Many moons ago, back in the days of New Labour and Virgin Megastores, a doctor told me that I showed signs of hypochondria. Panicked, I asked her how long I had left to live. She grinned. I pretended the joke was deliberate, then went home and looked up the word hypochondria in the dictionary (the bandwidth in our house being, at that time, of an insufficient quality to ‘ask Jeeves’ such a thing). There it sat, between Hypo-allergenic and Hypocrisy:
‘Hypochondria n. the state of constantly imagining that one is ill.’
After years of trying, I finally had a bona fide medical complaint.
Things have settled down considerably since my cumbersome ascent into something resembling manhood, but the Hypochondria-bomb still drops. Whereas it used to obliterate my landscape about ten times a year, now it only does so once or twice. The process is still the same, though. It usually starts in the shower. I’ll notice a perforation, a slight bump, a swelling, something new.
I’ll get my face as close to the discovery as human evolution will allow (this often requires a leg up on the bathtub and some sort of sexy, Darwin-approved, nude squat).
God, what is it?
It takes me all of five seconds to deduce that it’s a rare form of cancer. The kind that kills within six months, a year if you’re lucky. The sort of thing people used to phone This Morning about, whilst Denise nodded silently, eyes closed:
‘I just wished I’d spoken to me doctor earlier, Denise. And now here I am, waiting…’
From the moment I discover my latest terminal growth, everything is seen through the eyes of a dead man walking. Songs, television, books, films, they are all tainted with allusions to my untimely end. With a bit of willpower, I might forget about my new imaginary disease for an hour or so. But all it takes is the television to innocently make references to a funeral or a hospital – ‘And next on ITV3, The Royal’ – and I’m back in the swing, soberly visualising the groaned farewells from my deathbed. Escape is impossible.
I have a 2:1 degree in Creative Writing from a university of such little renown that even people who live across the road from its main campus would struggle to point it out on a map. Yet when it comes to inspecting my ailments, my humble red-brick-accredited certificate transforms into an Oxford doctorate in Medicine. I become a master of the human anatomy, with a speciality in diagnosing illnesses that can kill me, and only me, within six months (a year if I’m lucky). And rest assured, anything Dr Pugh fails to spot is quickly picked up by Dr Google. He’s a man with all the answers.
Much like Dr Pugh, Dr Google never shies away from emphasising the negative aspects of an illness. Rather than pander to the patient by offering soft-tongued reassurances, Dr Google gives it to us straight. Everything’s terminal. A lump? Cancer, mate. Coughing? Cancer, mate. Headaches? Probably cancer, mate. Or a tumour. Most refreshingly of all, though, is how Dr Google is not afraid to let laymen have their say. In real life, an NHS General Practitioner might baulk at the thought of a telesales operative or a retired newsagent poking their uninvited heads around the door during an appointment and offering their take on matters, but, on the internet, such ill-informed comments are encouraged. ‘Come in,’ says Dr Google. ‘Come in, one and all. Sod the nine years of intensive medical training – let’s share terrifying anecdotes!’
It’s hard not to warm to the guy.
Usually, when I’m not in the throes of hypochondria, showers are merely steamed-up workshops in which I plan how to win imaginary arguments. But once a lump has been found, showers become clinics in which, with Dr Google out of office, Dr Pugh casts his respected eye over the latest developments:
‘Hmm, yes, yes, the growth is most definitely expanding. That is a shame. Nurse, cancel my 3 o’clock.’
Once the extent of the ensuing illness has been confirmed, I spend subsequent showers making arrangements for the upcoming funeral. There’s a lot to think about: what songs I’ll have, who’ll be there, who won’t, who’ll speak, what they’ll say… I close my eyes against the force of the hot water and see the kaleidoscopic shaft of afternoon sunlight cutting across the pulpit, through the stained glass, over the congregation’s heads, onto the faceless priest as he reads his go-to funeral piece. It’s such fun.
Where does it all come from, this madness? A doctor once asked me, shortly after clearing me of testicular cancer by grabbing my balls and sighing, whether anyone in my family had died of cancer. If so, that, he suggested, might be why I was so obsessed with it. I told him that, to my knowledge, nobody in my family had died in that particular manner as yet. He responded by raising his eyebrows in the way that doctors do when it’s quite clear you’ve become a mystery to them. A mystery that’s not worth solving. An episode of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates in human form.
Perhaps it’s all due to where I live. Regardless of what the media tells us, the biggest contributing factor to death is being alive i.e. the longer you’re alive, the more likely you are to kop it. Consequently, living in Norfolk – an area of England that’s part Countryfile, part Cocoon – I probably hear more tales of health woe than your average urbanite. If you wait long enough, there’s a reference to death in nearly every Norfolk conversation; especially if one of the participants in those conversations happens to be my mother. She reads the local obituaries column over her morning tea and has the inside-line on the deceased. And she could rival St Peter with her knowledge of the due-to-be-deceased:
‘Did you hear about Shirley?’ she’ll ask.
‘Got three months.’
In most places, getting ‘three months’ means a prison sentence or a decent summer internship. On the Norfolk coast it means you probably won’t have to worry about paying your next quarterly gas bill.
The worst of my mum’s stories involve people who ‘went for an appointment only two weeks ago’ but ‘the doctor said there was nothing wrong’. Happily reassured, the people in these tales exit their local medical practice, whistling Young at Heart, then drop dead the following Tuesday in Asda car park. That little twist, the classic doctor-got-it-wrong line, has caused me many additional night sweats over the years. The Doctor said there was nothing wrong. Naturally, when doctors tell me there’s nothing wrong, I’m inclined to doubt them. I also make a point of steering well clear of Asda car park.
The worst thing about being a hypochondriac is that I waste at least fifteen minutes of a doctor’s valuable time each year with it. (Although this does mean that I at least get value for money with my National Insurance contributions.) The most embarrassing thing about being a hypochondriac, though, is how it belittles those who are actually ill. It’s the equivalent of standing outside a foodbank eating caviar, complaining that it’s tickling your teeth. I hate, also, how hypochondria turns me into a doctor-basher by default. Just about my least favourite thing in the world is having to listen to a thick-tongued fuckwit talking about how stupid their doctor is. They’re usually the sort of people who think their gran’s spirit watches over them and who share Facebook posts about the unquestionable warm nature of Staffordshire Bull Terriers. I detest how hypochondria yanks me into their doctor-doubting domain.
A friend of mine did a sky dive a couple of years ago. In the weeks leading up to it I asked if he was worried about the parachute not opening. He said he wasn’t because there was a man on the ground with a little button which, when pressed, would automatically unlock the parachute. Simple. And that right there is the difference between the worriers and the liberated. For some, the man with the little button eradicates all threat. For others, myself firmly included, the man with the little button represents a further thing that could go wrong. What if the man wasn’t paying attention? What if his little button didn’t work? A part of me even doubted the man’s very existence. It’s probably just something they say to get people jumping: ‘What? Yeah, yeah, nah, see that shed down there, that little brown dot next to the curve in the river? Yeah? Well, that’s a hut and there’s, er, a bloke in it, and he’s got this little button, see…’
My hypochondria has improved greatly over the last five years, but it’s still there. Fear of death is just one of those things I have to live with. It’s not something I can switch off; my only release is to ignore it as much as possible. But I still have that steady undertow of terror that I’m going to find something untoward about my person and the doctor is going to misdiagnose it, for a laugh. And my fall will be sharp. And there’ll be no man with a little button to save me.
But then, nobody has a little button. We’re all tossed out of the plane from birth and all heading towards the ground sans parachute. I suppose there are two options: open up your arms, laugh, and take in the scenery or get into the foetal position and scream. Life seems to be the art of opting for the former. Like my very descent to the ground, I’m getting there.