Confessions of a hypochondriac
“Just because I’m a hypochondriac, it doesn’t mean I’m not ill”. Sick, clichéd, but true.
In my stronger moments I can be rational about my health, and even laugh at my anxiety around it; but when my head and heart start racing, I desperately hope that those feelings of impending doom are just feelings…
I can’t remember when I first started worrying about my health, but I was always the sort of kid who missed things because of ‘tummy aches’. I didn’t fake them; I just seemed to worry enough until I genuinely felt ill.
I’ve always been anxious, and so it stands to reason that health would be way up there on the list of things I stress about.
Death, money, the kids, my job, embarrassment in general, Portsmouth Football Club, my marriage, keeping the house obsessively tidy, global warming, our developing ant problem; there is no shortage of things that keep my head busy.
(Actually I lied about global warming, it never really crosses my mind, and I just wanted to seem politically aware, as this is The Punch. I figure we’ll move back to England if it eventually gets too hot).
I do remember the moment it actually crystallised that I was worrying about my health though. I was 29 and in bed with my girlfriend (now my long-suffering wife) and I asked her to look at a lump in my groin – not the best line I’ve ever used.
“I can’t see anything”, she said. “I’ll put the big light on” I replied. After a bit of poking and prodding, and me repeatedly saying “No, put your finger there, can’t you feel THAT”, she eventually said I should see my doctor.
I told her that I didn’t have one, and that my doctor lived back in Portsmouth, despite the fact I’d been living in Bath for five years.
“So you always think there’s something wrong with you, but you haven’t actually got a doctor?” she asked, a little incredulously for my liking. “Maybe you should go and see one”, she added, and then turned back to her book.
The next day I turned up to my newly acquired doctor with a list. First up was a hernia. Apparently, according to the doctor, they were muscles rather than lumps – quite a bonus. We also managed to rule out cancer of my lymph nodes, a malignant melanoma, carpal tunnel syndrome (turns out it’s to do with your wrists, while I thought it was a tunnel vision that I had), and finally an irregular heartbeat.
I did however have to get some wax to put in my ears that he would syringe out a week later, not the onset of deafness I’d suspected. It was still an illness of sorts.
As I was leaving I checked a few times on what sort of wax it should be, and eventually having lost his patience the doctor said “Shove some olive oil in your ears if you want, it’s more or less the same thing”.
Slightly embarrassed I asked if he thought I was a hypochondriac, but he said that I wasn’t and that it was very common for young men to store up potential ailments before visiting the doctor and splurging. I left with a spring in my step and a scrap of paper saying ‘eardrops’ in my hand.
Since then it has been one thing after another. Or rather, it hasn’t been: testicular cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, bowel cancer. In fact, cancer, mostly. I might be a committed hypochondriac, but I’m not a hugely diverse one.
I’ve had a George Costanza moment, where I almost went out of my mind when the doctor said he couldn’t really say what the spot on my hand was, and that I might have to see a specialist about it.
“But you’d be sure it’s not cancer wouldn’t you?” I implored. “I really couldn’t say”, he said distractedly. I almost felt myself screaming “Lupus, it’s not Lupus is it?”
I saw another doctor that week who was willing to go out on a limb and confirm that it was indeed nothing.
Another time I’d just got in the front door and an advert was on TV in which a woman was listing a number of symptoms. I hadn’t even put my bag down and I started to feel anxious that I might have what she was describing. Turned out that it was ovarian cancer, so I breathed a sigh of relief and took my coat off.
In the UK they have something called NHS Direct – it’s a phone line you can call to discuss symptoms with a medic. It’s essentially to ensure that the emergency units of hospitals aren’t full of malingering lunatics like me. Of course I became addicted.
On one occasion I’d been clearing out the garage all day and was exhausted; I’d probably pulled a few muscles too. My wife was out in the evening and as I sat on the sofa with a glass of red wine watching TV, I became obsessed with the shooting pains in my left arm. Clearly a heart attack.
After an hour of spiralling into self-obsession I got on the phone. I explained about my arm, and the lady medic questioned about a series of other possible symptoms. Of course I had none of them. I paused to have a sip of red wine as I listened to her, because of course you would if you were in the middle of cardiac arrest.
And herein lies the real lunacy of all this: part of my brain genuinely couldn’t let this thing go until someone external had reassured me; the other half was thinking “my, what a nice shiraz”.
The call wound down and I asked the lady if there were any other warning signs I should look out for. She said that some people about to experience a heart attack have a sense of dread and impending doom.
“But I have that all the time”, I said. She suggested I see my GP in the morning.
Despite the doctor of my twenties saying I wasn’t a hypochondriac, the therapist I saw in my mid-thirties thought I probably was. Seven or eight years ago at the zenith of my mental fragility we came up with an impressive list of anxiety disorders that I have gradually dealt with.
These days - despite what these 1000 words would suggest – I’m a lot better. I still have my neurotic moments, but in general I deal with them far better. I’m currently monitoring a crook shoulder, tennis elbow (and I don’t even play), and irritable bowel syndrome. Hopefully they’ll come to nothing.
Last week I went for my annual skin cancer check. I explained to the doctor that I was someone who worried about my health a little.
“Well, hypochondriac’s live longer,” said the doctor with a smile. Of course I don’t believe that for a second. I think it just feels longer.
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