Thursday, December 18, 2008

Anatomy of a Hypochondriac

We’ve already questioned my intelligence in terms of the Logical Me versus Hormonal Me in this blog essay, but another binary opposition reared its ugly head recently and provided more fuel for questioning my intelligence: Logical Me versus Hypochondriac Me. Poor Logical Me is beset on two sides.

You see, as a child, I was a bit of a drama queen when it came to pain. Each little bump or bruise felt like I had been beaten with a baseball bat, and I adored the attention my dramatic responses to these bumps and bruises got me. I had a few trips to the ER for stitches which were legitimately traumatic, but the ER staff had to wrap me up in one of those papoose restraints to get the stitches in my head, and I recall nurses pinning me down until the numbing took effect in my leg. It gave Hypochondriac Me a little thrill for years to recall the doctor telling my mother if the glass shard had penetrated my leg just a bit more, I would have bled to death. When you’re four, it’s sort of romantic to almost die. Years later, my firstborn turned out to be Mini Me in the drama department, and I figured it’s just karma biting me in the butt again. I am getting used to karma’s sting.

I didn’t handle pain well then, and little changed in the intervening decades. It’s a cliché for laboring women, but my first experience of childbirth made me fall madly, passionately in love with the anesthesiologist. Had my epidural guy been a gal, I would have switched sides, if you know what I mean. The absence of pain is such a blessing that Logical Me dominated the rest of my birth experience, which really was a good thing because my doctor ordered the epidural turned off when Nicholas’ heart rate didn’t recover quickly enough after each contraction. Hypochondriac Me was thrilled that she would be experiencing “real” childbirth, but her voice was very faint and distant. Logical Me understood all too clearly that pain isn’t good. I don’t know if I had full sensation back when I started pushing, but it hurt so much that no amount of maternal amnesia will rid my logical brain of the trauma of forceps delivery.

It’s a miracle I ever willingly got pregnant again, and during that second go-round, Hypochondriac Me very dramatically presented the obstetrician with a copy of What to Expect, opened to the chapter on the sixth month. I pointed to the list of “What You Might be Feeling” and said, “I have every one of those symptoms!” The doctor said he could do nothing to ease the agony. Nothing. I hated him with every fiber of my being until a few minutes later when he put the heart-rate monitor on my gigantic bump and let me hear Jack’s strong whoosh-whoosh heart beat. You can’t hate someone who is letting you eavesdrop on the sound of your unborn child’s life blood pumping, no matter how much you want to.

Let’s pause a minute to consider the crap that doctors put up with from people like me. Honestly, this man had patients who discovered at their ultrasounds that their children had horrible deformities or, even worse, conditions “not compatible with life.” He faced life-and-death decisions when patients had uterine abruptions or found out they had cancer while pregnant. How did he not dope-slap Hypochondriac Me when she was so very, very whiny? He never even rolled his eyes at me. What sort of inner struggle did he endure to maintain this level of professional control? Is there a special class in medical school that teaches doctors to be nice to freaks?

Jack was breech, so we scheduled a C-section for my mother’s birthday. But of course I went into labor days before and had the joy of contractions and being cut in half. Hypochondriac Me deserted Logical Me entirely. What a coward. She wanted no part of major surgery while it was happening though she thoroughly enjoyed the aftermath.

Two children are quite enough, don’t you think?

Then came 2005: The Year of Medical Testing Hell. This was Hypochondriac Me’s finest year—vague symptoms, pain (but not too much), and lots of attention. I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), with hiatal hernia thrown in just for fun. Further testing by more knowledgeable doctors ruled out every one of these, and Logical Me was relieved, especially about the rheumatoid arthritis. Even Hypochondriac Me didn’t want that particular disease. I also had a full cardiac work-up, including nuclear stress test, with the happy conclusion that my heart is amazingly healthy. I had that going for me. Of course, Hypochondriac Me knows I will eventually die of some horrible cancer contracted because of all the radiation they gave me for these tests to prove how healthy I am.

Despite the medical establishment’s best efforts to validate Hypochondriac Me, they found only two things truly wrong, neither of which was terribly alarming, much to Logical Me’s satisfaction and Hypochondriac Me's disappointment. First, I had superficial gastric ulcers from taking prescription Motrin for six months for joint pain in my wrists—a pain which, it turns out, had no medical explanation. The ulcers made me mad because I had asked the doctor three months earlier if we needed to be worried about all the Motrin I was taking. She said, “Oh, no. No worries!” She just wrote another script. Stupid doctor. Fortunately, six months of acid-pump inhibitors fixed that problem.

Second, my gall bladder didn’t work. That test forced me to carry around a card indicating the dose of radiation I received so security forces at the base wouldn’t suspect me of making dirty bombs when I set off the Geiger counter. You have no idea the delight that Hypochondriac Me felt over this dramatic development.

If you’re one of the four Americans over 35 who have not yet had their gall bladder removed, you don’t realize how easy this laparoscopic surgery is…unless, of course, you don’t handle anesthesia well and spend hours throwing up afterwards like me. Hypochondriac Me was convinced she would die from vomiting. The unfeeling and irresponsible hospital staff sent me home with blue barf bags shaped like giant troll condoms. Ewwww. Two weeks later, however, I felt great, and a year later, those little laparoscopic holes were nearly invisible. If you haven’t had your gall bladder out, I highly recommend it. Just don’t puke afterward. And don’t eat fried foods ever again.

After my surgery in early 2006, Logical Me, traumatized by a year’s dominance of Hypochondriac Me, studiously avoided the hospital for all but my regular physical and routine mammogram. Logical Me isn’t stupid and knows routine care is necessary, but she censored Hypochondriac Me in front of the doctors, no matter what little aches and pains I felt. If you keep your mouth shut, doctors don’t test you for anything. What a relief!

Until this year.

I had a weird spot in my left breast. Not a lump, exactly, more like a ridge of dense tissue that hurt. At my gynecological appointment, the PA agreed that it warranted a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. Even Logical Me was a bit freaked out by that but quickly discovered via Google search that this is a routine response to any and all unusual physical breast exams. During the day, I was fine, not worried at all.

At night, Logical Me went to sleep, and only the scary whisperings of Hypochondriac Me kept me company in the dark. All the vague symptoms I’d read about online for breast cancer started to happen to me. Not for real, mind you, since I only experienced them after reading about them. The power of suggestion works great on Hypochondriac Me. And the specific symptoms, like the scary ones for inflammatory breast cancer, never showed up at all. Thank God above.

Having your girls smashed is never pleasant. After three films of the left girl and two of the right, the technician called me back in for two more shots of the left. For about 30 minutes, I was convinced that the radiologist saw something. Why else would he ask for different views? Was Hypochondriac Me right after all? I wanted my husband by my side. I needed a hug.

When the radiologist breezed in for the ultrasound, his first words were, “I couldn’t find anything suspicious on the mammogram, so let’s just clear the air of that concern right now.” I instantly loved him. Logical Me conquered Hypochondriac Me and for the next half-hour joked around with three people who were feeling me up through a thick layer of ultrasound gel. It was comforting that they all felt what I felt and not one of them was concerned.

My follow-up conversation with the PA pushed Hypochondriac Me even more deeply into the recesses of my psyche. At least once a week, Major Smith says, a patient turns up with some anomaly that is just a variation on normal, no cause for concern, and leaves all the doctors and nurses and PAs and NPs marveling at the diversity of the human form. This was my week. I do so love feeling special.

One can’t tell when Hypochondriac Me will burst forth again and stress me out with her freakish speculation on my impending doom. I’m so relieved she’s put to rest for now, though, because I have way too much other stuff on my plate to be worrying about my health. For now, I’m grateful to God that I am healthy and able, and like the quotation on the sidebar says, I’m doing my best to live my life with love, grace, and gratitude.

Until the next weird little ache.

Public Service Announcement: If you are a woman over forty, remember to get your annual boob-squishing. I know it’s not fun, but Logical Me says this is important. You should listen to her.


  1. Although your writing is fabulous, I have learned way too much about my cousin. YUCKERS. Love you

  2. Susan, haven't had much chance to do much reading...will try to catch up after the holidays, please forgive me.

    Have a wonderful holiday!!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!