Even in the most emotionally traumatic moment of my life, when I learned that my mom had been killed in a car accident, I had hypochondriac thoughts. In the minutes after the Sheriff’s Deputy delivered that tragic news, I wondered what my blood pressure was. Sweat poured down my forehead and my heart pounded through my chest. I wondered if those were symptoms of a stroke or heart attack, even though I was just 31 years old at the time. A
At that point, I had been suffering from health anxiety episodes regularly for about six years or so. And it would be several more years before I decided to seek therapy.
I wish that, during the 10 year period between my gallbladder surgery and my vision anxiety, as my health anxiety OCD got worse, that I had actually made a record of every time I thought I was dying. Because now, trying to cram 10+ years of hypochondriac thoughts into a few blog posts, I can’t even begin to convey how gradually hypochondria overtook my day-to-day thoughts. I never recorded all the things that I thought was wrong with me. But it was excessive and nearly constant. No matter how reasonable the explanation I had for a particular pain or the appearance of a bruise, or being tired or achy, I panicked over it. I even remember one time as I breathed in through my mouth, I kept feeling like this strange “clicky” sensation in the back of my throat. It continued for days and caused me a world of anxiety. Then, just one day, it went away. Sometimes it would come back, throwing me once again into the throes of anxious and obsessive thoughts.
Even symptoms of very minor, easily treatable ailments sent me into a tailspin of catastrophic thoughts. That toothache? Oh god, you probably need a root canal. And it’s a Wednesday. What if the pain doesn’t get really bad until Friday and then the excruciating pain really starts to kick in on Friday after the dentist’s office is closed? What do people do over the weekend when they have a terrible toothache? I don’t think I could possibly tolerate having to wait an entire weekend to see the dentist. [Proceed to Google what to do for bad toothache when dentist is closed. Make plans specific to my location and preferences for what I’ll have to do over the weekend to get my tooth taken care of.] Mind you, my toothache at that point was extremely mild. Probably easily explained by biting into something weird, or flossing too aggressively. But, my mind still obsessed.
Sore throat? Ugh, what if it’s strep throat. Take a flashlight and look in the back of your throat for white patches. Don’t see any? Keep checking every 30 minutes or so. If it’s strep throat, you’ll want to get to the doctor right away for antibiotics. Remember, Jim Henson died because he left strep throat go untreated.
I think abdominal pains and back pains caused me the most anxiety, especially those pains that would last for more than a few seconds. And, perhaps “pain” here is even too strong a word. Even something like a slight twinge made me anxious and obsessive.
Interfering with my Life
My health anxiety obsessions robbed me of a lot of enjoyable moments. One time, my husband and I were at the movie theater. Just as the previews ended and the main feature was about to begin, my left hand began to tingle. I completely panicked, wondering if I was having a stroke and whether I should get up and leave the movie theater. I started rubbing my hand, shaking my hand, everything I could do to see if the tingling sensation was maybe just because my hand had “fallen asleep.” The tingling did eventually dissipate, but I worried about it the entire rest of the 2-hour movie, barely paying attention to what was on the screen in front of me.
In the days after my mom’s death, I had a difficult time sleeping. On the fourth night following her death, realizing I had only slept in 2-hour increments in the previous days, I became afraid of falling asleep, thinking I would somehow die in my sleep because I was now so tired. I thought of how awful that would be for my family, having to deal with yet another sudden death of a family member. I remember feeling like a selfish prick. My mom had just died an awful, tragic death, and I was obsessing about my own irrational fears.
Something even as routine as washing my face could spawn hypochondriac thoughts. There were several occasions where the area just under my jawbone would “hurt” as I was washing my face and neck. I immediately started to think I had “swollen glands” and all the horrible possibilities that swollen glands could mean.
In the months leading up to my wedding, I took the elevator instead of the stairs at work, even though I only worked on the 2nd floor. I was worried about falling down the stairs and breaking my ankle or my leg and it affecting our wedding plans.
Not that it’s terribly important to point this out, but I would say that about 75% of my health-anxiety related thoughts were for “acute” illness worries (like a blood clot, stroke, heart attack, detached retina, breaking a bone etc.) Only about 25% of my worries were worries of something long term or chronic condition (like cancer, multiple sclerosis or other autoimmune diseases, or brain tumors). And then there was the anxiety about even the more minor, “treatable” illnesses, like toothaches, hernias, and appendicitis.
In addition to being anxious, I was just so fucking mad at myself. I’d say, “This is all self-inflicted, you know! There is no reason you need to overreact so goddamn much. Try some meditation or something for fucks sake. And then, when I’d try different “remedies,” like deep breathing or mindfulness, I’d halt midway through a session.
“Now this is some granola-ass bullshit. Deep breathing? I might be dying here and deep fucking breathing is supposed to be helping me? What a crock of shit!”
Yet, I was still “Normal”
A little disclaimer
I realize that, as I explain to you my decade-long downward spiral of anxiety and OCD related to my health, you might picture me as some basketcase full of jittery nerves. As I explain things as “overtaking my day-to-day thoughts.” You might picture me holed up in my house, unable to function.
Although it felt like my health anxiety and OCD were overtaking my thoughts and my life, I actually had a fairly normal life. I worked a full time job, making a great salary considering I just have an undergraduate liberal arts degree. I have a ton of hobbies. So many hobbies, in fact, I couldn’t find time for all of them.
I blogged (yep, I have a blog separate from this one), I traveled extensively, and I kept a (mostly) clean and organized house. Not only that, I figured out the ways of “travel hacking” to fly for little or no money. I don’t do many “local” outings, so, I can be a bit of a homebody. But I always figured that my longer distance travels made up for that. I love to cook, and I’d host big family get-togethers. My to-do lists in preparation for dinner parties are epically detailed.
But, even in these moments of normalcy, I had OCD thoughts. Before any big vacation, I’d google how far a hospital was from our locations. I was especially obsessive about this on trips we took to more remote locations.
If I’d have a pain at work, I’d debate whether I’d go to a hospital by my office or try to “tough it out” and get to a hospital closer to my home. After all, I wouldn’t want to be that far away from home.
If I’d open the oven from making a new dish and a rush of steam hit my face, I’d be immediately worried that the steam would have done damage to my vision. I’d continue to make the meal and take it out of the oven, but I’d feel more distracted the rest of the time.
Throw in one little ache or twinge, and my mood would be changed. “Ruined” might be too strong of a word. But my mood was changed. Distracted.
As another disclaimer here, I don’t want you picturing me going to the ER all the time or anything. Since my hypochondria started in the 2007 time frame, I’ve visited the ER three times. Once for stitches on my thumb after a Thanksgiving day kitchen knife incident in 2008 (this was before “urgent care” centers started to become popular), once for my very legitimate issue of kidney stones in 2013, and then another time later in 2013 when I broke a toe (again, this one could’ve been resolved in an urgent care visit, but it was very late at night).
So, although I think a lot about whether I’m going to have to go to the ER, it’s not like I ran there every few days. I don’t think that three times in the past ten years would characterize me as going to the ER excessively or anything.
I also didn’t go to the doctor excessively. In fact, between 2009 and early 2013, I was a definite doctor avoider. I thought that visiting the doctor would finalize some terrible diagnosis I had been fearing. I finally got over my fear in late 2013, and I go to the doctor regularly now for things like annual physicals and when I do finally decide to go for some issue that has been bothering me. But again, that’s not very frequently. I’d say I go to the doctor about twice a year outside of my normal physicals. Most recently I had a dreadful cough for several weeks that was keeping me up at night. So, the doctor prescribed some good cough syrup with codeine. A non-routine physical appointment other than that was one time when I had an excessive sore throat and thought I might have been coming down with strep throat, which I have legitimately had several times as an adult. (Most recently, it was not strep, just a virus).
Either way, I just wanted to explain that although in many of my posts I talk about wondering whether I should go to the doctor or the ER, I almost never did.
And, I hope this also helps dispel some misconceptions that some people might have about those that suffer from health anxiety OCD or hypochondria. Although I’m sure there are some folks that seek constant reassurance from doctors, not all of us do. We can go through our lives, seemingly normal and un-anxious to the outside world, but hiding our worries about our health.
Maybe it’s better that I don’t have a “record” of how many times I was distracted by normal bodily sensations during that ten-year period. How many times I freaked out, how many times I Googled my symptoms. How many hours of my life wasted worrying about things that never came to fruition, researching topics that had zero relevance to my life. Maybe having that record would make me even sadder about those wasted hours. Instead of dying early from some incurable disease, I just cut the hours from my life in a different way. Sure, I was “existing” in life, but I was cutting out so much of the important “living” hours of my day to day life.
So, perhaps with this, I can move forward. Therapy has already been so helpful in treating my OCD that I don’t have to waste that same kind of time anymore. So instead of looking back, mourning this hours and days, let me look forward to the time that I’ve now reclaimed since I don’t have those same excessive worries.