by Laura

I’m pretty sure I’m a Hypochondriac. Which, I realize, is exactly the type of thing a Hypochondriac would say.

That said, of all of the diseases I could possibly (but almost never) have according to the many, many hours I’ve spent on WebMD, the reading I’ve done on Hypochondria is one of the few times when I read all of the symptoms and thought, “oh, okay, that explains it.” It may or may not be worth noting that the only other time I have actually accurately diagnosed myself was the time I had stress-induced Shingles, which was probably a sign that I need to learn to manage my anxiety, health-related or otherwise, in a more effective manner.

But if one reads WebMD (which, as will quickly become apparent, I probably should not), clinical Hypochondria (which is apparently now called Somatic Symptom Disorder) presents as follows:

  • The person has a history of going to many doctors. He or she may even “shop around” for a doctor who will agree that he or she has a serious illness.
  • The person recently experienced a loss or stressful event.
  • The person is overly concerned about a specific organ or body system, such as the heart or the digestive system.
  • The person’s symptoms or area of concern might shift or change.
  • A doctor’s reassurance does not calm the person’s fears; he or she believes the doctor is wrong or made a mistake.
  • The person’s concern about illness interferes with his or her work, family, and social life.
  • The person may suffer from anxiety, nervousness, and/or depression.

Six out of seven of these symptoms apply to me. It should be noted that shopping around for a doctor is difficult in New York. You tend to stick with one if they A) Aren’t sociopaths B) Take your insurance and C) Don’t require a subway transfer.

(Another thing that may be worth noting is that when you search for “WebMD Hypochondria,” the second entry that pops up is “Internet Makes Hypochondria Worse.” This article is published on WebMD. WebMD has self-awareness that the average Hypochondriac, apparently, does not.)

I haven’t always been this way, and I have no doubt that the manifestation of these symptoms is directly correlated to the fact that the three people I loved most in the world have been unceremoniously reduced to ashes by cancer. I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals. Like, A LOT a lot of time. I know how to talk an over-tired nurse into wrangling me the sole, coveted guest recliner (it helps if you look more tired than she does). I understand a surprising number of things written on medical charts. I am very, very good at finding the hospital cafeteria as well as the place to get the best coffee, which is almost never the cafeteria. I have no shame about rummaging for Toastchee crackers and those institutional ice cream cups with the little wooden spoons in the break rooms of oncology wards, and always feel like I’ve struck gold when I can score the last chocolate-vanilla swirl.

My time spent in hospitals, however, has almost never ended well. Walking through the halls—always with that sterile smell that is meant to reassure you that no germ shall survive but mostly evokes the feeling that no person who passes though will, either—I’d pass by people carrying bouquets of balloons announcing “It’s a Girl!” and feel wounded and jealous but also entirely confused by the prospect that a hospital, for some people, could be a place of good. No hospital has ever been that for me and I can’t imagine how one ever could. For me, the hospital is where my father went when not enough oxygen was getting to his brain and he spent night after night hallucinating dogs running up and down the halls. The hospital is where I watched my best friend being forced to piss into a bag at the age of 26. The hospital is where I held my mother’s hand as she died, and left her body to be stored in an icebox in the basement until it could be picked up by the lowest-level person at the funeral home.

I don’t like hospitals.

For the most part, I don’t have anything against doctors. The ones I have dealt with have, with few exceptions, been kind and professional, and I believe the work they do is immensely important. But doctors also have the undesirable designation of being the people who tell you when you or someone you love has cancer and is going to die and for that, the thought and sight of a doctor causes my face to turn hot and my heart to throb erratically in my throat.

My last doctor’s appointment was my annual OBGYN check-up, and while I’m sure there are no women who would describe being intimately probed and swabbed as their favorite thing to do, the act of simply scheduling the appointment caused me severe, steadily-elevating anxiety until the moment the check-up was done and I could finally leave. I spent that week examining my own anatomy with a hand mirror, looking for any sign of something terrible and incurable. I obsessively read WebMD and message boards and prepared myself for the worst. I thought of every time and person I’d ever had sex with, and how sometimes STDs don’t show signs or show up on tests immediately. I convinced myself that something was wrong that just hadn’t been found and that my loving and kind boyfriend would leave me. I told him all of this, and he repeatedly reassured me that even though he felt strongly that nothing was wrong that he would continue to love me even if something was. I cried every night.

I woke up the morning of the appointment, having barely slept. My heart was still in my throat. I took a Klonopin and attempted to meditate and it didn’t really help much but maybe it would’ve been worse if I hadn’t. I got on the subway and went to the appointment even though my brain’s “flight” mechanism was fully engaged. When the very nice and very gentle doctor walked into the examination room I burst into tears and explained to her how much I feared going to see doctors even though I don’t particularly fear the actual doctors who have been, in my experience, mostly nice and gentle exactly like herself. She heard me. She explained everything she did as she did it. She reassured me that everything seemed fine and I shouldn’t be concerned. She listened patiently as I worried over every minor cut I’d ever experienced after a bout of rough sex and every bump left by razor burn that I feared could be disease and every cramp that I was convinced was cancer or my uterus prolapsing or a festering infection but was, in fact, just gas. She told me everything was perfectly normal and handed me a tissue. And when it was done, I felt better.

I then swore to myself I would stay the fuck away from WebMD, and then immediately used my phone to Google “Hypochondria” and give myself that exact amateur self-diagnosis using that very site.

I’d like to say this was an isolated event, but this more or less accurately explains how every doctor’s appointment I’ve had has felt since my mother died. The terror may actually be growing worse as time passes. And this, I’m coming to realize, may be the cruelest part about grief. Because immediately after a huge loss you feel messy and horrible and fucked up but you understand exactly why and so does everyone around you and as a result you’re allowed to feel messy and horrible and fucked up. “Your mom died? That sucks.” That makes sense.

But the thing no one tells you, and what will make you angry three years later despite the best efforts of the interior designer who proposed the addition of the indoor fountain that soothingly trickles in the background at your OBGYN’s office as you seethe, is that the grief will bleed out. It will infect aspects of your life you never imagined it could. In fact, it will infect everything. It will make you a difficult girlfriend with a severe fear of abandonment. It will ruin what would otherwise be perfectly fine summer days like July 20th because that is now, and will forever be, the day your father died. And it will make routine medical exams into anxiety-inducing traps that consume you with fear.

You will grow angrier and angrier at the thought that the cancer didn’t just rip apart your family structure and rearrange your life, it has rearranged your brain and your heart, too, maybe permanently, maybe forever.

According to WebMD, though, Hypochondria can be treated with a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and anti-anxiety meds. So in spite of the fact that the mental illness I have diagnosed myself with makes me feel like these feelings will last forever, there is good evidence to suggest it will not.