Friday, September 23, 2016

Tales of a Hypochondriac

Growing up, I don't recall being particularly scared of pain.  It wasn't that I was fearless. Far from it. I was afraid of a whole host of unconventional things--like music boxes and the dancing alligators from Disney's Fantasia (tales for another time, I suppose)--but I wasn't particularly afraid of being hurt.  I spent entire summers of my childhood, skinning my knees on the knobby branches of apple trees and trampling through honey bee filled fields of wildflowers barefoot.

Now that I am older and more prone to romanticizing, I like to think that I take after my Irish grandmother, who, the tough broad that she is, had every last one of her pearly whites crowned sans novocaine, which I think is pretty much on par with Patrick Swayze stitching up his own knife wound in the dimly lit backroom of a bar in the movie Roadhouse.  Which, p.s., is currently on Netflix.

Side note: I saw Roadhouse for the first time a little over three years ago and must have somehow conflated it with From Dusk 'Til Dawn, because half-way through the movie I turned to Moses and asked: "So when are the vampires showing up?"

It's one of his favorite stories to tell.

Anyways, where was I? 

Oh right.  

So this lack of fear of pain served me well as I got older and started getting into gymnastics because from about the fall of 1992 until the summer of '99, I was pretty much perpetually injured.

I don't think I was ever an especially talented acrobat but that hardly mattered to me because I loved it.  It made me feel simultaneously powerful and free.  I was continually impressed by the strength, elasticity, and resilience of my own body.

I can't quite place when these feelings towards my body started to change but it was probably casually interwoven with the awkwardness of adolescence.

Once this shift occurred, my body was no longer an impervious marvel.  It was something that could be sickly and foreign.  It became a source not of empowerment but of concern.

It wasn't so much that I began fearing pain but that I began fearing death.  Perhaps all adolescents' contemplation of mortality manifest in such bleak and pervasive ways. Or perhaps I am just a bit of a weirdo.  After all, it I who when my father read to us about the lives of the catholics saints, asked him to detail how precisely they were tortured.

It wasn't until my mid-to-late teens, though, that I truly started to dabble in hypochondria. I remember one Christmas, I must have been sixteen because I was listening to Ani DiFranco's Not a Pretty Girl on my diskman. We were driving home from my grandparents' house through the snowy streets of Ithaca and I remember thinking: Boy, I really hope my appendix doesn't explode.  

In retrospect, I think this was probably brought on by overconsumption of Bacos and Hidden Valley Ranch.  But hindsight 20/20.

In any case, I managed to keep these wayward feelings in check until I moved to California and started graduate school.  Perhaps it was the cross-country move.  Perhaps it was the rigor of my scholastics.  Whatever the true cause, the buzzing little apiary of my anxiety had been kicked and out poured clouds of dense neuroses.

I have probably always been a bit inclined to obsessive thinking.  In some ways, it is what churns my creativity and sharpens my attention to detail.  But this wasn't a slight inclining.  This was full blown plunging.

I would stress constantly about everything: my papers, my monthly budget, my teeth, etc.  I would spend hours playing WebMd Russian Roulette: is it congestion or is it cancer?  

During this period of my life, I was always dying of some rare form of cancer.  It had been growing in my body for years and any day it would emerge like an ugly cabbage amongst the petunias and I would be dead.

As I am sure you can imagine, given what happen to my brother, I think back on this time with such pangs of guilt and regret.  What a young, blessed, and healthy fool I was.  My how perspective is a powerful thing.

The summer after I finished graduate school, I went to Ithaca for a few weeks to visit my family.  At the time, my Irish grandmother, that titan of dental work, was sick in the hospital with pneumonia.  She eventually recovered because, of course she did.  But at the time she was very ill, so I went to go see her with my mom and my brother Scott. 

It was the first time in my life that I had truly seen my Grandmother defeated.  She said that she was ready to die and I may have responded by yelling at her: Grandma, where's your fighting Irish spirit!?

To this day I am not entirely sure why, but this marked a turning point for me.  As I drove home through a late July rainstorm with my brother Scott, we talked about life and love and fear and when the conversation turned to my anxiety, my brother Scott paused and said: "Wendy, it's mind over matter.  You need to just stop."

In that moment, something that had been dislodged in me for so long had been pushed back into place.  My mind!  It was as if I had completely forgotten that my mind and body were connected.  I had forgotten that my mind was a strong, elastic, and resilient thing.

And just like that, the hornets were herded back to their nest and hum of constant low-level nervousness ceased.

Since then my hypochondria has all but disappeared and my anxiety has been relegated to a brief fluttering of panic when confronted by a grocery store stand full of hard avocados.

Even through the worst of it over these past two years, I haven't succumbed to the mania.  Not even a little.  Even when my world was upside down, my mind remained calm and level.

That is, until recently.

When I got sick, I was never truly worried.  Frustrated, sure but not worried.  And, yes, I did log on to WebMD a few times but it was all for diagnostic purposes, I assure you.  I knew that something was wrong and I was pretty sure it was lupus (not a bad guess by the way, given my symptoms) and while that sucked, I would live.

It wasn't until I was out of the hospital and the parade of visitors had dwindled that I began to truly digest all that had happened and the sheer gravity of the situation finally settled in.

Since then, I've been in a not entirely uncalled for state of hyper-viligence about my health.  In some ways, because I have been sick for so long, I have forgotten what normal feels like and the slightest twinge will send my speed dialing my primarily care physician's office.  Is this heart burn or a heart attack?  Are these allergies or is my nervous system shutting down?

Moses swears that it is nowhere near as bad as it was and that it will take time to readjust.  And I would never actually say this to him, but I think he's right.

I am trying to be patient with myself.  I feel like I say that a lot here. [Database scan complete: pattern detected.]  But as someone who was going to wait for the new Game of Thrones book to be released before watching the new season, only to binge read all of the episode summaries and then watch all of the episodes within a 24 hour period of them becoming available, patience may not my virtue.

On the plus side, I already had a rare disease, so I can probably cross off the "has rare disease" on my list of things to worry about.

For a little while at least.

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