I’ll save myself. The older I get, the worse it is. I’ve spent so many years worrying about these possible horrific diseases without getting them, I’m sure my time is coming. Why else has life been preparing me for all these diseases? I wait and wait, wasting all my time fearing when I could have been grateful for every day without pain. I could be appreciating every day that I am not aware of something secretly growing inside me. The fear can be paralyzing. It’s dangerous in the world with terrible texting drivers and drunk people at a concert who might trample me and ticking bombs in random dumpsters, but fear is just a self-induced terrorist which imprisons me with limitations.
A therapist tried to help me with my brain’s propensity to rapidly accelerate towards the worst case scenario. She tried to teach me if I find a small lump on my arm, for instance, I shouldn’t instantly google “arm cancer,” and instead just be aware of it and monitor it for a few days to see if perhaps it was just a mosquito bite and will go away. Her goal was to modify my behavior to delay the panic release. Over time, I’ve learned that I have to understand the difference between pain and sensation. Awareness does not necessarily indicate a symptom of something else, it is a reminder my heart is beating and I am breathing. I’m also not the type of hypochondriac who incessantly visits the doctor; I’m too afraid they will find something and also, I don’t trust them.
I feel like a floating molecule through space waiting to be struck by something. I walk through life avoiding the diseases like walking between the raindrops. I am in an abusive relationship with hypochondria. I desperately want to get away from it, but somehow it controls my brain.