Inside the Soul of a Hypochondriac
Better I were distract;
So should my thoughts be severed from my
And woes, by wrong imaginations, lose
The knowledge of themselves.
When I was in high school, I used to live next to the town cemetery. My balcony was looking straight to the entrance. I was 14. For good or bad, at this age, I have seen way too many funerals passing under my window. I have never felt any discomfort with this, at least I thought so. After all, I didn’t know any of those people. But this was the time when I started asking myself for the first time big questions: “Why are people dying? What’s the purpose of life? What’s my purpose? Why am I here and for how long will I be? Why is God letting people die?”. So, I believe this is when everything started.
This could be a promising opening of a horror/psycho/drama story, I told myself when Jane started talking to me about her problem. I knew her for years, but I had no idea that the real horror in her story was only now beginning.
Jane is 50 something, well-educated, divorced and very sensitive. Especially, when it comes to her health. She has visited more hospitals than one can imagine. She speaks like she has several PHDs in all sorts of health conditions, reciting their symptoms with a remarkable precision. This is her curse. For more than 10 years Jane has been living in a constant fear. Of being ill. Of being misunderstood by doctors. Of dying.
The only problem she has never tried to find or treat is the one, she later admitted, that she actually has – hypochondria.
When I was 25 my father got sick. I was the only one in the family who was in control. The prognosis wasn’t good. I was the one who had to be strong and help my mother and relatives take care of him, take him do the hospital when needed, speak to the doctor and then, no matter the news, pretend that everything is going to be alright. Nothing was right with me from within, though. I had no one to cry with, because it was expected of me to be the strong one. This is how I went through the first loss of a beloved person – pretty much alone. And these pictures and moments got stuck in my head for long before I could be in peace with my subconscious frightened to death self again. But I was still young, so I went through it.
This is how many people enter the vicious circle of chronic anxieties. Hypochondria is considered a psychosomatic disorder and it’s common for serious illnesses or deaths of family members or friends to trigger it. The condition is characterized by fears that minor bodily or mental symptoms may indicate a serious illness, constant self-examination, and self-diagnosis. Many people with hypochondria express disbelief in the doctor’s opinions and refuse to accept that there is no life-threatening medical condition jeopardizing them.
Once I had some terrible coughs and was hospitalized for real. I thought I have lung cancer, but the diagnosis was different – pulmonary embolism. I googled it and it turned out it’s like a heart attack, but for the lungs. I survived. But as terrified as I was, after time I decided to ask for a second opinion. The other doctor denied the diagnosis and said it was impossible, but he didn’t tell what the reason for my condition actually was.
So, I spent 4 years investigating what has happened to me and that was the first step to my obsession. Since then, I have screened myself for all types of cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, various rare diseases. There are a couple of hospitals I won’t go to anymore, as I find doctors there ignorant to symptoms that I am experiencing.
Hypochondriacs frequently hold the distressing belief that doctors don’t understand them and that a subtle mismatching of language and intention is leading to petty annoyances and even permanent dislikes. As Susan Baur points out in “Hypochondria, Woeful Imaginings” – they might be actually right. Some doctors refer to such patients as “trolls”, “nomads”, “doctor-shoppers” and most recently “GOMERs” (from Get Out of My Emergency Room). As an intelligent and educated woman, Jane told me that she had seen this attitude many times and it hurt her.
I am not crazy. Doctors need to understand that no one would behave this way just for fun. It’s actually a small death for me every time I step into the doctor’s room, expecting to finally hear what’s echoing all the time in my head. Many people have told me that I need to simply start thinking positively, or to imagine happy moments when the panic hits me. And I work on this, but believe me, imagining butterflies is not big of a weapon against the monstrous thoughts of having cancer.
The fear of certain illnesses has been changing during the centuries. Jane admits that what she is most afraid of is cancer. And this is pretty common, as cancer was announced the most feared illness of 21st century according to nationwide survey (no matter that it killed hardly half of the number claimed by heart disease). Different were the fears in the 18th and 19th centuries, though. At these times people were obsessed with syphilis as sexuality and morality were in a tense contradiction. At the same time, the fear of the Pox and mercury poisoning was pretty “modern” too.
Later on, the fear of sexually transmitted diseases remained, but AIDS became the biggest threat along with tuberculosis. Cancer replaced all of them, and not only in hypochondriacs, but among the rest of the population. A new type of hypochondria evolved out of that – “cancerophobia”. Many people, who are terrified, don’t even dare to pronounce it and refer to it as “that disease”.
I don’t like speaking about this stuff. But what can I say when people ask me “How are you”? Should I lie and just answer I’m fine? Well, I sometimes do lie. I hate to see the same look every time I start explaining about the latest examinations I went through. Because this is how I am. Sometimes I’m relieved it’s not what I believed it is. But then I ask myself, if it’s not this cancer, which one is it? It’s the tiny moment that brings me back to the same track of endless investigation of symptoms. It’s a circle.
Visits to the doctor ease her mind for a time, but Jane is not reassured for long and as many other hypochondriacs, she often thinks that the medical care has been inadequate. Stefan Ursu, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Texas explains to the HealthLeader that reasons for such behavior are unknown, but a combination of genetics, environment, and history of trauma may all play a role in hypochondria.
It has a lot to do with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In some cases, the symptoms experienced are real and physical like headaches, heartburn, digestive problems etc.
The worst part is not the hell I am living every day in. It’s what it does to my most beloved ones. One night I woke up with a terrible heartbeat. I thought I am having a heart attack and called my son. I told him I cannot breathe. He tried to calm me down and ask what I am feeling. I lost my temper quickly and yelled at him “Call the ambulance, I feel I am dying”!
I will never forget his eyes at that moment. They were, full of pain and panic. I was so convinced that I managed to transmit him my horror, to convince him that I, his own mother, am dying. This is something that you don’t want to do to your children or anyone you truly love.
Research says that family and friends are crucial for helping people with hypochondria. Therapy is important too, but the problem must be realized and accepted by the patients first.
I am now at the beginning of my treatment. It took me years to understand what the real problem is and find a therapist who understands it too. She made me remember these times when I lived next to the town cemetery, asking myself why people diе and mostly when they die. I do realize these are wrong questions in so many ways. What if the question we need to ask ourselves is why and when do we live?
It’s a constant self-enforcement and a real struggle to keep myself in control. But I do it for my children and for myself. At the age of fifty I know that the time left is less than the time gone. I need to live it the right way. I spent enough time being a shadow of this and that illness.
It’s time to return to myself.
*Jane is a real person, but the name we used to introduce her is fictional. She doesn’t want to reveal her identity for reasons related to the stigma most of the anxiety disorders are surrounded with.
If you relate in some way to her story, tell her in the comments. She needs to know she is not alone.
Share her story if you think it might help somebody else.
This article was written by Vesselina Foteva