It’s hard to remember when it started. I think in some ways it’s always been there. But I do distinctly remember as a young child when, having absently mindedly put my dirty hand in my mouth after playing in the garden, asking my Mum repeatedly if this meant that I was going to die.
Fast forward 30 odd years and my childish non-descript fear of death has exploded into a veritable cornucopia of neuroses. Lung cancer, bowel cancer, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, oesophageal cancer (the Big C is a regular guest star in this show), multiple sclerosis, Sjogren’s syndrome, ALS, the list of everything I’ve ‘had’ goes on. Except I haven’t actually had any of them. I’m a healthy, strong, woman who’s barely ever had a day’s illness in her life. What I do have however, is health anxiety.
Health anxiety used to be known as hypochondria, a term that was often used pejoratively and seen as something of a joke. Anyone who’s ever been in the same boat as me, and it would appear we are growing in numbers, knows that health anxiety is no laughing matter. When you can’t remember if that mole always looked like that and you’re frantically reading everything you can about malignant melanomas (did I mention I’m a pale as milk redhead?!), whilst mentally compiling a list of friends who will help look after your children when you’re gone, the fear, as they say, is real.
This problem, which until recently I never really had a name for, burbled along in the background for much of my childhood and teenage years. Yes it would come to the foreground on occasion, but in those halcyon pre-internet days my options were clear, consult the family medical guide (do people still buy these, I wonder?!), actually go to the doctor’s, or just wait. Of course Doctor Google has changed all that, and for someone such as myself this can be catastrophic. As anyone who has casually googled their symptoms will know, all health related internet searches lead to something terminal. Either that or a Daily Mail article about a young mum whose symptoms were repeatedly ignored until she was finally diagnosed with end stage cancer. I swear the Daily Mail have a special department that churns out these delights.
So thus it was in 2013 that what turned out to be a trapped nerve in my neck sent me into the mother of all tailspins. I had a brain tumour, all the symptoms pointed to it, my baby daughter was going to be left without a mother, my husband a widower and I was powerless to do anything about it. Round and round it went it in my head like some kind of sickening mantra ‘you’re dying, you’re dying’. My phone, a constant source of comfort and fear was never far from my hand and hours would pass in which I fell deeper and deeper into the google rabbit hole.
The fact that my Doctor wasn’t in the least bit concerned was meaningless (they didn’t know what was wrong). Health anxiety makes you arrogant. The fact that Doctors go through years of rigorous training counted for nothing in my opinion, when the wealth of evidence (uniformed people writing on forums, rubbish ‘health’ websites) supported my ignorant viewpoint. It was only when I took a chance on going to see a chiropractor that he established what the simple issue was and I got physically and mentally back on the road to recovery.
Of course the cruel thing about any kind of anxiety is that it generates a wealth of symptoms all on its own. There is nothing imaginary about these and for those of us suffering from health anxiety this just feeds the perception that something is very wrong. At the height of my brain tumour concerns (and on top of the daily headaches I was suffering) I was nauseous, dizzy, my tongue felt like it was burnt and here’s a fun one, I felt like I had bugs crawling all over me. For real.
But if the experience taught me anything it was that this was never going to happen to me again. I was determined to never let this condition rob me of my time, happiness or sanity again.
WRONG. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years it’s that my anxiety loves a vacuum. And it wormed its way back into the crevices of my life when my son was about 9 months old and I was happily pottering about on maternity leave without a care in the world. Only this time my health anxiety came with a twist. There was nothing wrong with me, no, there was something wrong with my boy. Autism, in my expert opinion.
People with health anxiety also have a tendency to catastrophise (to imagine the absolute worse outcome to any health situation) so I was envisaging the most serious end of the autistic spectrum. Again Doctor Google was my friend, foe and constant companion and I sought it’s advice in those agonising hours in which was my husband was at work and unable to constantly reassure me. Why wasn’t my son babbling? Pointing? Waving? Why did he avoid eye contact with strangers? It got to the point where I was frightened to be alone with him and my constant ‘medical’ observations of him left me exhausted. He was much a much longed for and waited for child and unable to enjoy him or see beyond my own crippling fears I began to wish he’d never been born.
At this point something broke inside me and I knew that no longer could I fight this beast on my own. I needed help. It came in the form of two different forms of therapy. One that I sought privately and one that the NHS was able to provide. Both were excellent and provided me with a listening ear, a different perspective and the tools to cope with something that both therapists pointed out was not my fault.
The therapy took place over a number of months and it didn’t take long before there was a flickering light at the end of the tunnel. It would be misleading to say that all my problems simply melted away, there were ups and downs, steps forward and steps back. But, with hard work on everyone’s part, not least my long suffering and endlessly supportive husband, life began to return to normal. Meanwhile my son babbled, pointed, waved, talked and I continue to berate myself over those precious months during which he was lost to me.
Which brings me to the present. Life is not perfect but it’s a million times better than what it was. Despite my health anxiety I’m actually a very positive and happy person and even at my worst my depression score on the NHS questionnaires that were a weekly requirement of my therapy were negligible. Part of me wonders if my anxiety has its roots in my happiness. I mean, I have everything I ever wanted in life, and who gets that. When will that rug be ripped from beneath my feet?
Sometimes when a particular concern seizes me in it’s grasp, it’s a case of weathering the storm and just going with it, other times I can put into practice what I’ve learnt and push those demons clean out of my head. I’ve learnt that online anxiety forums can be a big help, that staying in the house is bad and that any kind of charity fundraiser TV show or publicity campaigns need to be avoided like the plague (no one should ever die of ignorance, but believe me there are some things that I just don’t need rammed down my throat). Moreover I’ve learned not to be too hard on myself and, trite as it sounds to enjoy every day. Because as we all know, life, however long or short it may be, is most definitely for the living.
A Guest Blog from Clare Watson
Clare is a wife and mother of two living in Cheltenham, currently working for an educational publisher. When not tidying up she likes to cook, read and travel. She is an avid traveller, aspiring travel writer and aims to have visited 40 countries by the age of 40. She’s very nearly there…
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