“Everything Is Killing You” is an ongoing series on things I think you should be worried about.
One night, I wake up with a pain in my right side, just under my ribs. Panic immediately grips me. Your liver is on the right, as well as your pancreas. Both organs seem to exist solely to grow tumors and wall off their own ducts and murder you. Eventually, my husband wakes up, I assume because my frantic massaging of the sore spot has alerted him to a crisis. On nights like this, he probably feels like we have a water bed, or are living on a raft at sea.
“What’s going on?” he mumbles.
“I have a pain,” I whisper regretfully. “In my side. I think it’s my liver.”
“Under your ribs? On the right?”
“In your hypochondriac region?” I’m not sure, but I think I hear a tiny bit of mirth in his voice. Days earlier, he came home from class, filled with joy. That day, he told me, they learned that hypochondria is named for a space under the ribs; coincidentally, a place that I and most other hypochondriacs imagine pains them.
“What are you actually worried about?” he asks. He has known me long enough to know that when something hurts, all of a sudden, displaced hysteria is probably more likely than a blood clot.
But I don’t know what I’m worried about, so I go to the doctor. Actually, I go see my nurse practitioner, who is very beautiful and smells just like a birthday cake. I’m more comfortable with nurses than doctors, generally. My mother is a nurse, and my husband is training to be one. I seem to be compelled to surround myself with sympathetic but bemused professionals who think I’m mildly hilarious.
“Sure, we can do a liver panel,” my nurse says, with barely suppressed glee. “You’re on enough medication that it’s a good idea to do that every so often anyway.”
“I know I’m a crazy person,” I tell her. “But I just want to be sure.”
“You’re so self-aware!” she says. I really feel that she genuinely likes me. She hugs me when I arrive, and never quite asks, in so many words, what the problem is this time. I feel like that must take a lot of restraint.
Two weeks later, the liver panel comes back. Everything is perfect. I could metabolize a sea of gin. Immediately, my pain disappears.
This has happened to me before. Sometimes, it seems, the only thing wrong with me is that I need an expert, someone smarter than me, to tell me that everything is going to be OK. I sometimes think of starting a hotline for similarly inclined people: You’d call a number, and a soothing voice would tell you, after listening to your problems, that everything is going to be just fine.
The trouble with being a hypochondriac is that I, like all pessimists, am eventually doomed to be right. One day, I’ll limp into the nurse’s office, complaining of a phantom pain, and she’ll actually find something. I’m not sure whether I’ll be more terrified or relieved when that happens. Who was that person whose gravestone read, “I told you I was sick”?
Although, maybe that won’t happen. Maybe I’ll be hit by a bus, or killed by terrorists. Maybe I’ll live to be 91, like famous hypochondriac John Adams, complaining the whole time that any minute, it’ll all be over. Certainly, if my own personal history is any guide, the thing that gets me won’t be any of the diseases I’ve so meticulously worried about all these years. I’ve diagnosed myself with everything from cancer to hepatitis, but I never saw thyroid disease or autoimmune disorders coming. I should have watched more TV. It’s always the orphan diseases that attack people on “House.”
And then, of course, there is some concern that this worrying is bad for me, all by itself. Stress is now linked to everything from heart disease to chubbiness to being sort of a bore at parties. It’s pretty easy to get into a loop this way: first, the phantom pain wakes you up at night; then, after pondering your mortality for a few hours, you start to become deeply concerned about the cumulative effects of losing so much sleep. Isn’t that how they torture prisoners?
Hypochondriacs are our own torturers, but we do have a purpose: I function for my friends like a sort of portable WebMD, one that doesn’t require an unlimited data package, and who is willing to sit in a bar until 3 a.m., listening to them fret about their own concerns, health-related or otherwise.
This is unusual, I’m told. We tend to think that people won’t want to listen to us whine, that we’re secretly not allowed to complain, especially about things that might just be in our heads. I find this more disappointing than I can possibly say. Asked to list my favorite things, I will always put complaining first, above even naps and sex.
This love of complaining extends beyond myself, possibly the only personal example of selflessness I can think of. When a friend apologetically says that he just needs to vent for a moment, I am the person who gravely covers his hand with my own and says, “I want nothing more on earth than to hear about how terrible your day was.” And I mean it. I would have made a tremendously well-regarded undertaker.
Another upside to being a hypochondriac is that you never need to be bored. When I tire of thinking of the disorders themselves, I think about how brave I’d be in the face of adversity. In my daydreams, the Ebola virus strikes a person on the street, randomly. I wave my arms like someone averting an air disaster, to alert the NYPD that we needed to cordon off the street with flares.
Later, I sit in the Slammer, which is what they call the isolation unit at the CDC, and gamely place my palm against that of my beloved’s on the other side of the glass. Everyone weeps, as the realization finally strikes that I was right all along, that the viruses and bacteria and sundry microbes really were waging war on us, that I wasn’t, after all, so crazy — merely self-aware.
I told them I was sick.