I Have Hypochondria, And It's A Real Disorder — Not A Punchline
My life is controlled by an endless series of obsessions, intrusive thoughts, rituals, and fears, but I don’t have OCD — at least not technically. Instead, I have a somatoform disorder better known as hypochondria. Hypochondria, or health anxiety, is a preoccupation with having or acquiring a serious illness. As with OCD, health anxiety can cause persistent fears and reassurance-seeking behaviors, like, say, checking and rechecking your pulse for the one-hundredth time while standing in line at Starbucks.
The health anxious are often portrayed as comical worriers, clogging ERs with stubbed toes and chapped lips. And it's true to an extent. I've given myself breast exams at stoplights and had my hands down my pants checking groin lymph nodes more times than I can count. It's funny!
But it isn’t entirely accurate. I don't freak out over every little rash or headache. I don’t make weekly trips to the ER; I'd like to think I'm more reasonable than that. I'm not worried about germs—hell, I'd lick the floor of Grand Central Station for $20. Instead, it feels more like alarms are going off 24/7 telling me that something is very wrong with my body. I'm constantly on the lookout for something. I don't know what, but I'm certain it's there. I palpate my lymph nodes hourly. I check my moles daily. I've twisted myself into a pretzel just to see my cervix. I once found an actual breast lump and poked it until my entire breast was black and blue. The humor has long since left me.
Exercise and meditation certainly helps, but there are days when I'm so convinced that something is wrong that I cannot function. I shut down. I detach. I just fall off the radar.
It all started in third grade when my school sent home an informational flyer on Reye's syndrome, a rare disorder that causes swelling of the brain and liver, and mostly occurs in children and teenagers. For some reason that shattered my childlike notion of invincibility and I had a revelation: Sometimes people die and there's nothing grownups can do about it. My obsessions grew as I grew. I would learn about a new disease and add it to my roster of fears. Meningitis, lymphoma, ALS, mad cow—the list is endless, and it's always on my mind.
I've had my share of health scares. Two breast lumps, fibroadenomas, were removed ten years ago. I also had a 10cm endometrial cyst destroy my left ovary because it took six years to find a doctor to take my symptoms seriously. A simple ultrasound was all it took to see the mass. It was terrifying.
I see a therapist. I have a psychiatrist. I've tried many, many meds and have gone through an intensive outpatient OCD program. There was only one other hypochondriac in the program with me and the counselors didn't seem to know what to do with us. A lot of time was spent visiting health-related websites in order to "desensitize" us and make us less anxious. Honestly, it was just weird.
Exercise and meditation certainly helps, but there are days when I'm so convinced that something is wrong that I cannot function. I shut down. I detach. I just fall off the radar. My husband shoulders all parenting responsibilities alone, and that's not fair. He's unbelievably supportive, but even his patience wears thin.
Then comes the depression, because I've failed yet again as a spouse and a parent. This is where my therapist and psychiatrist serve as my cheerleading team, telling me to dust myself off and pick my life up again. But what life? After nearly twenty years of wallowing in fear, I don't have much of a life left. That's not exactly true. I have my wonderful husband and daughter, but beyond that I don't have much, and it's embarrassing.
Currently, I'm setting small goals, like trying to connect to my community and getting out more. Sometimes all that entails is "liking" something on Facebook. I'm looking into another outpatient program and I'm still searching for the right combination of meds. At this point I don't expect to get better, but I do hope that one day I'll find peace with illness. After all, it's inevitable that at some point my body will fail me, and all I can hope for is that I'm surrounded and supported by those who love me. And that can’t happen if I spend my life in hiding.
So my goal for today is to poke my head out and connect with fellow hypochondriacs of the world. I also hope I’ve done my small part to educate readers on what mental illness looks like. It’s different for everyone, but it’s a struggle that we’re all too often ashamed to talk about.
I did my part for today; let’s hope I can keep the momentum going.
Image: Sara Avery