It started when I was about eight.
I was standing in my parents’ bathroom, screaming because I was positive I needed to have my appendix removed. They tried to calm me down, to convince me everything was okay and a stomachache didn’t automatically indicate appendicitis. I was inconsolable, certain.
The appendix dilemma showed up a few more times, until I went to see my doctor who taught me exactly what happens in your body when you have appendicitis and told me exactly what I would be likely to feel should mine ever burst. From then on, every time I had a stomachache, I thought, “If I can still walk around, my appendix is doing fine.”
My surgery fears decreased, but my worries about my health didn’t.
The first time I ever remember figuring out not everyone worried about this like I did was on a visit to my school nurse’s office. I was there asking to call my mom—for the third day in a row—because I felt nauseous. I caught a glimpse of my file on her desk, and saw a post-it that said “Has hypochondriacal tendencies.” In the years that followed, those tendencies mean I’ve believed myself to have just about every type of infection, cancer, virus, syndrome, or condition in the book.
When I get a headache, rather than reaching for a couple of Advil or taking a nap and doing about my day, I become fixated on what I’m sure is a sign of my impending doom. Before I know it, I’ve decided my headache is a brain tumor or an aneurysm that could burst at any second. I get worried, and then because I’m worried, my heart starts to beat faster and I get a little nauseous. Then, my head hurts and I’m nauseous, so I’m sure I’m probably dying. Thinking I’m dying makes me dizzy, and feeling dizzy makes me more certain the problem is very bad. It’s a vicious, endless cycle—worrying more means more symptoms, and more symptoms mean worrying more.
I have stayed up nights afraid the tiny drop of mouthwash I accidentally swallowed is poisoning me and that the white dot on my nail is a very rare disease affecting only 0.2% of the American population. I’ve slept with the windows open in winter because I’m afraid of carbon monoxide poisoning and I’ve called poison control because I thought I got citronella candle wax in my eye. For the record, it’s not poisonous at all.
One of the scariest things for me about an “episode” of hypochondria (not so dissimilar from a panic attack) is how good I am at convincing myself there is a serious problem and how difficult it is (though it’s gotten much better after years of learning tools to handle it) to come down from the panic. Anxiety moves very quickly, so one second I have a sore throat and the next I’ve already diagnosed myself with a likely fatal strain of meningitis and am already worrying about what treatment options I’ll have, if any.
In the heat of the moment, I feel like I lose my sense of reality a little. I become so convinced that I am seriously sick that I can’t really remember that this happens to me. A lot. You’d think that knowing that, since not a single one of the thousands of heart attacks I’ve believed I’m having has ever actually been real, I would stop worrying when my chest hurts. In the moment, though, the symptoms feel real and I lose sight of the fact that I should know the drill by now.
I have spent a long time trying to learn the difference between what it feels like to have a symptom of an actual illness and a symptom of an imagined illness, but the line is hard to draw, and once you add panic to the mix, all bets are off. It’s a little bit like being a car that doesn’t have any shock absorbers. The average person feels a lot of less-than-perfect things in their body all the time—an ache or pain or itch—and they go about their lives, sometimes not even noticing. I, on the other hand, notice and worry about every single little thing. There isn’t an itchy eye or a sore throat or a bruise I don’t track and obsess over.
It’s like being on red alert all the time, and it means I can’t always trust my gut when it comes to my own body. If I followed my instincts about my health, I’d have a lot of unnecessary medical bills (a lesson I learned after quite a few false alarm doctor’s appointments), so instead, I have to try to out-wit or ignore the worried part of me.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve gotten better at understanding what’s fear talking and what’s actual sickness. I don’t let myself Google symptoms and I can actually watch Grey’s Anatomy without believing I have everything Meredith diagnoses.
Just like with any fear, you have to find what works for you. I can’t always talk myself down in an anxious moment, so instead I’ve found that having a sense of humor about it calms me down. If I can laugh at my panic, I start to feel like I’m gaining back some control over the moment and over myself. I make a lot of jokes about how many times I say I’m on the verge of passing out or going to admit myself to the nearest ER and I laugh with my friends about whatever bizarre and exotic disease I diagnose myself with.
I think I’m always going to worry about my health—but for me, laughter might actually be the best medicine.