SL News Updates: How I learned to tame my hypochondria

Surrounded, as I was growing up, by slightly health-hysterical women (“How are you?” I once asked an aunt over the phone. “I’m on a mobile intravenous drip,” was the answer), I never worried about my own health. There simply wasn’t room to anyway, because someone was always more ill. How I laughed at my friend Mark when, in our 20s, he thought he was dying due to some dodgy bolognese. Even when I smoked and developed what would now be a Google-worthy search – a searing pain in my lungs – I just lay on a tennis ball and massaged the spot. It went.

So when my, as I came to call it, “late-onset hypochondria” hit, in my 40s, I wasn’t ready for it. And I didn’t know how terrifying it could be. In its own way, it is an illness. (Strictly speaking hypochondriasis and health anxiety are two separate malaises with overlapping features.) The background to all this was deaths – lots of them. My cousin died, aged 51, her death shrouded in whispers and secrets; then a friend died, then another, then another. This last friend, Callie, had felt fine, gone to the doctor and was dead two weeks later. All these friends had also been 51 when they died and in my mind, it seemed impossible to get beyond that age.

Then a family friend died, then my aunt, then my uncle. Throughout all this I knew my dad was also ill, on his own final flight path, but he didn’t want to be defined by his illness, and so he wasn’t and very few people knew. The secrets and the fear mixed together to make their own special kind of dynamite.

Somewhere in the middle of all this it started. The symptoms. They varied as did the “diagnoses”, but one memorable day I had Parkinson’s, liver cancer and Paget’s disease (some members of my maternal family have this) all in one go. It was a Thursday and I was catatonic with fear. All I could think about was, how could I do the school run while having chemotherapy? How would I cope with the tremors and shakes and the pains in my skull? I had two children, one still a baby, could I breastfeed her on chemo?

The cycle would always be the same. I would hear about someone getting ill, I would ask too many questions. I would develop the symptoms. I would be terrified and be able to tell no one, letting no light or perspective in, neither any hope of reassurance. I couldn’t go to the doctor because Callie had been fine, gone to the doctor, and then she was dead. In my mind I was convinced if I could just avoid diagnosis, I could avoid death. It was exhausting and frightening. Eventually something would give, I would be able to tell one person who would give me a reality check and I would have some respite, until the whole cycle started again. Of course, there were moments I realised this must be my mind, being powerful but destructive. And the symptoms would fade, until the next time.