• I’d spent the previous 10 months worrying myself sick in private. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
I’d constantly scan my body for anything suspect but didn’t really need to find anything – just thinking about all the ways the human body could fail was enough to make my blood run cold.
By
Brigid Blackney

24 Sep 2018 - 7:59 AM  UPDATED 27 Nov 2020 - 5:07 PM

When a GP tells a patient she’s in excellent health, surely the normal human response is happiness, relief, or even nonchalance.

I didn’t feel any of those things when given a clean bill of health during an appointment with my doctor. There wasn’t a test in the world that would have convinced me it was true. I believed there was a malignant tumour growing inside me, and I just wanted my GP to stop dithering about, and find it.

I’d put off the appointment for six months out of absolute terror, and now she’d just brushed over the vague rib pain I’d told her about and my suspicious-looking moles. There was also a worryingly lumpy lymph node. I was checking my glands regularly by then – but my GP insisted I was more likely to be hit by a tram while leaving the clinic than being diagnosed with a serious illness.

She’s not doing her job properly, I thought. I resolved to find someone else.

There were times where I’d emerge from the mental swamp and recognise my thinking was supremely messed up, but that clarity was only ever brief then I’d be dragged back down into the cycle.

The hypochondriacs we see on TV are mostly whiny, self-absorbed characters offered up for comedic relief. We understand they’re not quite right when their illogical beliefs fly in the face of all medical evidence to the contrary. Why don’t they just get over it?

Yet after my third medical appointment I was lumped into their category, sent off for counselling because my obsession with illness and misinterpretation of normal body processes were red flags for illness anxiety disorder (formerly hypochondriasis).

It’s true that I’d spent the previous 10 months worrying myself sick in private. I’d constantly scan my body for anything suspect but didn’t really need to find anything – just thinking about all the ways the human body could fail was enough to make my blood run cold.

Real life didn’t quell my concerns. “Doctors miss things all the time - you should always get a second opinion,” said a friend. A sports star was back in the news after a recurrence of melanoma, and ovarian cancer killed a young woman from my home town. Ads everywhere remind us to check our skin, test for bowel cancer, remember your pap smear.

I didn’t tell any friends or family about my worries, because saying it aloud seemed like it would make my fears reality. There’s a scene in Hannah and Her Sisters where Woody Allen’s hypochondriac Mickey tells his colleague not to mention the word cancer while he’s in the building. It’s scary how much I get that. 

Instead, I wrote Louise Hay-style affirmations in my journal, lines like “I am in perfect health” or “the universe is full of healing energy” top to bottom over every page. I bought spiritual books and read about mystical ‘healers’. I no longer wonder why people throw cash at shoddy wellness ‘gurus’ – feeding off people’s fear is a solid business plan.

Most of the time I felt paralysed, with little to look forward to since making plans seemed like tempting fate. I struggled to concentrate. Catastrophic thinking about illnesses I might have made me break out in hives, which I explained away to colleagues as allergies from the garden.

Catastrophic thinking about illnesses I might have made me break out in hives, which I explained away to colleagues as allergies from the garden.

There were times where I’d emerge from the mental swamp and recognise my thinking was supremely messed up, but that clarity was only ever brief then I’d be dragged back down into the cycle.

My counsellor was kind and wanted to talk about my childhood, which I saw as pointless at the time but it unearthed several possible reasons for my anxiety, including family history of untreated mental health issues.

We got to the likely trigger for my deterioration – my dad, a guy who proudly “never got sick”, was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years earlier and died swiftly, aged in his mid-50s.

I hadn’t realised how much his death had shaken my (naive) ideas about good people getting to live good lives. I was still having trouble accepting reality.

My counsellor helped me see some other irrational beliefs, like that my psychology degree and earnest studies in meditation and yoga were armour against mental health problems. There’s no guarantee against mental illness, though I’d done everything I could.

The counselling was enough of a distraction to break the chronic loop of my thinking, and I slowly started to live my life again. Talking about my dad’s illness made something click – people really did get sick all the time, but while I was healthy I wanted to be grateful for that, and do enough living for all of us.

Illness anxiety disorder doesn’t always go away, but having a better understanding of the triggers and my habit of going from zero to 100 on the health fear scale helps. So does having an understanding GP. (When mine opens my computer file, the word ANXIETY pops up at the top of the screen.)

And perhaps just keeping it at bay is better than being at the more cavalier end of the spectrum. Anxiety does have its place in protecting us from actual dangers. Knowing the difference between what’s real and imaginary is an ongoing practice.

If this story raises issues for you, contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.

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