A warm welcome back for Amber’s health anxiety (plus a bonus act of awkwardness!)
At some point over the last couple of years, my health anxiety almost completely vanished.
I wouldn’t say it was “cured” exactly; I’m not sure these things are ever really “cured”, but, in my case, my anxiety has always come in peaks and troughs, and the last couple of years have been a very long trough, basically.
Now this was obviously NOT what I’d have expected to happen during a pandemic, but, I don’t know, I remember feeling almost as if everyone is born with a certain amount of anxiety in them, and I’d just burned through mine faster than most. Quite simply, by about May 2020 I’d maxed out my capacity to worry, and, since then I’ve been enjoying an unusually (for me) laid-back relationship with my health.
Migraines have just been migraines, not potential brain tumors.
Random aches and pains have been easily explained by my equally random attempts to exercise.
Colds and other illnesses have been just seasonal bugs, rather than symptoms of something more sinister.
Hell, even Covid itself was just two days of feeling rough, followed by a mild cold. It wasn’t fun, but I wasn’t remotely anxious about it (Either for myself, or on behalf of my family members, who all caught it at the same time). Honestly, it’s been weird, this whole “normality” thing. Weird.
Then, this week I got tonsillitis, and all of that went right out of the window.
Now, unfortunately for me, I’m no stranger to tonsillitis. In fact, it’s something I’ve been prone to since I was a child. (I remember when I was really young, I had it often enough that the doctor wanted me to have my tonsils out, but I was already so scared of hospitals that I point-blank refused, and it was never mentioned again.) Throughout my life, any time I’m stressed or run-down, or generally not looking after myself, my body will respond with a sore throat.
Most of the time it remains just a sore throat, which resolves on its own, without any medical intervention. Every so often, though, it escalates into something much more painful, where one side of my throat (always the same side) becomes so painful that I can’t swallow properly, or, in some cases, even open my mouth more than an inch or so.
[IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: Due to the nature of my health anxiety I’m going to kindly ask you NOT to attempt to diagnose me here, even if you’re an actual doctor, or have a friend of a friend of a friend who’s aunt’s sister’s cat had exactly the same thing. Seriously, PLEASE no internet diagnosis. Thank you.]
The last time this happened to me was in March 2020, and it was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. I was so ill, in fact, that a literal pandemic kicked off towards the end of it, and I was so out of it that it barely even registered with me at first.
This week, it happened again. The tonsillitis, I mean, not the pandemic.
By Wednesday, it was starting to become obvious that this was going to be more than “just” a sore throat. By Thursday, I couldn’t swallow anything more than tiny sips of water, and I could only do that with a great deal of pain, so I did the thing I generally avoid at all costs: I called the doctor.
Since the pandemic started, our doctor’s surgery has stopped just giving out appointments. Instead, you call in the morning, and are called back by a nurse, who takes some details, then decides what to do with you. This all took a couple of hours, and the conclusion was that I’d have to go in so the nurse could take a look at my throat and ‘see what’s going on.’
So, right away, this struck fear into my heart, mostly because one of my other fun, health-related issues is the fact that I have a really strong gag reflex, and will instantly throw up at the slightest attempt to touch the back of my tongue or throat. By far the most embarrassing example of this would be that one time I threw up on the dentist, and, since that happened, I’ve found that not only do I throw up, I also panic about throwing up, to an extent that is absolutely mortifying, really.
Let’s just say that all of the Covid tests I’ve had to take over the last two years have been challenging, to say the least. I have never been so grateful as I was when they brought out lateral flow tests that required a nasal swab only…
It was against this background of anxiety that I turned up at the doctor’s a couple of hours later. Just to make matters worse, I’d been up all night feeling nauseous anyway at this point, so, by the time the nurse showed me into an examination room, I was already mildly panicking about the tongue-touching I knew was about to happen.
“Right then,” the nurse said cheerfully, producing one of those orange stick things they use to hold down your tongue. “Let’s take a look at your throat.”
“Er, before you do,” I said nervously (And also croakily. Bear in mind that my throat was so painful I could hardly speak at this point…), “I should tell you that I have a tendency to gag if someone touches my tongue or throat, so if you hold my tongue down with that, there’s a good chance I’ll throw up.”
So, she held my tongue down and I instantly started violently gagging.
I think until that point the nurse had thought I was just exaggerating or something, because she tried again, and the same thing happened.
“I really need to take a look,” she explained kindly. “Because, the thing is, I’m worried you might have a Quinsy throat, and that’s an emergency situation.”
Well, I’d been anxious to start with, obviously, but the words, “emergency situation” really helped kick that up a notch, and I broke out in a cold sweat. (Literally.)
“What I’m going to do,” the nurse told me, “Is hold your tongue down really firmly this time.”
“I’ll be sick if you do that,” I pointed out. So she handed me a bunch of paper towels to be sick into, and I realized the plan here wasn’t going to be, “Find a way to look at Amber’s throat without her throwing up,” but simply, “Hold Amber’s tongue down and just let her throw up.”
This plan REALLY made me panic; not just because I have an absolute horror of vomiting (Not quite a phobia, but not too far off one…), but mostly because I was having trouble opening my mouth fully at the time, and the thought of being violently sick, but being unable to open my mouth, obviously did NOT appeal.
It seemed we were to forge ahead with this plan, though, so the nurse put the stick into my mouth… and I instinctively threw myself backwards in a panic, almost falling off my seat in a bid to get away from her.
It was a completely instinctive reaction. I didn’t plan to do it, or even know I was GOING to do it. I just genuinely couldn’t stop myself; I did it without even thinking and, what’s worse, I knew I’d do it again, too.
The nurse wasn’t impressed, needless to say, and I can’t blame her. I mean, I wasn’t particularly impressed myself, to be totally honest. My reaction might have been irrational, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t SEE it wasn’t rational, and, the whole time it was happening, I was just sitting there thinking, “FFS, Amber, why you gotta be like this?”
The nurse was very kind, but I could tell she thought I was just being needlessly dramatic, and even though I AM often needlessly dramatic, I was still very embarrassed by the obvious implication that I was REFUSING to allow her to put the stick on my tongue, as opposed to being unable to tolerate it – which was what was really happening.
“OK,” she said, looking worried. “I think I’m going to have to go and get someone to help me with this.”
Well, that REALLY made me panic. I mean, deep down I think I knew that they weren’t going to physically hold me down and stick things in my throat until I threw up, but one of the reasons I’m so terrified of medical settings is the feeling of not being in control in them, and, at that moment, I really felt like I was not going to be allowed a say in what happened to me. Which made my anxiety ramp up another few dozen notches.
“I’ll just take your pulse first, though,” said the nurse.
So she got out one of those things that clips onto your finger, and it didn’t work.
So she got out another one, and it didn’t work either.
So she went back to the first one. This time it worked; but returned a scarily-high reading.
“Your heart rate is REALLY high,” the nurse said, looking worried.
“Yes, well, I’m REALLY anxious right now,” I said, close to tears.
“No, but it’s REALLY high,” she said again, looking at me as if she was expecting me to do something about this ASAP. “I don’t think it can possibly be right, actually.”
So she went and got yet another pulse-taking thingy, and it gave an even higher reading than the first one.
“It’s even higher,” the nurse said, looking at me with wide-eyes. “That’s really unusual for someone your age and weight. I think I better go and get a doctor.”
That’s when I died, obviously.
No, seriously, by this point I was panicking so much I would honestly have got up and ran away if I hadn’t now been convinced my heart rate was so high I would probably drop dead if I tried to stand up.
The doctor appeared. He had the attitude of a man who had been brought in to deal with a difficult and obstructive patient, and who was not prepared to take any nonsense from her. So his was NOT a reassuring bedside manner, in other words.
In vain, I tried to explain that I wasn’t REFUSING to be examined, I was just physically unable to have something pressing down on the back of my tongue without panicking.
“Right,” said the doctor.
“Liar,” said his tone of voice and facial expression.
“The thing is,” he said bluntly, “We’re very concerned that you might have a Quinsy. It’s potentially life threatening.”
My anxiety went up another thousand or so notches.
As it happens, I know what a Quinsy throat is. It’s what the doctor suspected I had last time I had these symptoms, and it’s something my dad had back when I was in my early teens. I remember he was hospitalised with it, and was very ill, so naturally the thought that this was potentially what we were dealing with did NOT help me calm down.
“Open up,” said the doctor.
Thankfully he did not try to hold my tongue down this time, and I somehow managed to painfully wrench my jaw open wide enough for him to see inside. It took a very long time. Afterwards, he straightened up and told me he didn’t THINK it was a Quincy, but that he couldn’t be SURE it wasn’t one. He said he’d prescribe some antibiotics, but if there wasn’t an improvement within 24 hours, it would become an emergency, and I’d have to go straight to A&E.
So that was ace, obviously.
The doctor turned and abruptly left the room, and, at that point, I glanced down and noticed a £5 note lying on the floor where he’d been standing.
“Oh,” I said to the nurse, picking it up and handing it to her. “The doctor must have dropped this. Unless it’s yours? It’s definitely not mine; I don’t have any money with me.”
“It’s not mine either,” she said, looking confused. “I’ll go and give it to the doctor.”
She raced out of the room after him, and, the second she was gone, I realised that, YES, that WAS my £5. I clearly remembered putting it in my jacket pocket, the last time I wore that jacket. The jacket I’d removed during the whole “heart rate” fiasco, and draped over my knee, from where the money had obviously fallen to the floor.
“Found him!” the nurse said, coming back into the room. “He said it wasn’t his, but he took it anyway.”
So, now the doctor had my £5, and there was obviously no way I could now say, “Actually, it’s mine,” having previously insisted it wasn’t. I mean, I’d already made myself look like an absolute asshole, and trying to belatedly claim the fiver would’ve made me look like a lying asshole. So instead I just smiled weakly and accepted that I was now £5 lighter, and potentially about to die. What a great morning it was, seriously.
Anyway. I came home and went straight to bed, after taking the first dose of the antibiotics. By the next morning I could swallow liquids again, so I assumed I was out of the woods. However it’s now two days later; my throat is still sore, my heart rate is still really high, and I still can’t each much (Which isn’t actually as bad as it sounds given that the meds make me nauseous a lot of the time, anyway), so now I’m not so sure.
The worst thing, though, is that all of this has brought my health anxiety back with a vengeance.
I’m scared I’m going to have to go to hospital.
I’m scared that, if I do, they’ll force things down my throat which will make me sick.
I’m terrified that I’ll need a general anesthetic [Context: my lifelong phobia of general anesthetic] .
Oh, and I’m also pretty worried about my heart, tbh. Very much regretting getting a Fitbit that monitors my heart rate, because, hello OCD, here’s a new thing for you to obsess over. You’re welcome!
Overall, then, I think it’s pretty clear that my two year run of (relatively) good mental health has abruptly come to an end, and this is the thing that’s going to pluge me back into full-on health anxiety. Since Thursday morning I’ve worried about my health obsessively; constantly monitoring my heart rate and my ability to swallow, and wondering if that pain in my side is anxiety or appendicitis.
[Note: this is why people with health anxiety – including me – are generally diagnosed with OCD, rather than simply anxiety. At its worst, it is an obsessive compulsion to worry about and repeatedly check certain things… and that’s why people who claim to have ‘OCD’ when they just mean they like to keep their house tidy can be a bit frustrating to those who actually have OCD…]
Most of the people who read this post, of course, will think I’m just an idiot who needs to get a grip. I know at least a few of you will understand how I’ve been feeling, though, and why telling someone who’s anxious about something to “get a grip” is about as effective as trying to tell my throat to just not be sore any more. I doesn’t work. And, right now, I don’t know what does.
I do know I’m still pretty annoyed about that fiver, though…