Awoke with a soaring temperature, a tightening pain across my chest, a strange ‘panting’ noise in my ears and an itching nose. Struggled for breath and abandoned all attempts to pull myself upright whilst simultaneously taking my pulse and checking for swollen glands. Breathing as laboured as a prospective politician’s joke. Forced open sleep-gummed eyes and prepared to face my end with as much dignity as I could muster whilst still allowing myself the odd whimper, only to find the dog sleeping across my chest again…
My wife tells me that I am a hypochondriac which I consider to be grossly unfair to someone whose health is as fragile as mine. Especially since I have never taken a single day’s sick leave in my life. I say this, not in a goody-goody, holier-than-thou sort of way, but merely as a bald statement of fact, rather like the fact that over the same period of time I have never had the decorators in: it doesn’t mean that I don’t wish that I had. Forty years of DIY is not the sort of thing that someone as poorly as myself should have been involved in.
Nor do I constantly visit the doctor. The waiting room at our local health centre would make anyone feel ill. I cannot walk through the door without misappropriating at least twenty additional symptoms. And the place is littered with the kind of leaflets which, to a hypochondriac, are akin to the Argos catalogue: nothing in there that you actually want, but a thousand things that you suspect you might already have, even if you’ve no idea where you might have left the attachments. And I never self-medicate. You can never be certain that the side-effects of self administered medicines will not be worse than the malady they are intended to counter. I suffer in silence. Well, not silence exactly, more a sort of long, low moan. Never-the-less, the mere mention of illness, any illness, immediately brings me out in hives. The appearance of a hitherto unnoticed mole (probably a gravy stain) invokes the kind of panic usually associated with a cabinet reshuffle. I have yet to be allowed to forget one of my rare visits to the doctor with what seemed to me the certain indicators of incipient brain tumour, only to be told that my hat was too tight.
As I get older, two things give me cause for greatest concern: my weight and my mind. I monitor my diet constantly – I never change it, but I do monitor it. I exercise fitfully (I’m just checking my dictionary here to ensure that ‘fitfully’ does actually mean ‘hardly ever’). I calculated my Body Mass Index with a formula I got from the internet. Apparently 24 is normal, 25 is fat and 30 is obese, so it was of some little concern to find that mine worked out to be 3,731. My wife suggested that I may have got my maths wrong, so I immediately checked for all other obvious signs of dementia. Fortunately, I could find none.
Now, where was I?
Ah yes, my capacity for worry is legendary. I worry about my inability to remember a PIN number without access to a ball-point pen and a rarely exposed body part. My ability to leave my bank card in the machine at the supermarket checkout is matched only by my tendency to leave the custard creams on the conveyor. My long-term memory comprises a bulk supply of Post-it notes and a fridge door. I understand from BBC Breakfast News that drinking three glasses of fruit juice a week will reduce my chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease by something like 60 percent. I do not eat meat, but I do eat prodigious amounts of fruit. Does this count as juice? Do I have, perhaps, to chew it up really, really well to get full benefit? They were very specific about the number of glasses; three per week, but not the size. Would that be three large or three small? Do three small glasses equal one large? What if I overdose – would the symptoms set in at once? Would I even be able to remember how many glasses I had drunk? Anyway, I don’t know anyone who drinks fruit juice without vodka. I know a Bloody Mary without the vodka is a Virgin Mary, so what is an orange juice: is it a Harvey or a Wallbanger?
Worry is my constant companion: should I be able to remember my mobile phone number; should I be able to touch my toes without sitting on a stool and asking somebody else to lift my foot; do the ever-expanding dimensions of my man-boobs put me at proportionally increased risk of breast cancer? (If there are any doctors reading this, for God’s sake, don’t write in with the answer, particularly if it is ‘Yes’.) And while we are on the subject of doctors, I must give a dishonourable mention here to all those ‘newspaper doctors’, whose columns are responsible for me feeling unwell more often than the common cold virus. I am uniquely susceptible to auto-suggestion: whatever the most obscure symptoms of the rarest, most recently discovered illness, I have got them within fifteen minutes of reading about them (less if I am on a bus).
There is, I am afraid, a tendency to dismiss the concerns of the hypochondriac as those of a crank. Grossly unfair I would argue and also wasteful of the G.P.’s time as, having been so dismissed, any hypo’ worth his salt is almost certain to demand to be referred to a psychiatrist in order to receive treatment for depression. My opinion is that the best way for doctors to deal with hypochondria would be for them to recognise it as a bona fide disease. Imagine the rise in self-esteem for the sufferer if, instead of being told ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re a hypochondriac, pull yourself together,’ you were told ‘I’m afraid you’re suffering from hypochondria, it’s seldom terminal, but there is no cure.’ We’d all feel so much better…
Envoi. To better understand the word, hypochondria, I decided to follow my usual procedure: break it down into two pieces and then look-up the Greek (or sometimes Latin) meaning of the constituent pieces. I thus found ‘Hypo’ to mean ‘Under’ and jumped to the obvious conclusion that ‘Chondria’ means ‘The Weather’. I was somewhat disconcerted to discover that it is merely a type of North America Red Algae – there’s no wonder I feel ill