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Susan Hiller Homage to Marcel Duchamp, 2008 25 digital photographs © Susan Hiller


6 March 2023

Hypochondria Hysteria: It's not just a headache


Last week, I joined a friend for a drink in Soho. It was cold enough that I felt compelled to complain very often, which is something I am happy to do if others are unwilling. In doing so, I failed to notice a restaurant awning ahead of me. Providence (and its conspirators) designed a pole to strike down on my head, and hard. I was fine – a small bump that served as punishment for my ingratitude towards this fine cold weather we were having. An hour later I was in bed, tucked away to dream of better things. 


I awoke the next morning with a subarachnoid haemorrhage, an intracerebral haemorrhage, a concussion, and a brain tumour. My symptoms: a headache.


Upon discovering this on WebMD, I rushed myself to the nearest hospital. I sat waiting, quietly, my hands folded in my lap, a mourner at my own funeral. I am surrounded by no loved ones, only elderly men waiting for their audiology appointments. This was inevitable. I had reached the end of my road, and it was in Finchley. I closed my eyes, whispered the Shema, tried saying the Lord’s Prayer just in case, and waited. The doctor calls me in: we run through a full examination, and he discharges me with nothing more than a bumped head. I leave my funeral with chocolate buttons from the hospital M&S and head home, relieved as to having not died, of course, but a little irritated for not having brought my headphones with me for the ride home. 


Health anxiety, or hypochondriasis in fun medical jargon, is characterised by excessive worrying about being seriously ill. Normal bodily sensations are elevated to such tragic heights that one becomes convinced these ‘signs’ are indicative of, but not limited to: MS, ALS, cancer, cardiac arrest, meningitis, strokes, and sometimes if one has a cough they don’t like, tuberculosis. With the advent of the internet, it is now easier to be diagnosed with having all-of-the-cancers-at-once than ever before. My track record for self-diagnosing improbable ailments via the internet is impressive. Last September, I convinced myself that my sudden onset of headaches was caused by an eye-condition generally occurring in geriatrics viz. glaucoma. Glaucoma damages the optic nerve due to a build-up of fluid, and while it may cause headaches, it is usually associated with loss of vision or the desire to watch Antiques Roadshow. Using critical thinking, I dissect the information from a medical website by disregarding unimportant phrases like ‘common medical condition’, or ‘adults in their 70s and 80s’. I masterfully translate ‘can cause blindness’ into ‘you will go blind in 7 days’. I was not amused. A visit to my optometrist became imperative. 


This catastrophising behaviour is patterned, tiring, and almost always entertaining for my parents, who must listen to me complain about my impending death on any given day, but never usually Fridays because they’re busy. This penchant for tragedy, however, is not a recent occurrence. Once at a bar mitzvah lesson, I pronounced my Rabbi dead when he had fallen asleep in his chair. Neither he nor the rest of the synagogue's congregation were particularly amused by this.


Hypochondria is strange. This illogical paranoia is often very tangible, with the physical manifestations of anxiety mimicking life-threatening conditions.


Am I having a heart-attack, or did I just walk up three flights of stairs in Marchmont? Taking care of one’s health is important, but I’ll be the first to admit that I transform this sentiment into an extremity. I’ve attended enough cardiology appointments to know what my cardiologist orders at his favourite restaurant (spiced lamb). Other hypochondriacs, however, seriously avoid going to the doctors. Confirming what they already know is ‘terminal’ is the last nail in their self-imagined coffin. This I cannot relate to. I would like to know how long I have left to live so I can do that one thing that I’ve always wanted to do but never got around to doing because when I phone, they’re always booked. 


Yes, having a terminal illness while not actually having one can be awkward.


But hypochondria is not something you can be born with. It’s often triggered by an event or situation. Starting a new medication and reading the long list of side-effects. Getting sick, getting better, and then becoming worried that you’re going to that sick again. I have a hunch, however, that my health anxiety has somewhat been engendered by my fear of death. I don’t know why I am afraid of death, but I do know that dying has always been something I would not like to do. Living forever sounds equally exhausting (partly because I am not prepared to eat the required number of prunes). I now realize that my obsession with avoiding death, while useful in certain situations like contact sport, is the agent of my hypochondriacal behaviours. If I can detect and/or prevent an illness from getting worse, I can stave off death for another day.


Death is a part of life, I am reminded. Our own expirations are up for bat in the ballpark of fate. If this is true, then can our lives truly be our own? It seems that no one really has an answer for this, which is unfortunate, as I would like to know whether knowing all the signs and symptoms of yellow fever will be worth my time. Though I can’t speak on behalf of all hypochondriacs, I would not want to live my life any other way. Unlike early 20th century polio, hypochondria is a highly liveable condition. Learning the physical manifestations of anxiety will help one better differentiate between their bodily sensations being a product of anxiety or something more sinister. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, as opposed to googling ‘am I dying?,’ is known to be an especially effective form of treatment. It is important to always err on the side of caution. If you’re worried about something, there’s no harm in having this checked out.


Slowly, I’m starting to accept that perhaps death is just one of those inevitable things. We don’t know when we’re going to go, and if we only go around the Earth once, we’ve got to just enjoy the experience while we can. And while I still plan on seeing the doctor tomorrow for a spot that might be melanoma, I go knowing that although I may be a hypochondriac, at least it’s better than being allergic to nuts.

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