This blog is not FDA approved
Ladies and Gentleman, allow me to present to you a most nefarious and most powerful phenomenon. More potent than a post-kebab fart, more destructive than a toddler driving a tank, this evil genius can wreak havoc and doom in a manner that would unnerve even the most resilient of beings.
Yes. My worst enemy is my own heap of grey matter.
In my very early twenties, while I was trying to achieve a degree in English Literature at university, my brain dragged me kicking and screaming into the dark, desperate, exhausting depths of hypochondria. For about two years, I was dying.
I quickly became fluent in the language of Hypochondria. Observe the following translations, as spoken in Hypochondria:
slight cough - lung cancer
vague headache - brain tumour
twinge of stomach cramp - bowel cancer
mildly sore throat - throat cancer
niggling mouth ulcer - mouth cancer
dull pain in any limb - bone cancer
tickly itch - skin cancer
all of the above - you’re going to die immediately. Unlucky.
In the language of hypochondria, everything is a sign that you are fucked.
At first, it didn’t occur to me that I was a hypochondriac. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I just thought I was riddled with disease and despair, and I accepted that because there seemed no other alternative. Some days it would simmer down, and I’d be able to forget about the burning lump in my throat or the swelling pressure between my shoulder blades or the dull ache in my abdomen, and I’d function normally as a human being. Then something would happen: I’d overhear a conversation about an illness, I’d accidentally see an episode of Casualty or House, or the lump, pressure or ache would twinge, and I’d remember, with absolute certainty and a smack of blackness that I AM DYING. And that was always a bit of a blow.
And the more I worried I was dying, the greater my aches and pains became. The lump in my throat got bigger. It was the bastard cancer eating away at me. The pressure between my shoulder blades stung. That was my lungs, crumbling. And the more they hurt, the more I worried. Suddenly, logic and reasoning disappeared. One day I felt a pain in my lower back. I Googled it. Somehow, through an evil conspiracy of mouse-clicks and my brain, I diagnosed myself as having an ectopic pregnancy. That’s right. Not only was I pregnant, but the embryo was developing in my fallopian tubes and I was going to haemorrhage to death. The fact that I hadn’t had sex in months and that unless I had been inseminated by a celestial being and was going to give birth to the second Messiah there was literally no way in this world that there was any form of life growing inside me, did not even enter my head.
So, in a fit of hysteria, I dragged my two friends to A&E on a Tuesday night when we should have been doing a pub quiz, and it was whilst staring at the strip light as a very irritable doctor had an index finger firmly inserted in places where you don’t want anything inserted at 1am, that I thought perhaps I had a bit of a problem. And do you know what my ectopic pregnancy turned out to be?
I felt a bit silly, really.
But after that I realised there was something wrong with me – just not what I’d thought. There was a name for my fears: it was Hypochondria. I Googled it, I read up on it in the university library. I became obsessed with ensuring that I was a hypochondriac because if I was a hypochondriac, then maybe it was all in my head, and maybe I wasn’t physically ill after all. While my fellow students were getting blind drunk and vomiting into bins I was crouched in the library fervently reading up on the history of hypochondria, frantically nodding my head at other people’s accounts of it, and being pleasantly surprised to learn that I was in good company (Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Tennessee Williams, Andy Warhol, Dr. Samuel Johnson were all hypochondriacs – as was Hitler, apparently, but I wasn’t as chuffed about that).
It was comforting to realise that there was a name for what was happening to me. For a while, I was happy to think that it was my own brain that was ill, and not the rest of me. I wrote in my 2005 diary ‘I’m glad I’m a hypochondriac. I’d rather that be the reason for my aches and pains than cancer’. My brain was fucked up, slowly eating itself, making me utterly miserable and blackly depressed, but that was okay: as long as I wasn’t riddled with cancer or HIV everything was absolutely smashing.
But then one day, a throwaway sentence in a self-help book changed everything: ’Of course, hypochondriacs can still get ill.’
So now not only was I mentally and psychologically deranged, I was still riddled with cancer and I was still going to ruddy die.
It was a bastard nuisance.
Things collapsed. I became terrified of going to sleep because I was convinced I would die during the night. The lump in my throat got bigger and bigger. I started having panic attacks at inopportune moments (in lectures, walking to classes, on the toilet (particularly inconvenient, that last one. Have you ever tried to wipe your arse when you can’t breathe and your hand is shaking like a manic dog’s tale? Nightmare.)). But my brain told me these panic attacks were even more acute signs that I was VERY, VERY ILL. I had an attack on a walk to a friend’s house, and in a flash of utter clarity I knew I had lung cancer. So I turned up at my ex-boyfriend’s house, which happened to be round the corner, and begged him to drive me to the nearest A&E. There’s nothing quite like a couple of hours in an A&E waiting room to shatter any post-breakup ice.
I had a chest X-Ray. Two perfectly healthy lungs and one very weary doctor.
But that wasn’t enough. When I was still having panic attacks a few weeks later, my brain told me Your lungs might have been fine four weeks ago, but what if they’re not fine now?????
I made so many doctor’s appointments that eventually I would call the surgery, gasp desperately ‘I need to book an appointment with a doctor’ and the receptionist would say jadedly ‘Is that Rebecca?’. That was a bit embarrassing.
But as well as plaguing every doctor in Norwich, I diagnosed myself.
The Internet is the hypochondriac’s downfall. Every single symptom leads to an incurable doom. You are three clicks away from imminent death. You have a slight headache, a vague temperature, and you feel a bit tired. You’ve just got a cold, right?
The power of the mind is incredible. Hypochondria made me think, behave, and look upon life like a genuinely ill person. I worried I wouldn’t get to do the things I wanted to do. I worried, with such a sense of sad finality, that I was never going to get married or have children, because I was going to die before I could do all that. I started slacking on my university coursework, because what was the point? It all seemed rather futile to bust a gut writing about the symbolism of faeces in Gulliver’s Travels when I was going to peg it at any second.
The most debilitating and helpless thing about the whole business was that I couldn’t escape it: it was in my head. Generally speaking, when you’re in a harmful or displeasing situation, like standing next to someone who is loudly eating a banana, you can remove yourself. Just step away. Job done. I scribbled frantically in my diary ‘I CAN’T BE IN THIS HEAD ANYMORE’, but there wasn’t an awful lot I could do about it.
Eventually, it eased. I got better. I stopped worrying. The reassurance of many patient doctors that there was nothing wrong with me, and that the lump in my throat and pain between my shoulders were classic symptoms of anxiety and would become more noticeable the more I focussed on them, eventually helped. I graduated from university and suddenly I was faced with real life, and there seemed bigger things to worry about. In hindsight, if I’m going to go all psychologist on my own ass, my hypochondria may have developed through deepening feelings of a lack of control: it started after a nasty break-up, I was approaching the end of university and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Through feeling out of control over my life, I lost control over my own brain.
Perhaps my childhood had something to do with it: when I was 11 / 12 years old, I watched cancer eat away at my beloved granddad’s jaw and mouth until it looked as though a bomb had exploded in his face. I saw cancer in all its monstrous, unstoppable glory destroy one of the most precious people in my young world. Perhaps that experience absorbed into my core and festered like a mould, slowly fingering my unconscious, waiting for a moment when it could flourish. I don’t know. It seems likely.
Hypochondria is sometimes laughed at, brushed off as a whimsical neurosis or just someone being a ‘bit silly’. But, like a physical disease, it eats away at you, dragging you ever further into fear and the jaws of an impending doom. The fear of illness and death that it brings is not a joke. It is not an exaggeration or a hyperbole. It is an acute, unequivocal terror that you are gravely and incurably sick, a terror that is so real and so all-consuming that I believe it is almost indistinguishable from the terror felt by genuinely sick people. There is no alternative, no light: You. Are. Very. Very. Ill. And that’s it. Death, that elusive concept that seemed merely a myth or a rumour, is suddenly absolutely and horrifyingly real. And it is right in front of you.
But, unlike the horrors of all the illnesses you are convinced you have, there is a light: hypochondria doesn’t have to last forever. Mine waned, and eventually sunk. It hasn’t disappeared completely – occasionally it raises its head and kicks my brain into a categorical fear that that pain in my neck is a darkly glowing cancer – but I can control it. And that’s what it’s all about: once you have control over it, you can beat it. Once logic and reason can find their way through the fear and doom, you can tell your brain to shut the hell up and get on with your life. Because, even though you can’t always see it, there is a life past the engulfing darkness, and it is really, really brilliant.