The number of health issues that I’ve convinced myself I have had are almost too many to name, but there are a few that I’ve returned to more than others. They include: heart attack, brain cancer, leukemia, stroke, pulmonary embolisms, paralysis, appendicitis, hair loss, ovarian cancer, and anaphylaxis.
When I worried I might have leukemia, for example, I thought constantly about how my bones felt. I would log each bruise I found with increasing worry. I started feeling tired and cold, symptoms I had read a character with leukemia in a book experience long ago (I have a strict no-symptoms-googling policy, so all of my information comes from memories, snippets from books, movies, TV shows, magazine articles, and hearsay).
When I’m going through a particular health anxiety episode—the correct psychological term, although I prefer “hypochondria”—the world is dark and ominous. My fragility and mortality are at the forefront of my mind and I focus completely on the region of my body where I am experiencing the mysterious sensation.
Sometimes these obsessive thoughts bloom into a full crisis, but usually the more chronic conditions, like cancer, I could always hold off for another day. More acute issues, like my throat closing up to an allergy I never knew I had, or a sudden, painful fluttering in my chest, were far scarier. Whenever I’d feel the anxiety coming on, I would try desperately to distract myself. I would clean the apartment, or talk to someone on the phone, or take a shower. On some level I knew that my reactions were way out of proportion and that I was being completely unreasonable. But when you constantly fear, and feel, that you are dying, it’s hard to keep your head on straight.
Having hypochondria is like being alone in the house in the middle of the night. Every little bump makes you sit up stiff in bed and listen quieter, hold the covers tighter, waiting for someone or something to barge into your bedroom with an axe.
The doctor at the clinic was young and, I was happy to learn, Bosnian. He was wiry and spry and he moved purposefully around the spacious, high-ceilinged office. Vienna is filled with high ceilings like this.
I told the doctor my symptoms: how my heart would race, and my vision would tunnel; how I would sit petrified in my seat at work as my throat constricted; how I would go to bed every night certain that a twitch in my neck was an oncoming stroke. He nodded emphatically at the right times. Every time he finished the various parts of my exam, checking my pupils, my reflexes, my pulse, he would quietly say, “normal.”
He concluded that I had anxiety, and twenty minutes later I left with my first prescription for Xanax. I stood outside the clinic on Mariahilfer Strasse with my prescription in hand and filled it at a small pharmacy on the walk home.
When I was young and I had a fever, my mother would soak my socks in alcohol and put them on my feet, wet and reeking, to help lower my temperature. For years, my first association with the smell of liquor was the delirious haze of fever. She would make me chamomile tea and brothy soups with trahana, a pebble-like, fermented, homemade noodle. She would fuss over me and bring me things, and I felt safe and cared for.
I grew up hearing my parents tell war stories, and perhaps as a result, had a very serious and earnest disposition as a child. It felt obvious to me that horrible things could happen to anyone for any reason at anytime. Death, disease, disfigurement, and devastation were always looming.
True as this is, most people are able to go through their lives without the knowledge of this truth completely taking over their thoughts and emotions. Anxiety is a psychological condition in which someone is unable to stay sufficiently numb to the awful truths of existence.
Years ago, when I was in the Hague completing an internship, I had also been beset by unusual psychosomatic symptoms. I would sit at my computer desk until my vision would start to tunnel and blur and I could hardly see anything at all for twenty minutes at a time. Upstairs from my office, war criminals were standing trial for the very wars that had led my family to leave Bosnia twenty years prior. The on-staff nurse told me my visual disturbances were ocular migraines due to stress and poor posture.
A few years later I was having coffee and apple strudel at a cafe with friends in Vienna, where I was doing a similar internship. The cafe was just around the corner from the office. My Vienna internship was comparatively less emotionally taxing and, although the Hague has its charms, Vienna is far more beautiful. Everything in the Innere Stadt, the old center of Vienna, seemed to be either carved from marble or gilded or both. Horse-drawn carriages drove tourists around the Hofburg and down to Saint Stephen’s Cathedral. There are pastry shops and chocolate shops and cafes on every corner. The cafe I was in, Café Centrale, had impressive high vaulted ceilings and is famous for hosting a group of various 20th century literary and intellectual greats.
What they didn’t advertise was that Hitler had been known to visit the cafe too. Hitler, by some accounts, had a stomach condition. Other scholars have remarked, however, given the long and varied list of conditions he was said to have suffered from, that Hitler was likely a hypochondriac. After my coffee, I went to the bathroom in the back of the cafe and idly wondered if Hitler had used this bathroom too, the thought of which only increased my anxiety.
In my first year of grad school, just before leaving for Vienna, I became more anxious than I had ever been before. I was reading about Stalinism and Nazism non-stop, and I was certain it was making me sick. I was overwhelmed and out of my element. The other students in my class, serious scholars of history, seemed insufficiently affected by the material we read. I understood why, but it nonetheless struck me as somehow wrong. My own approach—becoming overwhelmed and outraged, taking breaks to stare vacantly with horror as I read, and letting each awful fact reverberate inside of me—had not been serving me well.
One day, sitting at my desk, I leaned back to stretch in my seat and discovered a lump in my breast. After a series of exams and ultrasounds my doctor suggested we go ahead with a biopsy. I leaned on a gurney with a wedge of foam material under my right shoulder at the breast cancer centre at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, as the doctor used a stun-gun-like thick-needled tool to puncture my skin and extract a sample from the lump. She held up a small plastic container, like the kind you give a urine sample in, pointed to a spot halfway up the jar, and said “This is how much fluid we need. We’re almost there.”
It wasn’t cancer. They told me they would watch the lump for a few months and see how it fared. When I came back from Vienna, I found out the lump had doubled in size and would need to be removed.
The summer I was in Vienna, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination. There were terror attacks in Europe and the US, and a coup in Turkey. I quietly slinked out of several meetings, where I was meant to be taking notes, feeling my head pound and my palms sweat and my guts twist into knots.
I would spend many evenings and weekends walking in the vicinity of Vienna’s emergency rooms and walk-in clinics just for the feeling of safety of being nearby.
Having a body is the worst part of being human. It’s also the essential part of being human.
A doctor is like a Virgil figure, which I suppose makes me Dante, and my body the hellscape.
The process of going into surgery is strangely ritualistic. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink the day of the surgery. I bathed with special care and left the house early in the morning. I changed into ceremonial robes and kissed my family and my boyfriend goodbye in the waiting room. I entered the operating room and scooted up onto the operating table. The nurses around me were so warm and reassuring that I felt guilty and foolish for crying. They put a mask on me, and told me to breathe normally.
The first few seconds I felt nothing. And then, for a long moment, I felt the feeling of being sucked below. Everything darkening around me and, slowly but forcefully, I felt myself disappearing. It wasn’t at all like going to sleep, where you doze and dream and then give yourself up willinging to unconsciousness. I felt, distinctly, scared. It felt like what I imagine dying must feel like.
When I woke up from the surgery I was being wheeled in a gurney down a hallway by a nurse. I told the nurse I was a hypochondriac. He seemed to be only half listening but I went on for a while anyway talking nonsense. I was relieved and loopy and talkative. I had conquered death, relinquished total control of my body, entered the ether, and returned safely. I had nothing else left to fear. A few hours later I walked to the pharmacy with my mother to pick up painkillers. The pharmacist suggested a stool softener to go along with the painkillers and my mother bought that too. When we came home she made up the couch with blankets and pillows so I could rest. She fed me and fretted over me. I felt fine.