When Every Minor Physical Sensation Makes You Think You're Going to Die
Hypochondria. There’s a stigma that encircles the word, and puts a bad taste in the mouths of those who struggle with is. We make jokes about diagnostic websites, breathing masks, hand sanitizer and frequent visits to the doctor to ensure we’re not, in fact, dying. But there’s more to it when you experience hypochondria. Little idiosyncrasies of the illness that, if you’re unfamiliar, seem imaginary or just plain ridiculous.
What if I told you I could feel my food digesting? What if I explained how I can feel the pumping of my heart and how it is affected when I don’t drink enough water? What if you could feel the ways in which your nerves are connected throughout your body?
Sounds imaginary or ridiculous, doesn’t it?
I assure you, from the point of view of someone with hypochondria, it’s not. Some of us have what’s called hypersensitivity. We are attuned to the various functions of our bodies and which bundle of nerves is responsible for which feeling. We are obsessive about the body’s normal, minor physical sensations. We are compulsive when it comes to identifying what these sensations mean. Is it normal? Is it a symptom? What illnesses is the feeling attributed to? Do I also feel these other symptoms? When do I call my doctor? Many people who struggle with hypochondria and hypersensitivity also battle raging anxiety and panic attacks. It’s the sense of alarm that something is off and the end result is death. If we don’t get a diagnosis, then we can’t beat whatever physical illness we have concluded affects us. It’s a vicious cycle, really.
And today, this is my war.
For the past two months, there’s been a teeny, tiny lump just below the surface of thin skin on my abdomen. I think it gets bigger depending on my diet at the time. If I’ve eaten Mexican food, it seems to grow, but if I’ve had a lot of water and fiber, it gets smaller. I’ve convinced myself, in lieu of visiting my doctor and annoying them with these tiny, inconsequential symptoms, that it’s likely a flare up in my intestinal tract — a symptom of nothing more than my diverticulosis. I can treat this at home if I eat properly.
Until last night.
There’s been a little aching there for a couple of days, a sting or a burning feeling of sorts. For the first time in two weeks, I felt the lump in my side just before bed. I went to sleep last night — finally dreamless, long, deep — a sleep I’ve needed for months. But, when I woke up, something felt off. That little nodule beneath my skin hurts. I ignored it because I panicked about going to the doctor yet again with a symptom of my hypersensitivity and hypochondria. And now the little nodule is bigger. Significantly bigger than the tiny thing it was just a few weeks ago.
Cue panic attack. Cue the cancer scare. Cue the diverticulitis is about to burst and infect me and I’ll have gangrene and you can’t amputate someone’s abdomen, so I’ll probably die.
And breathe in through your nose for four seconds and breathe out through pursed lips for seven and don’t hold your breath and what’s that elephant doing on your chest and why does my throat feel raw and why do I feel like I’m only two-feet tall as I walk lightheaded down the office hallway and I can feel the pumps of my heart increasing and my fingers are tingling and there’s a pain in my neck and a knot in my shoulder and the elephant won’t move now and it’s been five minutes so this should be alleviated and all of the articles I’ve read said that if you change positions and your chest pain isn’t alleviated that you should seek medical help because it could be a heart attack and the side of my face is starting to feel numb and the edges of my vision are starting to blur but you have to breathe through your nose for four seconds and you have to breathe out through your lips for seven seconds and you have to stop for a minute and ignore the swarm that’s raging through your ears and try to get focus back but the tapping of keys and the ringing of phones and the lights from applications and the sound of the doors slamming is all creating this cacophony of doom that won’t let you go.
So you grind your teeth and you try to carry on but the elephant, God, the elephant is so heavy and the sweat is pouring from your palms, but your fingers are so cold and why does it feel like the little nodule in my side has started to burn like it’s been doused in fire and I think I need to go to the emergency room but I’m not even sure I can drive myself because I’m dizzy and my mouth is dry and I can’t make out whether I’m going to faint or if I’m going to keep fighting through it because I know its name and if I just tell someone how I’m feeling maybe it’ll dissipate and I can get through the day and…
“You look pale,” someone says in passing.
“Panic attack,” I breathe with the little air from my lungs that I cling to.
After hours of warring with myself on whether or not my symptoms are make-believe or relevant to anything at all, I finally made an appointment with my doctor. I’ll try not to bring up the panic attack I had today, and I’ll try not to mention I can feel the lump existing inside my body. When they gloss over my history of anxiety with a raised eyebrow, I’ll nod my head and hope they won’t fixate on it as the diagnosis. And, when I leave the doctor with a diagnosis in hand, I certainly hope that my anxiety believes it and that we don’t start the whole experience over again tomorrow.
I know the jokes about checking diagnostic sites for simple symptoms is funny to a lot of people, but to a hypochondriac with hypersensitivity and panic disorder, it further stigmatizes our condition and makes it a God awful experience to just make it into a doctor’s office.
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Thinkstock photo via roshinio