‘A cycle of dread, collapse, relief’: the absurd, tormented story of my hypochondria

I have never been seriously ill or spent a night in hospital, but I’m plagued by fears that a terrible sickness is coming for me. How did I fall victim to health anxiety?

“This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute.” The pain arrives slowly, like a Polaroid sharpening into view, but the fear comes suddenly: a channel switched, a cloud sped across the sun. It’s June 1989, I recently turned 20, and I am supposed to be studying for first-year exams in English, at University College Dublin. Instead, I’m letting a morning’s MTV binge slide into the afternoon and paying keen attention to the fingers of my right hand, which have begun to ache. In the days that follow – though I only half believe it’s happening – stiffness spreads to my wrist and elbow, to the other arm, to my hips and knees. I start hobbling, and hunch over on the bus on my way to university. I will have to repeat some exams, but my affliction will have vanished by midsummer, walked off one hot day in St Stephen’s Green.

Most of my life, from early adolescence onwards, has been punctuated by these episodes, more or less alarming, depending on my symptoms and the disease I have decided is expressed there. Fretful interludes have remained secret, never spoken about to parents, friends or professionals. Others have been, or felt, dramatic: the shock of a sudden lump, rash or pain must be taken to a GP, then to specialists, only to be quickly dismissed, or dissolved in the weeks-long agony of appointments and results. Still others have lingered for months or even years, dragging at daily life, relationships, career prospects.

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Category: Mental Health