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Lost: my hypochondria habit

Sometime in her 50s my mother happened on a dusty box of Tampax that she’d tucked under the bathroom sink God knows when and thought to herself with no small degree of puzzlement, “Hmm, it’s been eons since I had any call for one of those.” If there’s a gene for a menopause from heaven, the kind that tiptoes in unnoticed, she didn’t pass it on to me. Yet in midlife I too lost a part of my psychic self while thinking of more important things. I used to be one of those people who are always fretting over some imagined illness or other. I figured I was stuck with the hypochondria habit that had dogged my steps like a persistent panhandler with a fake hard-luck story. Then one day I turned around and it had vanished.

I was still a kid in a madras skort (not a typo but a trend of the Flintstones era) when my hand brushed a hard, unsightly lump on my knee. What could this be but bone cancer? Horrors! I was going to lose my leg—and then I’d die before a boy kissed me. When my mother mother pointed out the obvious—a mirror-image lump on the opposite knee—it seemed she had saved me from doom.

That’s life with hypochondria—one big warm-up for death, interspersed with reprieves you hardly dared hope for. Every spot is melanoma, every cramp is multiple sclerosis, every stumble is ALS. In the grip of a scare, I’d slip into a bookstore to consult my oracle: A Dictionary of Symptoms. I knew enough to be a tad embarrassed by the allure of this bleak and massive tome. How my husband would have scoffed if he’d found it on my bedside table!

Twenty-first-century hypochondriacs don’t have to be so furtive. A few key clicks transport them to a limitless virtual bazaar of tremors, tumours and what-have-you. But the motivation hasn’t changed. We’re talking mental voodoo here. Trust me, I’ve been there. By obsessing over some dire malady, I convinced myself that it couldn’t creep up from behind and unleash its death-dealing tricks. I was like the panicky flyer who secretly believes that her anxiety is keeping the plane aloft.

Then at 50 I reached the colonoscopy years. My doctor began to send me for unpleasant but necessary tests that marked my passage into mortality’s danger zone. Statistically speaking, I was much more likely to die than I had been at a fresh-faced but frantic 30. “Middle age,” a term I’d once connected with gray hair and crow’s feet, acquired serious chronological heft: even if I lived to be a hundred, half my life was already history.

More distressingly, friends my age were being stricken by mortal illnesses—often with no warning whatsoever. Blooming one day, dying the next. I found myself in a changed mental landscape where the number one hazard was the death of someone dear to me. Meanwhile my own death lost its power to terrify. It was old clothes and a handful of straw on a broom handle, not a bogeyman worthy of Stephen King.

With my attachments I’ve shaped a world. Across the dining room table or across the continent, friends and family are my map. It has the illusion of permanence, grounding me on this planet. Some of those on the map were born into my life but most I chose for their humour, their insight, their elan or their quirky perspective on the human tragicomedy. Death doesn’t choose; it erases and leaves me to contemplate an empty space. Manhattan might as well have vanished, just like that.

I no longer have wistful thoughts about the sweet impossibility of living forever. Where’s the joy in immortality if I can’t share it? I have a new fantasy: no one I love gets to beat me to the checkout. Wouldn’t that be splendid?

Click here for an earlier riff on this theme, “The year of friends lost and found.” 

Posted by Rona

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