Not so very long ago, I’d have been labelled a hypochondriac; mid-last century I’d have been labelled a hysterical woman and perhaps reside in a sanatorium. I’m far more comfortable with the term “health anxiety.”
For most of us, the onset of a headache might prompt us to seek relief with paracetamol without further thought. A sudden, short-lived pain in the chest might lead most of us to believe we are simply experiencing indigestion or need to adjust our posture. For me, these sensations spark a “What if?” What if it’s not a cold at all but the sudden onset of meningitis? What if what I’m feeling is my body is sending me a signal of imminent danger and probable sudden death? For the last 18 years my health anxiety has trained my brain to interpret changes in my body’s normal function, no matter how small, as a sure sign of impending death. In the same way a person with a fear of flying is hyper-alert to the slightest vibration of a plane or a change in the sound of the engine, I am deeply sensitized to any transient or lasting physiological sensation my body may experience and am sure they are harbingers of certain death.
My health anxiety holds me hostage, demanding I put measures in place to minimize the perceived danger of being away from medical help. I am the local (and perhaps only) leading expert in which medical clinics are closest, the hospitals that lie not too far off the freeway exits, and where ambulance stations are located; my expertise covers an impressive 100-kilometer radius. My pervasive fear of sudden death and the what-ifs fear creates dictate that I must undertake the appropriate preparation for any drive, including making detailed notes of the location of potential sources of “help” and checking that the important medical contacts in my phone are up to date (including a doctor friend and my paramedic uncle). While on the road, I take regular breaks outside hospitals or medical clinics before plunging myself into the fearful unknown again, a leapfrog of terror from “safe” spot to “safe” spot.
My overwhelming need to be close to medical help has many and varied implications for the way I live my life, none of them positive. When looking at potential new homes, the distance between the house and the local hospital must be calculated. If it exceeds 6 kilometers, it must be re-evaluated. Weekends and public holidays, so eagerly anticipated by most, for me pose a serious threat – most medical clinics are shut. There are some nights, when my fear is at its worst, that I park outside the local ambulance station, lurking in my car with the seat down and with the glow of my phone turned low so as to avoid detection. In, what with the passing of time I can now see as a funny turn of events, the time I did call the ambulance while parked outside the station it was busy with another call out and had to travel further than it would have had I remained in my own home.
My life’s motto used to be “seize the day.” Over time this has been replaced with “What if?” Attempts to rationalize my fears are met with the all too familiar refrains: “Yes, you’ve felt this way before and there’s been nothing wrong, but what if this time (insert medical catastrophe here)?” At times the what-ifs are more specific: “Sure, odds are nothing will happen to you if you drive to the beach, but what if it does and you die before the ambulance gets there?”
The what-ifs keep me from so many of the activities I used to take for granted. Last-minute shopping trips in the city, camping, playing competitive basketball, and trips away with my partner are now things of the past. I’ve become a flaky friend, cancelling plans at the last minute with silly and oft repeated excuses that have resulted in fewer invitations being extended. The what-ifs have meant I’ve avoided multiple Christmases and family celebrations, and by extension, so has my partner, who has also had to learn how to offer a range of excuses for my absence should he attend without me.
I’ve now been expecting to die for longer than I’ve been alive. Perhaps the scariest what-if for me is, “What if I waste my life waiting for a what-if?”
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Thinkstock photo by meganeura