I’ve always been a hypochondriac. When I was about 8 or 9 I remember listening to a tape of Jacqueline Du Pre and my mother explaining to me how she had been cut down in her prime by this awful disease, MS, that gradually makes you unable to move until finally you’re completely paralysed and then you die (at least, that is how I understood her explanation).
My mother must have told me that one of the symptoms was pins and needles, because every time I had them after that I was terrified it was the start of MS – even though it was always when I’d been sitting or lying awkwardly. As I grew older, I never shook off that fear of getting MS – the irony! But I can’t pretend I somehow had a foreshadowing of it – because there are many other diseases I’ve convinced myself I had over the years and MS is far from my only great fear.
Hypochondria – health anxiety as it is also known – is an awful condition. The ‘International Statistical Classification of Diseases’ defines it as follows:
- A. Either one of the following:
- A persistent belief, of at least six months’ duration, of the presence of a maximum of two serious physical diseases (of which at least one must be specifically named by the patient).
- A persistent preoccupation with a presumed deformity or disfigurement
- B. Preoccupation with the belief and the symptoms causes persistent distress or interference with personal functioning in daily living, and leads the patient to seek medical treatment or investigations (or equivalent help from local healers).
- C. Persistent refusal to accept medical advice that there is no adequate physical cause for the symptoms or physical abnormality, except for short periods of up to a few weeks at a time immediately after or during medical investigations.
I’m lucky to have been affected by hypochondria relatively mildly, but it has been a feature of my life for as long as I can remember. It is cruelly self-sustaining because – for me at least – it is strangely reassuring. When in its tightest grip I felt I couldn’t let go of my fears and enjoy my life, because it would be just when I was least expecting it that I would find out I had a terrible illness.
When I had a brain scan that showed changes indicative of early MS, in 2008, my hypochondria fed on this event and evolved to become something that almost stopped me functioning at all. For the seven years since the scan, I’ve felt a cloud hanging over me, an invisible hand on my shoulder, always reminding me to keep worrying – or else. Or else my worst fears would come true. Hypochondria had a profound effect on every aspect of my life, plunging me into deep depression and making me too afraid to make the simplest plans for the future.
I fixated on MS – obviously – but that was too scary and too real to confront directly. It was only privately, in my head, that I obsessed over many symptoms, Googling them in the hope of finding reassurance that was always elusive. I was much too scared to go to my GP and talk about any of these symptoms. Instead, in an elaborate attempt to distract myself from what I must subconsciously have known was the truth a myriad of other health worries sprung up – melanoma, breast cancer, lymphoma – all of which I could go to the GP about because deep-down I knew I didn’t have them. Finally, I ended up breaking down in yet another GP appointment and was referred for counselling – but I was still too scared to mention MS to anyone. It took 5 months of cognitive behavioural therapy before I could tell the therapist about the scan, and another 4 before she could convince me that I needed to go to the GP about the walking problems I’d been having, but she only persuaded me because she made me believe that my fear of MS was unfounded. She also convinced me that it was OK to say ‘I don’t have MS’ (something I was much too scared to do in case I ‘tempted fate’). I felt happy and able to plan for the future for the first time in a really long time.
Little did I know, I was setting out on the long path from GP to orthopaedic surgeon, to physiotherapist, to neurologist, to diagnosis with MS. At last, in the hollowest of hollow victories, I found out that I was right: firstly, I really had been ill all along, and secondly – as anticipated – as soon as I let my guard down I had found out that I had a dreadful illness.
In the face of all this, I could be angry. I could get even more anxious. I could feel that it’s pointless to try to be happy, that there will always be something around the corner that will ruin everything – but strangely, I don’t. Quite the opposite. I feel freed of my hypochondria. I never need to worry any more about having MS, because I know that I do have it. I don’t need to worry whether this sensation or that weakness is MS because in all probability, it is. Worry is a more pernicious, draining emotion than any other and without it as a constant companion I can finally open my eyes to the world around me and enjoy every precious moment.
I spent a long time wrestling with hypochondria, and nothing worked to vanquish it. Nothing, that is, except getting genuinely ill.