A Cure for Hypochondria and Paranoia
Many years ago, when I was living in Israel, and very much in love with a young Persian man, I woke up one morning to an experience that was going to haunt me, but also sober me, for many years to come.
My boyfriend had a little street food restaurant, with shawarma, rice, and many salads, near the old Central Bus station in Tel Aviv. I was unemployed at the time, and not too happy about it. I’d wake up late and then meet my boyfriend at his restaurant where I’d putter around and make myself useful.
That warm and sunny morning I followed nature’s calling into the restroom, and when I looked down to the toilet bowl, I almost fainted: everything was red. Bloody red. I fought with all my might to stay conscious and make a quick decision: do I call an ambulance and go to the hospital, or do I take a taxi to the restaurant and let my boyfriend call the ambulance.
Then, in a flash of insight, I remember that the night before I ate beets for dinner. The dizzy spell cleared in a blink, I said “Oh!”, shrugged, and went about my day.
If you have ever harboured any hypochondriac thoughts, like I have, you know how this works: you get a symptom, and from all the possible diagnostics out there, you pick the one that is most threatening. It’s not a cough, it’s lung cancer. It’s not indigestion, it’s dysentery. I know, because last month I discovered a lump on my breast, and panicked. I ran to my doctor, who couldn’t believe my readiness to go for lab tests (a mammogram and an ultrasound), given my habitual refusal of her proposed tests and interventions. For one whole month until the day before yesterday, when my lab testing was scheduled, all I could think of was: “Cancer” and “Death”.
It’s not that people don’t get cancer or die. We all die of one cause or another, the underlying cause being that we’re born to begin with. I’m going to die one day, for sure. But I am just curious what it’s like to live to that glorious final exit day without worrying about it all the other days. I’m curious because I have, in my own mix of madness, a bit of hypochondria, and a bit of paranoia. My mother, may she rest in peace, was diagnosed with paranoid syndrome, and having lived through her last difficult years of life, I’ve always secretly feared catching, inheriting or developing paranoia myself. If you don’t know what paranoia is, it’s a heightened and not rational sense of threat, where you see threat where there is none. Having lived through my share of adversity and traumatic responses to it, I have a bit of such hypervigilance myself. The hypervigilance is both a curse and a blessings: a curse because it induces anxiety, it’s not socially sexy, and it’s really time consuming to always fret about what and who might harm you. It is a blessing because you can’t be easily fooled. Paranoid people are the salesmen’s nightmare - they just cannot be manipulated into buying stuff, like normal people can.
Back to my breast, so to speak. It turns out the nodule is lipoma, a fatty benign thingy, and nothing to worry about. My relief didn’t last long: now I have a cough. And you know how dangerous that could be.
Until checked, of course.
There is a time-tested, no-fail cure for both hypochondria and paranoia. It’s called “fact checking”.
Paranoia is a tricky one to cure because its social nature. If you are, like I am, hyper vigilant about dangers, you are more likely to suspect other people, and sometime animals, for messing with you than you are likely to suspect ocean waves or volcanoes for seeking to destroy you. And this, my friends, gets really messy when living with other people (and animals). Hypervigilance makes it difficult to distinguish between a real threat and an imagined one, so immediate action is needed just in case the threat is real. Step number one: unconsciously project your suspicions on another and assume their fault. If you can’t find an object, a normal person engages her own problem solving capacity by asking herself: “Where did I put it?” The afflicted person naturally asks: “Who took it?” When I lived with a husband and a dog, that inquiry was easy to do: there was always someone home to project my suspicions upon. Now I live on my own and must get really creative on who to blame. Yesterday I heard on the news that infected needles have been maliciously placed around the city, so when I saw this metallic shining thing on the floor today, I naturally thought that was a needle, and somebody is trying to kill me. I was at home, so the killer could not be human or animal - it must be a poltergeist. I put my glasses on and took a closer look: it was a staple. Now that is nasty: there is a poltergeist in my home, and he’s trying to kill me with a staple.
The battle continues.