Hypochondria: The Impossible Illness
I am Dying
I know I am dying, because, well, I just know. I’m certain of it. I can feel it.
That pain on the left side of my stomach still hasn’t gone away. It’s been there for eight or nine months now. The ultrasound came up negative. So did the CT scan, the MRI and the colonoscopy.
“It’s probably nothing,” said one doctor.
“You likely pulled a muscle,” said another.
“I’d ignore it,” advised a third.
They are wrong. I know they are wrong. So, with nowhere else to turn, I seek out reassurance. “What do you think my stomach pain is?” I ask. “Do you think I’m OK?”
Eyes roll. “You’re fine,” my father says. “You’re fine,” my mother says. “You’re fine,” my sister-in-law says.
“You’re 37 years old. You run marathons. You play basketball every Monday. You’ve never even broken a bone,” my wife says. “You’re fine.”
I don’t believe them. I can’t believe them. I refuse to believe them. I wish I could believe them.
This is what it is to be a hypochondriac—what it is to live a life too often based upon the raw, carnal fear of inevitable, forthcoming, around-the-bend death. Though I was only recently diagnosed with the disorder, it has plagued me for more than a decade. Over the past 10 years, I have been convinced that I am dying of (in no particular order): brain cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, testicular cancer, lung cancer, neck cancer, Lyme disease. When one ailment is dismissed by doctors, I inevitably rush to the Internet to learn why they are wrong. What? I don’t have colon cancer? Then it must be…. A full-throttle hypochondriac like me convinces himself—beyond reassurance, beyond comfort, beyond anything—that a cut is never merely a cut, that a cough is never merely a cough. He doesn’t merely think he feels the pain. He literally feels the pain.
It begins innocently enough. Just recently, for example, I woke up with blurry vision in my left eye. I was OK for a while. I rubbed the eye. Tried lubricating drops. But when the vision remained blurred for several days, my mind began to wander. Is something wrong with that side of my brain? Why is my neck hurting? I mentioned it to my wife, who said, “You’re probably fine—don’t go to the computer.” I went to the computer, where I Googled “blurred vision and tumor.” A whopping 199,000 results came up, many of which confirmed my worst nightmares.
On cue, I was overcome by dread. Actually, a blackness. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to think. Or eat. I was dying. I knew I was dying.
My lowest moment came two summers ago, when—in the midst of an otherwise uneventful trip to Florida to see the in-laws—I was overcome by despair about the Lou Gehrig’s disease eating away at my body. What brought it on? I’m not certain. Stress, perhaps. Or anxiety. My arms were heavy, my breathing was strained. I locked myself in a bedroom and told my wife to handle our two children without me. Finally, she insisted I get help. “This isn’t going well,” she said. “You need to talk to someone.”
I immediately contacted a therapist, who convinced me of my irrationality. But now there’s this pain in my stomach.
This damned pain … the greeks invented the term to describe ailments caused by movement of the upper region of the abdomen—from hypo (below) and chondros (breast bone cartilage). By the late 19th century, however, hypochondriasis had come to mean “illness without a specific cause.”
In the year 2010, hypochondriasis is as covert and confounding as ever.