The Hypochondriac: Rationalizing Fear of the Unknown

November 10, 2014 12:17 AM

Subject line: I’m Dying

I have decided I have a blood clot. It started in my leg and has now moved to my lungs. I will likely die in my sleep. If I do, my ghost will visit often and play the sax just for you.

It began a few days ago with leg pain followed by shortness of breath. The only logical conclusion was that I have a blood clot, obviously. I didn’t die that night, as you can tell from the date of my most recent goodbye message, but I am still partially convinced that it is only a matter of time before the clot gets me.

Does this make me a hypochondriac? I don’t know. According to the Mayo Clinic website, someone who has hypochondria is fixated on the idea that they have an undiagnosed serious or life-threatening illness. Serious cases can interfere with everyday life.

If you had asked me a few months ago whether or not I think I am a hypochondriac, I would have laughed and said no, despite the fact that I usually think I have something terminal going untreated. Then I had the following conversation with a friend.

“Let’s say you get a headache. What do you think is behind it?” he asked.

“A brain tumor, obviously,” I stated matter-of-factly.

He explained that most people don’t jump to that conclusion. Most people would think it is something simple first, such as stress or sugar intake. I realize it could be something simple. But I also realize that it might not. I pride myself on being realistic, and jumping to the conclusion that a headache is a sign of a brain tumor probably contradicts that. But people do get brain tumors, so why couldn’t it happen to me?

Based on what I have read, I would say that it is possible that I have a mild case of hypochondria. I can maintain relationships, go to work every day, and finish everyday tasks without incident. However, I do have moments where I stop in my tracks and think the worst of something that could be simple. This is proven by another goodbye message.

September 14, 2014 10:53 PM

Subject line: Well…

I hate to be dramatic but I am going to die tonight. I was washing my face with new soap and somehow snorted in air in the process, breathing in probably toxic soap chemicals. I have a lump in my throat and my voice is raspy. My lungs are probably burning away as I type this. Tachycardia is setting in. My body is shutting down. I will likely die in my sleep. Please convince my mom I should be buried on the right side of the river.

Okay, so maybe that was a little dramatic. I really could have inhaled toxic chemicals that were eating away at my throat and lungs. But I have to wonder if simply going to sleep with this fear in my head was an indication of something. Had I accepted death in that moment? Or was I questioning my self-diagnosis? I was worried enough to say goodbye, but not worried enough to get a professional opinion.

I think the answer lies in death. Am I genuinely worried that I will die in those fearful moments? Yes. Do I want to die in those moments? No. And I think that is the point. It is a fear of death.

If you know me on a personal level, you know that I have a fear of being abducted and murdered and all that comes with that situation: the fear of not knowing what will happen to me, the fear of succumbing to something painful and irreparable, the fear of not getting the opportunity to say goodbye to those I love.

But where did this fear begin? My mother. (Don’t worry – she won’t be offended by this – as she says, “You always blame the mother”). She was always watching murder mysteries when I was young. I would watch them too, and would then search under my bed and in the closet, not for monsters like most little girls, but for abductors. I would make sure every door was locked, and to this day I still cannot sleep with windows open.

I found the shows fascinating. At eight years old I would walk down the street to the Mobil station and buy, with my own money, the most recent newspapers to read more about the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation. As fascinating as I found it, news stories instilled a fear in me. It is a fear that I still have, and a fear that is probably aggravated by the fact that I still watch crime documentaries.

I do think media has something to do with my somewhat obsessive fear of death. The crime shows intensify my fears of being abducted and murdered. The internet intensifies my fear of serious health problems. After all, it is Dr. Google who diagnoses me with tumors all the time, and not a professional with a medical degree.

Google … Doctors with medical degrees … Eh, potato, potahto, right?

Hypochondria can affect men or women, but is more likely to affect people with a past history of physical or sexual abuse, and people who have had family members who have suffered from a serious illness. It can strike at any age, but often appears in early adulthood. In my opinion, this could be attributed to the fact that the internet is readily accessible to young adults and it is the most common place most people go to for research.

The seriousness of individual cases of hypochondria can vary from mild to severe. If it begins to interfere with your everyday life, the first step is to go to your doctor. (Luckily the internet will tell you to do this as well!) Because this disease is often an emotional problem rather than a physical disorder, don’t be alarmed if your doctor recommends you meet with a mental health professional to discuss your worries.

As for me, my fears are mild (at least in my opinion) at this point, so I will continue to believe that I have tumors and blood clots and go on with my day. (A coworker has affectionately named my tumor Phanto(m)sarcoma). I will continue to google my symptoms and write goodbye messages in moments of fear, just as I will continue to watch crime shows and check every window and door in the house. I will continue to walk the line.

Resources and forums for people with hypochondria:

Chantal O'Connor
A self-proclaimed non-enthusiast, Chantal lives on the wrong side of the Hudson River in upstate New York. She is a cat person at heart and prefers the past over the present. Her free time is spent reading biographies, watching black and white films, and drinking Scotch. Chantal responds to any form of optimism with a genuine, yet suspicious "hmmm."