Lifelong hypochondriac Julia Molony on how the solidarity of worry during a pandemic has meant her mental health is better than it has been in years…[restrict]
For much of my adult life, I have been an avid collector of medical facts. My brain is an alarmist’s encyclopaedia of disease statistics: risk factors, incidences, common presentations, morbidity and mortality.
I am not master of this knowledge. And no matter how much more of it I accumulate, I never will be. Rather, the knowledge has mastery over me. I am a cyberchondriac; neurotically addicted to reading medical data online.
After many years of online-reading, my focus turbo-charged by anxiety, I could now, I suppose, call myself a reasonably well-informed layman in matters of health. But mostly the knowledge I have accumulated serves no real purpose except to terrify and torment me. I am at its mercy. I am the knowledge’s bitch.
Pretty much ever since I first got access to an internet search engine, I’ve wasted an unthinkable amount of time relentlessly mining the information-pits of Google as a way of probing my worst fears. Poring over scientific journals and specialist press, squinting at tiny print in medical textbooks on Google books.
Along the way, I have acquired a whole new lexicon, words that don’t have any use outside the realm of disease; iatrogenic, sequela, histopathology, neurodegenerative. Medical jargon is rich and precise. Unless you are a patient, in which case it mostly all means just one thing — pain, in all its diverse forms. Sometimes death.
My obsession started, like so many self-hating compulsions do, on the website Mail Online. The mail online health pages are my personal bête noire — a panoply of suffering whose laser-sharp editorial focus is the frailty and failures of the human body.
And oh! How many ways a body can fail us. From skin that blisters on touch to people who are allergic to water, breathtaking in its complexity and heterogeneity. It stretches the limits of even the most outlandish imagination.
Of all many things there are to worry about as a human, illness has always seemed to me the most compelling. For one thing, it’s pretty much inevitable. Amongst all the uncertainties of life, to me the question of illness is not so much one of “If?” but “When?. And, even more frighteningly, “What?”
And so, like all great worriers, I have endeavoured to prepare myself for the worst. I have researched cancer-types and prognoses in great detail. I have learned by rote lists of suspicious features and red flag symptoms. I have lost entire days poring over research papers and drug trials.
Until quite recently. When, paradoxically, a few months into a global pandemic, I found the pages of Pubmed or the alarmist headlines in bold-type on Mail online had, almost overnight, mysteriously lost their powerful pull. When I was wasting time online, the hours were mostly lost to shopping websites instead.
Late last year, as we all know, news started to emerge of an unknown and virulent virus with an alarmingly high mortality rate spreading like wildfire in Wuhan. This was it. The hypochondriacs worst nightmare brought to life.
In the face of political inaction, Covid’s spread across the world was ineluctable. And so was my growing sense of dread.
This time, though, there was a key difference. I wasn’t the only one panicking.
During every personal health crisis I have fretted over, frantically researched and investigated, I have always known, in a small, more rational part of my mind that the problem was more likely to be psychological than physical. But here was a health crisis that was dauntingly real.
Experiencing an anxiety disorder is an intensely isolating experience. By definition, the worries are unfounded. The sufferer is gripped by a state of extreme distress, for reasons that the outside world considers baseless. It feels like screaming into a void. Or like being gaslighted by your own brain. But with covid, the concern was real, concrete and (pretty much) universally accepted. It was a collective fear brought to life and the only possible response was collective action.
In the first few weeks of the first lockdown, my anxiety levels were as high as they have ever been. I spent many hours reading about rates of infection and age-standardised mortality statistics and frantically trying to interpret how much real risk this new threat posed — to me personally, to my loved ones and to society as a whole. Just like everyone else. For the first time, anxiously googling medical statistics was a perfectly normal thing to do.
Cut off from my usual coping strategies, I went back on the anti-depressants I take when things get bad and, as ever, they soon started to help. But I don’t think they are the only reason that, after those few terrifying few weeks, I found myself starting to feel much better and have since been enjoying better mental health than I have in many years. I think all of the solidarity in worry has played an important role too.
I’m too much of a seasoned neurotic to indulge the fantasy that this new sang-froid might be permanent. Anxiety comes and goes like weather and triggers can be surprising and take you unawares.
Covid continues to dominate the news. Health headlines are pretty much the only headlines now, but it’s everyone’s problem. I’m as conscious of the risk that the illness poses, to myself and to my loved ones, as anyone else.
I haven’t tested positive yet, nor have the vulnerable members of my family and I’d be lying if I said I’m not afraid of the moment when or if I do. But while health anxiety is a state of intense self-absorption, Covid is a health crisis that forces us all to look at the bigger picture. And to carry on, in spite of how grim that picture is. For the catastrophist, it’s provided an important lesson; that the world doesn’t end, even when the worst happens.
Photo by Candace Mathers on Unsplash[/restrict]