A few months ago, I was diagnosed with “moderate hypochondria” which came as no shock to those near and dear to me. Hypochondria is one of those things that can be tremendously funny and horribly terrifying. The funny part is that it’s completely irrational, but the horrifying part is that the fear is terribly real.
Hypochondria is a psychosomatic disorder which revolves around the fear of getting or being sick. While it varies in intensity from person to person, a hypochondriac will get something simple like a headache and believe or fear that she has a brain tumor. Normal bodily sensations and pains are intensified and even imagined. Some hypochondriacs go to the doctor too much while others are terrified to seek treatment. I used to be the former, now I’m the latter. I hate going to the family doctor, but I go when I must.
The Internet makes it easy to find new and interesting diseases from sites like WedMD or the Mayo Clinic. In trying to find cold relief, a hypochondriac can “end up” with pneumonia. For me, the hypochondria comes in bouts of anxiety. Sometimes I’m relatively OK as long as you keep me away from “E.R.” and “Grey’s Anatomy” but other times a commercial for “House” can freak me out. Plus, there’s the power of suggestion. If someone close to me has a bladder infection or a kidney stone or an ovarian cyst, then I suddenly “develop” one as well (or rather the symptoms).
Hypochondria hasn’t always been part of my life. As a child, I had surgery on my ears due to fluid in my cochlea (“tubes in the ears”), my tonsils removed, and knee surgery at 16. Despite terrible allergies, terrible sinus infections, and ovarian cysts (painful!), I was OK. That is until March of 2001, when I had the worst sinus infection imaginable. I kept going to the doctor trying to find relief for the pain, which wasn’t even lessened by prescription pain medications. After several tests including a spinal tap (those are HORRIBLE), it was discovered that I suffered from a rare condition called psuedo tumor cerebri. I was rushed to Philadelphia for emergency surgery–a shunt was inserted into my body to drain the fluid causing pressure in my head. This pressure was crushing my optic nerves, not only giving me terrible headaches, but causing me to go blind as well. I survived that ordeal and didn’t realize I was in for another.
A couple of weeks later, my right arm flailed about uncontrollably and went numb. Since my appendage was hanging on my body like dead weight, my mom drove me to the emergency room. After a few minutes, I suppose I just got tired of waiting, so I had a grand mal seizure (you lose control of your entire body) right there in front of everyone. I got rushed into a room where I had another seizure. Apparently, I was out quite a bit and there was fear I was brain damaged, but I was OK. The room looked like a scene from “E.R.”. Cabinets were open, stuff was thrown all over the place, a big blue breathing tube was popping out of my face, some weird thing was going out of my nose, and there were electrodes all over my chest.
After getting yet another spinal tap and other tests (which weren’t nearly as unpleasant as the spinal tap), it was discovered I had a blood clot in one of the main arteries of my brain. So I had to be put on blood thinners, which meant that the thickness of my blood was checked several times a day. I was in the hospital a week the first time and ten days the second. I became very good at stretching my arm and getting blood drained out of it. I also became very bruised.
Finally, I went home but I was terrified I would have another seizure. I had to wear a medical identification bracelet because I was on blood thinners and anti-seizure meds. And for a while my balance was off, and I had to use a cane. Plus, I had frequent doctor visits to neurologists, the family doctor, the eye doctor, and everyone else that needed to see me. It was definitely not the way I wanted to spend the spring semester of my junior year.
Now it’s seven years later, and I’ve had sinus surgery due to chronic sinusitis and been diagnosed with several other chronic disorders which I don’t wish to mention, and now I hate going to the doctor. It seems to have worsened into hypochondria after the lingering deaths of both my grandparents.
Hypochondria makes life difficult at times, but fortunately I don’t live in a constant state of fear. I have random cycles in which I am forced to deny how I feel physically and rely on what I know to be true mentally. I have to trust that God is in control of my health and my life, which is something with which we all struggle. The problem is that my body ACTUALLY thinks it is sick, except that it isn’t. It actually feels pain when nothing is wrong. The pain is very real, but the underlying pain problem is not.
At least I have a diagnosis, but I tend to think that we as Christians often live as spiritual hypochondriacs. Instead of trusting God, we carefully analyze every situation to gain control. We feel the sting of others more deeply than we should and take on “illnesses”. We look around and say to ourselves, “The world is not safe. God is not in control.” We despair and fall away from truth.
During times of physical and/or spiritual hypochondria, I take comfort in Psalm 46, especially verses 1-4,
1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
I don’t know about you, but if I saw the mountains fall into the ocean (an earthquake perhaps?), I would be scared out of my mind. Yet this psalm urges us not to fear because nothing escapes the watchful eyes of God. I like how verse 4 contrasts the volatile ocean with the “river whose streams make glad the city of God”. Completely out of our realm of control is God, who invites us to be still and know Him (vs. 10). There is so much comfort and power in these words, especially in times of trouble, anxiety, and yes, hypochondria.
While I’ve tried to pray my hypochondria (and other ailments) away, so far I haven’t had any miraculous healing. But I have learned a lot about being still and knowing God, the value of praying and encouraging others, and living in situations I would have never chosen for my life. Since I can’t change it, I simply (or not so simply) accept it, rail against it with the truth, and trust God with the rest. It sounds easy enough, but it’s the fight of my life. Fortunately, thought sometimes I feel like it, I am never alone.