I remember the first time I “had cancer.” It was 3 months after the birth of my daughter in 2011. I didn’t know anything about ovarian cancer other than women died from it, but I was certain that I had it. I found Google to be a very reliable source for my symptoms (tongue in cheek), so was the online cancer survivors forums that I found. That’s how I discovered that I “had it.” All of my symptoms matched what was listed in the symptoms list. I became consumed with my new illness. I even started planning my own funeral. I saw moments of me dying in a hospital bed in our living room, telling my children goodbye.
I didn’t have cancer. I had hypochondria, also known in medical terms as health anxiety (HA).
And I had it bad.
In a three-month span, I visited the ER eight times and put myself through various MRIs, X-rays, CT scans, blood draws, nerve conduction studies, urinalysises, and a lot of doctor visits. Not to mention a lot of medical debt. Every doctor that I saw told me I was healthy. But I didn’t believe them.
I was a mess. I didn’t know anything about what I was thinking and feeling. I was scared, anxious and fearful of finding out I had a terminal illness. Depression was my shadow, from the time I woke to when I went to sleep. I just knew I was going to die, and I was afraid of my own body. The irony of this is that my own son actually has cystic fibrosis, which is a terminal illness. I would stay awake all night with fear that I would die before him and never see him or his sister grow up.
I started anxiety medication and therapy, which was a big help. The thoughts were still there, though. Not as often, but they were there. Going to the bathroom, taking a bath, living everyday was a struggle. Every lump, pain, or strange sensation that I felt was a reason for me to lock myself in our bathroom and cry. I felt like the Boy Who Cried Wolf every single day. “Last week it was a brain tumor, I know, BUT THIS TIME I AM BEING SERIOUS.”
After about three years, it became a big burden in my marriage. My children were also starting to notice what I was saying. I started going to therapy more often, reading more about my illness and giving myself more distractions. I took more walks, went on hikes with the kids, and became more open about it. I joined a couple of support groups for people with HA. I knew I needed to stop the self-reassurance seeking and accept that if something WAS wrong with me, I was using the time I had left unwisely. Hypochondria takes you away from yourself and your surroundings. You are no longer present in the moment. You are a person consumed with your own death. It’s a very depressing way of life, I will admit.
I have had hypochondria for close to six years now. It came about from postpartum depression and was a manifestation of my anxiety/OCD. The anxiety and depression I already had grew into this huge, ugly, horrible thing that has stolen from me the first years of my daughters life, money, a job, countless sleepless nights and almost my marriage. I still get anxious over my body. I don’t do breast exams (I save them for my gyno) even though they are important; my mind can’t handle them. I can’t read stories about cancer and terminal illnesses because they are triggers for me. Going to the doctor — any type of doctor — is a scary event. I am always sure that the minor thing that brought me there is because of a much larger and horrible reason.
Yes, I know this all sounds strange to you, but to a person with HA anything new means something sinister. Everything strange you feel is a symptom of something deadly.
Hypochondria isn’t something you hear about very often. It is more so the topic of a lot of jokes. For most of my life I never really knew what one was … I seriously thought it meant a crazy person. Who and why would someone think they are sick all of the time? That sounds nuts. You never understand something until you live it. Being a hypochondriac is a struggle. Your health is only in your control to a certain extent, and hypochondriacs don’t like that. Having OCD means YOU are in control. Handing control over and possibly dying from cancer or ALS or rabies from lack of control is, to me, the lowest of the low.
Now? Now I take my meds, go to therapy and tell myself that I am healthy. Over and over again. I talk to my husband about it and I pray about it. I have had to accept that this is who I am and work with it. Maybe one day I won’t be so afraid of my body, but until then I am doing the best that I can with the knowledge I’ve acquired along the way.