Last year I went to see a specialist about a problem with my throat.
Aside from learning that the best way to get a fibre-optic camera down your throat is by sticking it up your nose, and that acid reflux is, in the opinion of the doc, “the illness du jour”, the visit was inconclusive.
The doc found nothing troubling. If he suspected that the problem with my throat was imagined he didn’t let on.
Even so I left feeling pretty stupid. I had forked out $175 for the visit, and I’m certainly not making the kind of money where I can afford to toss off a few hundred dollars on every paranoid whim that comes my way.
But the issue with my throat had been building up in my mind for weeks and weeks and was seriously impacting on my quality of life so that, in the end, I wasn’t paying for the diagnosis, I was paying for the peace of mind.
Hypochondria is an old word. Its origin is Greek and it refers to the soft body area below the ribs that was originally thought to be the seat of melancholy.
It was believed for a long time to have both a physical cause (centered around this area) and an emotional one. Famous hypochondriacs include Charles Darwin, who underwent daily bouts of being drenched in water, which was thought to be the best way to cure the crisis of nerves that was causing the illness.
It paints quite a funny picture to imagine old Darwin sitting in a bath complaining about his glands while some quack tips a bucket of ice cold water on him. But there’s something inherently comic about hypochondriacs. They make you think of those types you meet in offices who forever have blocked up noses and allergies to everything.
My mum, where I get the obsessive nature, used to come up to me in the middle of the day and say stuff like: “Paul. Feel my neck.” Then expect me to give my verdict on whether one side of her neck seemed larger than the other, which of course it never did.
I used to laugh at this behaviour but then it happened to me and – to paraphrase Morrissey – that joke wasn’t funny anymore. You see, when you’re in the middle of a hypochondriac episode it’s impossible to see the lighter side. When I had my throat thing, for example, I spent an entire work shift obsessing over every… single… swallow.
Since then I’ve spent time at work obsessing about a rib thing, a gland thing and, most recently, a mole thing.
For me hypochondria is a lot like body dysmorphia since you have this totally distorted sense of your physical body which no amount of rationalizing can get you to amend.
The creation of the internet was a disaster for the hypochondriac. All across the internet you find proof of that maxim about how a man armed with a little knowledge is dangerous. For example, if you put ‘lump in throat’ into Google you’ll get loads of those Yahoo Answers feeds filled with know-it-all hypochondriacs freaking each other out in ways that are borderline sadistic. Sooner or later someone mentions the ‘C’ word, which for online hypos is tantamount to the money shot moment in porn.
Even when you don’t seek it out the internet is a minefield for those paranoid about their health. You don’t need go far to find cheery headlines like the one I saw this morning on the Weather Channel, under a picture of a chemotherapy patient saying, “Five signs you’ll get cancer.” Even reading that headline back just now there’s a masochistic part of me desperate to click on the ad so that I can find out which of one of those signs I definitely have.
Leaving aside the deplorable ethics of the people behind these ads, these things are the nasty end of a far broader trend in the medical industry of sowing fear.
My girlfriend is pregnant, which has meant my first longterm interaction with the US healthcare system. The impression you get is that they treat pregnancy as if it were an illness. For the first few months we went to an OBGYN clinic in Manhattan. They took endless blood draws and scans in the name of ruling various diseases or deformities. As a result we were constantly being reminded of everything that could go wrong.
I understand why they do this, of course, but it’s very dispiriting, especially when there’s no counter-balance. Why not, for example, give us regular updates about all the incredible developments that are going in my girlfriend’s womb? Or talk to us about all the things you can do to make your pregnancy more pleasant?
The trend for fear-mongering in healthcare mirrors society’s more general obsession with scaring ourselves witless. The news does this. Men do it in bars. Women do it over a glass wine. Its the ‘we live in dangerous times’ mantra which on a global scale looks about right, but when you apply to your own life generally holds no water.
Because let’s face it, most of us are going to live to old age without incident. Few of us will die in warfare or get mown down in a gangland killing, or get wiped out by a Tsunami or a flesh-eating virus.
For the vast majority of us it will be a gradual fade to grey, a slow decline into soft-headed dotage. And while that doesn’t give good copy for the headline writers, it should make for some peace of mind.
There. I feel better already.