Some work-related maladies are obvious. Typists can develop carpal tunnel. Football players might suffer from turf toe. Laborers may end up with bad backs. Topless dancers may get --- well, chapped skin, for starters.
In contrast, health and medical writers get off easy: We are prone to something much less painful -- but sometimes just as debilitating: acute hypochondria. (I understand med students are similarly afflicted, but it’s a temporary condition: They eventually turn into physicians and heal themselves.)
I know. I have it. In fact, I’m also a victim of an even worse malady: acute hypochondria-by-proxy. But more on that later.
I interpret quite well, thank you!
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, hypochondria is a preoccupation with the belief that one has an illness, based on a misinterpretation of bodily symptoms.
The Manual is wrong. I interpret them perfectly. The symptoms themselves are the problem.
I wasn’t always a hypochondriac. In fact, as a little girl, I’d have to fake the symptoms of ailments I didn’t have -- but desperately needed -- to get out of ballet class.
I was a chubby, uncoordinated six-year-old. But I was a smart one. I would plead illness and then use the stove or the heater so, when my mother took my temperature, it would be up to 99-point-something. I knew 100 risked a trip to the doctor, while a mere 98.9 produced a yawn. Ultimately, however, my ruse was rendered obsolete; either Mom caught on or my ballet teacher grew weary. I bade a happy bye-bye to both ballet and bogus fevers.
Today, I have no need to scheme; my symptoms readily assert themselves. I suppose it started with one of my earliest freelance gigs, developing content for a woman’s health site. It was a fascinating assignment, and I had a chance to research all sorts of maladies.
One of the first was scleroderma. (I should add at this point that while I am laughing at myself, I certainly am not laughing at scleroderma, a debilitating disease, or any of the others I mention.)
Scleroderma is difficult for doctors to diagnose, but for me? Oh, it was easy. Among the symptoms are swelling of hands and feet, and joint pain and stiffness. My fingers did look a little puffy. And maybe my sore, stiff fingers weren’t the result of typing all day, but from -- something else?
And then there’s Raynaud's phenomenon – something almost every scleroderma patient manifests: Abnormal sensitivity to cold in the extremities. I was born and raised in Tampa. Anywhere north of there, I always have cold hands and feet.
It was obvious: Scleroderma was the culprit. At least, it was obvious -- until the symptoms vanished.
Maybe, now, I have lead poisoning. I do have a headache. Irritability is another symptom. I’m sure my husband would say so, but given that flesh-eating bacteria have already infiltrated his brain, I’m not sure he’s a good judge.
You get the idea. At one point, I could have sworn I had prostate problems.
It’s not that I’m self absorbed and a bit divorced from reality; after all, Google backs me up!
I’ll be typing away, writing about leprosy or beriberi or measles, and I’ll start experiencing symptoms. Being the science-minded woman that I am, I don’t take a little red spot on my face as just a little red spot on my face. I Google them. And yup, up comes the very disease I feared. I start humming the “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag. “
And it’s not just a problem for me. I can diagnose anyone within 1,000 feet.
Hypochondria by proxy.
Those flesh-eating bacteria I mentioned? The ones infiltrating my husband’s brain? I made them up. But he’s not exempt from my diagnostic prowess.
The other day, he was having foot problems. Now, in all seriousness, the problem was pretty obvious and I was able to quickly diagnose it as a bunion. I identified the appropriate treatment (ice) and took good care of him. After all, not only do I adore him, but he’s the one who handles our bills and cooks dinner every night.
But then I started poking around the medical literature to see what else foot pain could mean. Gout. Of course. Or worse: Maybe there were symptoms he didn’t tell me. Good grief: I’m going to be a widow at 46! Thank heaven I look good in black.
But it was just a bunion.
A charm against the real world?
The curious thing about my hypochondria is that it’s usually about something worse than what could really be wrong. It’s as though by diagnosing something fantastic, I can ward off any real risk. Or at least pretend it’s not there.
Back before I had my hysterectomy, I was in pain three weeks a month. I’d type with one hand and pop ibuprofen with the other. When I finally talked to my ob/gyn, she suggested the surgery, since the other available therapies would only be short-term fixes.
Oh, no. I can live with it, I told Dr. A, trying not to wince.
Later, back at my desk, I imagined various implausible ills.
But after a couple of tests, Dr. A outdid me. There was a chance the problem wasn’t just fibroids, but ovarian cancer, she said. I couldn’t trump that if I’d wanted to. There are some places where fear and hysteria join hands. Cancer is one of them.
So I had the surgery. And it was good.
But I’ve come to realize that the banal is more terrifying than the exotic. Diabetes is more likely to impair my quality of life than Degos disease; arthritis in my hands holds more realistic terrors than Addison's disease.
So, I know that I may be a bit of a hypochondriac about my hypochondria: I’m in decent health and it’s 99.9% certain I’m not going to contract the diseases I read and write about. I can say, as I sit here, it is my imagination, nothing’s wrong, I am being mildly hysterical. Probably because I’m a little tired.
Hey -- being tired is a symptom of something. I’d better go look that up.