Over the last few years, it feels like talking about anxiety has almost become one of those blogger trends: like pineapples, or crown braids, or wearing Birkenstocks, even although you know they make you look a bit like a hobbit.
I realise that’s probably going to turn out to be a controversial thing to say (The “anxiety-is-trendy” thing, I mean, not the “hobbit” comment. Although, that too, now I come to think of it…), but, well, first came all of the “I suffer from anxiety,” confessions, THEN came the, “I hate the fact that every blogger around is suddenly claiming to suffer from anxiety, just because Zoella did it it first!” posts – and as soon as you have a backlash, you know you’re dealing with a trend, right?
Health anxiety, on the other hand, has never been trendy.
It probably never will be. Health anxiety – or hypochondria, as it’s perhaps better known – has always been one of those comedy illnesses: the mental health problem it’s OK to roll your eyes at, because it’s just a bunch of silly people who take themselves off to bed as soon as they sneeze, and think every little twinge is probably cancer. It’s hard for a lot of people to take that seriously, or to have any sympathy for it, so those of us who suffer from it end up keeping quiet, for fear of being dismissed, or even laughed at.
I’ve had both of those responses over the years, and while I’d never wish any kind of anxiety on anyone, (Just to make things even more fun, I ALSO have generalised anxiety disorder – and yes, that’s been diagnosed by numerous doctors and psychiatrists: I promise I’m not just trying to copy Zoella…) it does occasionally make me wish they could understand, just a little bit, what it’s like.
So here’s what it’s like:
It’s like permanently standing in line for the roller-coaster you’re scared to death of. The churning stomach, the sweaty palms, the conviction that THIS will be the thing that will kill you, and that there’s no way to avoid it. All of this, without the adrenaline rush afterwards, or the feeling of blessed relief when it’s finally over, because you know that when you finally get off, you’re just going right back to the end of the line again.
It’s like having the joy removed from every last bit of your life, because you’re so scared of what might be to come that you can’t take pleasure in anything any more.
It’s like being on an airplane that suddenly hits turbulence at 20,000 feet, right in the middle of the ocean. You would do anything – anything AT ALL – to just not be on that plane anymore, but you know the only way is down, and that all you can do is cling helplessly to the arm rests and wonder if it’ll be the fear that kills you, or the crash itself.
It’s checking your symptoms multiple times an hour: sometimes even multiple times a minute. Googling them. Researching them. Checking them again. Are they still there? Or have they gone? Maybe you should try to MAKE yourself feel that strange twinge in your side again, just to see if you can? Maybe if you just press right here? Did you feel it that time? Does that mean it’s back? Or did you just prod your own stomach so many times that now you’ve actually created a symptom that didn’t actually exist? Maybe if you just check one more time…
It’s watching a TV show or reading a book in which someone has a certain symptom… and then immediately convincing yourself YOU have that symptom, too. It’s taking a two-mile trip to the post office in the next town, because the one that’s right around the corner has a poster right next to the scale you weigh your parcel on, saying, “DO YOU HAVE THESE HIDDEN SIGNS OF BOWEL CANCER?!” So far, you’ve avoided reading the poster, or finding out what the “hidden signs” are. But now that you know there ARE hidden signs, you’re going to obsess over whether or not you have them: to the point where you can’t think of anything else.
It’s hearing someone casually mention an acquaintance who died of cancer, and then lying awake all night worrying that it will happen to you, too. It’s asking the people who know you not to tell you those stories: and having them laugh, and roll their eyes, before launching into yet ANOTHER story, which will lead to two more sleepless nights, at least.
It’s like raaaaiiiin, on your wedding day, it’s a free… wait: that’s an Alanis Morisettte song, isn’t it? Sorry, got carried away there…
It’s not a joke, is what I’m saying. It’s not something you can just forget about or “get over” – no matter how many times people tell you to. It is, in fact, a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – or so the psychiatrist I was referred to told me. I had never thought of it in that way, but he explained that people with health anxiety have an obsessive compulsion to check their symptoms (often to the point where they create new ones), worry about them, then rest and repeat. And, yeah, that definitely sounds like me. Here, for instance, is the reason I finally plucked up the courage to visit my doctor and get that referral: a list of every symptom and health-related worry I’d had over a three month period around 8 years ago, which Terry had kept in a bid to persuade me to GET HELP for the health anxiety that had, at that point, taken over both our lives:
ovarian cancer (left)
ovarian cancer (right)
skin cancer again
cancer under ear
Cancer on cheek
Cancer of the lymph nodes
heart palpitations again
ovarian cancer (right)
brain tumour again
ovarian cancer again (right)
bleeding swollen gums (leukaemia)
throat cancer (sore throat)
brain tumour because of headache
stroke because of sore jaw
brain tumour because of forgetfulness
brain tumour because of migraine
throat cancer because of phlegm
ovarian cancer , both sides for three weeks
brain cancer because of light to dark eye problems
baldness for a month now
abdominal aneurysm for two weeks
brain tumour because of migraines
This was over a space of just three months, back in 2008. THREE MONTHS, people. Fun times, huh?
After that, I finally went to see the doctor. This was hard for me, because there are two types of hypochondriac in the world: ones who basically set up camp in the doctor’s office, so they can consult him/her every time they sneeze, and ones who avoid any kind of medical situation at all costs. Guess which camp I’m in?
If you’re having trouble guessing, let me just tell you that, when we moved to our current home, it took me a full six-months to register with the doctor here, and even then I only did it because I needed to renew my birth control prescription, and they wouldn’t do it without seeing me first. When I finally went in, Terry had to call ahead and warn them that I wouldn’t be bringing the mandatory urine sample, because waiting for the results of whatever test they’d do would cause me so much anxiety I’d literally be unable to function. He also had to accompany me to the appointment, because I was almost crying with nerves. It’s THAT bad. And actually, that was during a time when my health anxiety was fairly LOW – so you can imagine how hard it was during those awful three months in 2007/8, can’t you?
So, back in 2008, at the height of my health anxiety, I went to the doctor and he agreed I should be referred for counselling. I got an appointment the following week with a psychiatric nurse, whose job it was to assess me – and who met me at the door of his office with the news that he had a student observing him, and did I mind if she stayed?
Actually, I DID mind if she stayed. It was hard enough for me to tell even ONE person about my health anxiety, let alone TWO: but I was so freaked out by the fact that I was in a doctor’s surgery that I blindly agreed, and then walked into the room, to be faced with a hostile-looking teenage girl (I mean, I’m assuming she wasn’t ACTUALLY a teenager, but she looked like one, and was dressed like one…), who sat in the corner rolling her eyes (yes, literally), the whole time I was there.
I left with a workbook on cognitive behaviour therapy, which I was instructed to work my way through. It didn’t help in the slightest. A few weeks later, I was referred to the psychiatric unit at the local hospital: a move which was almost breathtaking in its stupidity as far as I was concerned, because one of my biggest fears of all? Is hospitals.
I think most people assume that, for hypochondriacs, the main fear is, well, DEATH. It isn’t, though: or, at least, not for me. I mean, I DO fear death… but I mostly fear everything that comes before it. The hospitalisation. The operations. The general anaesthetic – the idea of which scares me so much I’ve made Terry promise me that if I ever need one, he’ll just let me die. (I have a sneaking suspicion that he is lying to me when he agrees to this…) I’ve feared these things for as long as I can remember: when I was a little girl, with tonsillitis, a doctor once suggested that I have my tonsils removed, and I screamed the place down in horror. I still have my tonsils, needless to say – and everything else, too.
The great irony of my situation, you see, is that, despite having what the psychiatrist I was finally referred to described as the most severe case of health anxiety he’d ever seen, back then I was the healthiest person I knew. I’d never been hospitalised, never had an operation. Yes, I’d had the usual run of childhood illnesses, and a few doses of the flu, but nothing more serious than that.
Why am I so scared of hospitals, then? Honestly, I don’t really know. I suspect it comes purely from observation. As a child/young adult I watched three of my grandparents go through long illnesses, including many months in hospital, and many events that are still burned on my brain, even now. In my twenties, meanwhile, Terry got kidney failure and an eventual transplant… which meant more time in hospital, and more horrific scenes. Unfortunately, most of the hospital experiences I’ve witnessed have been bad ones – some of them Very, Very Bad Indeed. And, of course, lots of people go through this kind of stuff: I’m not trying to claim to be some kind of special snowflake here, or to say I’ve been particularly unlucky, because it could all have been so much worse. (Or some of it could, anyway. Some of it quite literally could not have been any worse: you’re just going to have to trust me on that…) For some reason, though, while most people are able to process these experiences in a rational way, I just can’t. There is nothing rational about health anxiety: and, for me, there’s an almost Pavlovian response to even the suggestion that I take any kind of medical test, or visit a doctor for even the simplest of reasons.
The psychiatrist didn’t help me. His main suggestion was that I try group therapy, which seemed like the worst idea ever to me (In addition to my health anxiety, I also have a generous dose of social anxiety, and I’m at the extreme end of the “introvert” scale. As I said, it’s hard for me to talk about my issues with even one person: so the idea of having to bare my soul to a group of complete strangers – who would then presumably start listing their OWN health concerns, thus giving me even MORE things to worry about – was just unthinkable to me…), so he agreed to refer me for a course of psychotherapy. “You’ll get a letter in the mail with the first appointment,” he told me. “But be warned: the current waiting list is two years…”
Two. Years. I promise I’m not making this up. And honestly? I was relieved to find that I wouldn’t have to address the issue for at least two years, because, the fact was, I didn’t really want to. I didn’t want to confront my fear: mostly because the sessions, I was told, would be held in the hospital – and asking someone with health anxiety to attend hospital every week is like deciding to hold your Arachnophobiacs Anonymous meetings in the spider room at the zoo, isn’t it?
That letter never did show up: and, thankfully, it didn’t really matter, because gradually I started to get better. I don’t know why THAT happened, either: all I know is that, over time, I stopped worrying so much about my health. Yes, I had that freak out when I had to register with the new doctor three years ago, and there have been a few minor bumps in the road since then, but they’ve been small ones, and I’ve somehow managed to deal with them – I have no idea how. What I DO know is that I’d been fairly anxiety-free for several years… right up until I got pregnant.
Pregnancy was always going to be a challenge for me, given my various issues, but, in my case, my anxiety was only increased by the fact that two of my biggest pregnancy-related fears came true, and I had a miscarriage, followed just a few weeks later by an ectopic pregnancy – which had been my biggest fear of all, and something I’d obsessed over for as long as I’d known what it was. (Which was a long time, actually: I know it’s something a lot of people just aren’t aware of, but my mum had an ectopic pregnancy a couple of years I was born, and I’d grown up knowing that it was one of the reasons I didn’t have any brothers or sisters) In the hospital I was diagnosed in, even the nursing staff couldn’t believe that the women who’d come to them obsessing over the possibility of an ectopic pregnancy had been the one to actually end up having one, but yup, that happened: and it made my third pregnancy, five months later, one of the most difficult experiences of my life.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because, as I said at the start of this post, health anxiety isn’t one of the “trendy” conditions. It’s not one that people really understand – or even WANT to, really, preferring to dismiss it is a bit of a joke, really.
It’s not a joke, though: or, if it is, it’s not a very funny one. So, if you, or someone you know, is suffering, I hope this post will help you feel a little less alone: and a little more confident that it IS possible to live with health anxiety – and even to go through something like pregnancy without (totally) losing your mind.
After all, if I can do it, anyone can…
(Note to regular readers: this post was originally published as part of my ectopic pregnancy story, but it ended up being about 4,000 words long as a result. I get quite a few questions about health anxiety these days, so I wanted to just separate those two posts out, so I can refer back to each one separately, so apologies for the repeat post!)