You are a hypochondriac if:
- You have memorized your doctor’s phone number, or have it listed under “Contacts” on your cell phone.
- You are not a doctor, but nevertheless possess a medical encyclopedia, the most recent edition of the PDR, and/or an on-line subscription to JAMA.
- You have ever seriously considered hair testing.
- You take more than 5 nutritional supplements per day, and/or you can’t leave the house without one of those plastic pill dispensers with divided sections for all of your supplements.
- You have ever worried about spontaneously going blind, specifically while driving.
- You remember specific time periods in your life by which disease you were worrying about: age 7–Smoker’s Foot; age 12–kidney disease; sophomore year of college–skin cancer; 3 years ago on vacation at the beach–multiple sclerosis, and so on.
- A phone call from the doctor’s office after a routine physical has you immediately listing all of the potentially fatal diseases that can be detected by a CBC.
- The idea of an annual full body MRI “just in case” seems like a good idea.
- The most visited web sites on your computer are: wedmd.com, the Mayo Clinic Symptom Checker, and wrongdiagnosis.com.
- You frequently find yourself silently diagnosing other people’s symptoms, best courses of treatment, and probable chances of survival.
There are a variety of mental games we play to keep from participating fully in life, and hypochondria is one of them. In fact, “cyberchondria,” a term coined in 2000 to describe the practice of leaping to dire conclusions while researching health matters online, is an epidemic phenonmenon. In 2008, a Microsoft study suggested that self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads on-line searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them. I can’t imagine that this really surprised anyone. An activity that lets you plug “dizziness” and “headaches” into your search engine and returns “ALS” in the blink of a twitching eye is not your friend.
And yet many of us do it, often to the degree of real self-torture. I don’t think hypochondria is a real disease, though there are different opinions on this. To me it feels more like an addiction, like obsessively feeding an evil slot machine with worrisome symptoms–blood, stool–DING! Crohn’s Disease! Want to play again? DING! How about Colon Cancer!–and letting yourself go back for more and more and more and more, until you can add “chronic fatigue” and “tics” to your list of symptoms. The amount of information and the speed at which it is available make letting go of the handle really hard, but we’re the ones who keep playing.
Wikipedia says that “The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigour during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbour).” Behavior that is “sticky,” or addictive, or clingy, or based in fear, is a kind of injustice. It is unjust towards God because it devalues the life we were given by refusing to fully participate; it is unjust towards ourselves because it is terrfying, a self-induced act of mental battering; and it is unjust towards others because it keeps our focus small and stubbornly internal.
And, because it offers no possibility of joy; it acts, as Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote, like “Adhesions on the wings/To love and adventure.”
So one thing that would be worth giving up for Lent is fear. Today’s poem is by David Whyte, written in secret during a Zen retreat when no writing was allowed. What we are, what we have is enough. It is more than enough.
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again
David Whyte, Where Many Rivers Meet
P.S. I really, really wanted to include a cartoon from the New Yorker by Roz Chast entitled “Greetings from Hypochondria House: A House Where the Inhabitants and Furniture Are All Hypochondriacs” in this post, but clever copyright protection prohibits it. It is SO funny though, and you can see it if you click here: