#1: Anxieties of Health & Dying

by new hystericisms


“So, don’t let Alan hit any of your pressure points because if he does, you’re not going to feel anything, but you’ll drop dead in three days. Oh, and you should always guard your face. Because, if the other guy hits you in the nose, it could drive the nose bone into your brain and you’ll release your bowels, and, well, die.”

I, too, grew up with the fear that for any number of reasons, I had somehow triggered my death in some invisible, silent way and I wouldn’t see it coming until it was too late. I had many anxieties as a child: hellfire, demons in my bedroom waiting for me to sleep (clearly I had a happy, healthy Protestant upbringing), the neighbour’s dog eating my face off, swallowing a fly and having it lay eggs in my stomach (and, the natural result, those eggs hatching and exploding out of every orifice), but by far the most pressing anxiety I faced was that I was living the plot of one of those terrifying, best-selling Lurlene McDaniel books (So Much To Live For; Mother, Help Me Live; A Time to Die; 16 and Dying; etc., etc).

In fact, I had a few troubling incidents with books. The book 13 is too Young to Die (apparently chronic illness in children was the vampire/werewolf fiction craze of my youth) absolutely convinced me that I had Lupus. Then, reading a Hardy Boys mystery, I came across a man who died seemingly out of nowhere. Someone had slipped him a tasteless, odourless poison in his food and it waited inside him for 72 hours and then bam, donezo. Obviously I became convinced I had somehow also ingested something like this (accidentally, of course, the poison would’ve been meant for someone else–restaurants, grocery stores, the like). Since I knew my parents wouldn’t believe me, I didn’t tell them, but those three nights before I was in the clear were quite tearful. I actually could never read another Hardy Boys mystery again. Also: flesh eating disease, leukemia (because, you know, bruises), the rare-yet-real child heart attack.  If it had happened to other kids, I was so sure it would happen to me.

I remember crying (again) one day while reading the Precious Moments cross-stitch on my wall that looked a little something like this (really, parents? “If I should die before I wake” ?) and, having accepted the fact that my premature death was inevitable, wept, prayed, begged that I would just live to be 16. And, at the time, I really felt like that was a lot to ask, like I was cheating fate.

Somehow, I made it to 16. And then 26. But my anxieties haven’t really lessened. I know my neuroses, while irritating and inconvenient, are not as life altering as hypochondria. This is just what goes on in my states of medical anxiety, whatever you want to call them. I have lost a lot of sleep, exasperated a lot of doctors, even endangered relationships. People get sick of it pretty fast. For example, I don’t drive because as soon as I find myself in the middle of an intersection or something, I can convince myself that I am going to pass out. So much so that I will. I laugh it off when I tell people why I don’t want to drive because it’s not really okay with anyone to readily admit that I’ve accepted this thing and just work around it. Because conquer your fears! Picture of a man standing heroically on a mountain top.

Of course I know I’m being ridiculous, illogical. But in the moment, none of that really helps.  Nor do the warnings on birth control pills and tampons. Now that I’ve passed the cutoff for child chronic illness, it’s definitely going to be blood clots or TSS that get me (see: Killer Ninja Tampons of Death). Also of no help: the internet! They  have a name for those who incessantly search their symptoms on WebMD and find the worst possible prognosis: cyberchondria. Hello, old friend. Turns out women are checking Google to find out “they have cancer or are pregnant, or are pregnant with cancer” twice as often as men (Dr. Google Thinks…)…an area I am not unfamiliar with. Because if it doesn’t look like the object of a Petrarchan love sonnet down there, everything imaginable is wrong. And because on TV, we have gorgeous girls who have sex freely but never would they ever have something ewwwww like an STI (see: that episode of Gossip Girl where Serena is photographed going into a sexual health clinic. Rumours abound. Everyone is throwing up every time they see her until she finds a way to clear her name). Because STIs are presented as the Worst Possible Thing That Could Ever Happen to You (especially if you are a woman). Which is a big part of the reason, I think, that cyberchondriacs, who convince themselves of the worst possible prognoses, could become so certain they have all the STIs and that their lives are ruined. It can take a real toll on relationships.

Obviously, though, it’s not true that all women are more likely to have health anxieties than men. Take for instance:

The call wound down and I asked the lady if there were any other warning signs I should look out for. She said that some people about to experience a heart attack have a sense of dread and impending doom.“But I have that all the time”, I said. 

Spoken by a guy after my own heart. (And I just wanted an excuse to include it because it was so perfect).  But I think where it becomes more specific to women is when it comes to the deep, dark mysterious lady-parts. The horror of nothing to see, and all that. So,  those of us who happen to have both vaginas and unfounded health anxieties are not just crazy because our uteruses (uteri?) wandered up into our brains. If more women than men are cyberchondriac-ing, the stigma around issues of women’s sexual health is certainly not helping. As for all the other possible ailments, I am trying to take my doctor’s latest advice: “People get headaches. You’re fine”